Everyone dreams about flying. But no one dreams about peering out of a dirty double-paned window the size of one of those awful in-flight magazines at 30,000 feet.
That’s not so much flying as it is merely the dreary business of hauling flesh and bone from Point A to Point B.
But this – this is the kind of flying we dream about, floating above the world, low enough to make out the runners along the river levee, but high enough to see the entire sweep of geography so that valleys and mountain ranges and rivers become something other than vast abstractions. They become concrete things, intimately familiar but at the same time mind-blowingly new. This is the kind of flying that opens doors in your senses and gives you the thrill of seeing your place in the world – your entire life even – from the distance of insight. You’re the flea finally seeing the dog.
This is what it’s like aboard Eureka, the enormous zeppelin owned and operated by Airship Ventures, which began its new tour of the Santa Cruz coast last Saturday. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Santa Cruzans, from backyard gardeners to beach-blanket barbies saw the massive thing appear from the north on its maiden voyage on Saturday afternoon, and skywatchers this Saturday will see her again casting her shadow over Santa Cruz County.
If Eureka is indeed going to be part of the scenery in Santa Cruz – Airship Ventures says that the dirigible will float over the area about once a month, or more, as passenger demand dictates – then we as good neighbors need to know a couple of things about her. First off, she’s no blimp. A “blimp” is an airship that lacks an internal skeleton. Eureka is a “zeppelin,” which means it has a rigid inner structure made of aluminum and carbon-fiber. Blimps float over football games selling tires. Airships like Eureka, say her owners, are rare; there are only two others like her in the world.
The second thing is that Eureka is bigger than you think it is: bigger than any blimp, bigger than a 747. It’s three times as big as a blue whale, 246 feet in length, 57 feet tall.
Also, big airship, big price tag. The ship and its accompanying vehicles and equipment, said the company’s CEO Alex Hall who took part in last Saturday’s maiden voyage, cost about $18 million. So don’t expect Eureka to adopt any sisters any time soon. As for would-be passengers, that’s a big number too. A ticket aboard Eureka for the two-and-a-half-hour Santa Cruz tour is a whopping $950, though the company runs smaller trips that cost as low as $199.
Eureka is housed at Moffett Field in Mountain View, the launching pad for its many tours that include trips to San Francisco, Monterey, even Los Angeles. For those intrepid enough (and wealthy enough) to want the fly the thing, you can take classes to do that too.
The gondola affixed to the bottom of the airship carries 12 passengers and two pilots. It’s glassed in with large, elegantly curved windows and a love seat in back that offers a 180-degree view of where you’ve been. A couple of the windows open to allow fresh air in and curious heads out. The design allows you to take in just about any view you fancy, from gazing out at any horizon to looking straight down in a hawk’s eye view.
Yet riding along with Eureka isn’t just about the sensation of flight and digging the awe-inspiring visuals. It affords an opportunity for a bit of armchair sociology on subjects such as traffic patterns, development , environmentalism and urban design. The flight begins at Moffett and chugs over the vast Santa Clara Valley toward the Santa Cruz Mountains at about 1,000 to 1,200 feet.
This is, of course, the heart of Silicon Valley and the flight path takes us directly over the Cupertino compound that serves as the HQ for Apple, at its infamous address “1 Infinite Loop.” Funny how something so culturally intimidating can look so small.
The path takes us essentially along Highway 17 from Los Gatos up along the Summit (Eureka pulls herself up to 2,600 feet) and down into Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz. Along the way, we swoop over the estates and wineries of the Summit area and say hello to the nudists at Lupin Lodge (and, no, we didn’t get that close).
Those who regularly commute over the hill on Highway 17 might be shocked to see how truly dangerous the highway looks from on high. Yes, it feels scary at the white-knuckles ground level. But looking at it from the air, it’s a thin ribbon of wild switchbacks and curves that you’d think only a professional stunt driver would attempt.
In Santa Cruz, naturally, the fog and lingering smoke from the Lockheed fire did a number on visibility. Still, the zeppelin floated serenely over the Fishhook toward downtown and then on toward Main Beach. We paid silent tribute to the once mighty San Lorenzo River, now a sad little estuary, and we looked at the Boardwalk as a kind of abstract artwork.
The zeppelin ride might be a natural for real-estate agents and their curious clients. But it doesn’t yield much for voyeurs. People were visible from that level, for sure, but as little more than dust motes.
In the end, we learned that there are a lot of unused swimming pools in San Jose, a lot more homes in the mountains that you might assume and that people rarely look up. That’s why Eureka is so big, you know. She’s only trying to get your attention.