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I Rode in a Zeppelin and Didn't Burn to Death

I was on the balcony smoking a post-bong-hit cigarette when I looked up at the sky and saw a huge blimp-type vehicle bobbing silently overhead. My childhood dream was about to come true. I was going to ride in a motherfuckin' Zeppelin.

by Tanja M. Laden
08 August 2012, 2:15pm

The first time I saw the Goodyear blimp was on a hot San Fernando Valley afternoon during roll call at the beginning of my sixth grade PE class. I asked our teacher if anyone could fly inside, and she said no. Around the same time in history class, we were learning about the Hindenburg's ill-fated voyage, so I told myself that I was going to do it: I was going to fly inside this thing. Only, I wasn't going to ride in any ordinary blimp—I was going to ride in a motherfuckin' Zeppelin.

Fast-forward to my depressing contract job at a major media conglomerate. I signed a non-disclosure agreement, so I can't name the place, but I can say that it has a rodent as a mascot. My task was managing Facebook fan pages belonging to made-up characters from kids' cartoons. It paid $40 an hour, so I tried my best to stick it out, despite the overwhelmingly bad office vibe. I probably should have been relieved when they told me that I "wasn't the right fit," sending me packing after six whole weeks' worth of brilliant tweets and status updates from creatures who didn't exist. Instead, I was offended and upset at the abrupt end to my four-figure weekly paycheck. I was happy to have my afternoons back, though, so I immediately headed to my friend's place in Pasadena to get good and stoned in order to console myself over the loss of yet another job that I hated.

I was on the balcony smoking a post-bong-hit cigarette when I looked up at the sky and saw a huge blimp-type vehicle bobbing silently overhead. Once my friend confirmed that I wasn't hallucinating, I grabbed my phone and dialed the giant toll-free phone number listed at the bottom of the balloon and asked if I could hitch a ride. Two weeks later, I was flying inside Airship Ventures' Eureka, a passenger airship based in Northern California that floats down the Pacific Coast every three months or so. It's also the world's largest Zeppelin, and one of only three Zeppelins on Earth.

A Zeppelin is 60 feet longer than the biggest blimp, has a metal skeleton, and a band's named after it. The blimp is just a big balloon with an engine. It replaced the German dirigible after the 1937 Hindenberg disaster killed 35 people in the skies above New Jersey, all because the company thought it was OK to use flammable hydrogen instead of helium, and it wasn't.  Now, Goodyear is retiring its fleet of blimps and going back to Zeppelins because they're better—as long as it's fueled with the proper gas.

My first Eureka ride was almost three years ago, and it felt really surreal. I was terrified because we had to line up in pairs in the middle of a huge vacant field while they tethered this enormous thing to the ground with ropes so that it wouldn't move. It seemed kind of unwieldy yet delicate. One passenger would disembark, then the new passenger would climb aboard. They had to do this switcheroo deal because otherwise, the tiny cabin wouldn't be heavy enough to stay close to the ground long enough for us to get inside.

Once we were all buckled up and it started to lift off the ground, I was amazed at how quiet it was, and how safe it felt. I wasn't worried that it would explode into flames because it was filled with air. If anything went wrong, it would probably just float to the ground like a deflated balloon, so picturing any kind of disaster was almost funny—like, "Here's this big, billowy aircraft and it's having some problems! Oh, no! It's.... landing." It went something like 45 miles an hour, so it wasn't scary at all. But it was weird, because it's not like flying in a helicopter or a plane; it's more like flying on a cloud. Overall, the ride was like those old cartoons where a character temporarily dies and you see its little spirit figure lift out of its body and ascend heavenward with wings and a halo all dazed and otherworldly, before the ghostly figure gets shoved back into its earthly body and it's business as usual.

I just last weekend had the chance to ride aboard again during its first ever public night flight. As I stared at the city lights below, it occurred to me that if I hadn't lost my shitty job all those years ago, I never would have had the chance to make my admittedly strange childhood dream come true—twice. Some things are worth a lot more than fat weekly paychecks.

My second time aboard the Eureka, I felt like a pro, even though none of the passengers had done it at night, including myself. But I knew the drill, so it was a lot easier, because I knew what to expect. I thought it would be boring, just looking out onto the lights of the city, but it was mesmerizing—like those last few moments on a plane when it lands into a city at night, except those moments are extended into an hour-long voyage with no destination in the end.

The night flight felt more like an "adventure" in the traditional sense because it was one of the only times so-called civilians flew inside a dirigible after hours since the Hindenburg. It seats just 12 passengers total, so the group is intimate by default, and the only thing we appeared to have in common was the fact that we all wanted to ride in a Zeppelin. I was with the same random cluster of people I'd expect to encounter inside an elevator at a medical facility or any other generic office building: outwardly nondescript, with potentially odd inner impulses that make them do weird things like ride inside an elongated bubble.  

Once the Zeppelin reached flying altitude, we were allowed to unbuckle our safety belts and roam around. The cabin attendant opened up two windows so we could look outside, and because we were going so slow, and we weren't very high, it wasn't loud or intrusive—the air helped clear out the stuffiness inside, actually. There was even a tiny bathroom with a window so we wouldn't miss any of the views while taking care of business. We rotated around the cabin taking pictures, but nobody talked to one another much because we were all too busy taking in the 360-degree surroundings and inwardly congratulating ourselves on achieving this questionable milestone.

I'd love to do it again and again. I could see myself commuting inside a Zeppelin daily and using it to travel up the coast, instead of a car, bus, or plane. There should be at least a dozen of these in every city. It's safe, environmentally friendly, and a sight to behold for all those poor fools on the ground. I could live inside one permanently. On board, I heard people talk about bragging rights and bucket lists; my mom thinks I'm obsessed because I'm an air sign.

@TanjaMLaden