Thursday, September 30, 2010

Zeppelin offers rare views of whales

Zeppelin offers rare views of whales

Pilot Katharine Board often sees pods of blue, gray and killer whales as she flies along the California coast.

Compared with other pilots, she has a unique vantage point — low and slow — from the only operational zeppelin in the United States.

Board's airship — Eureka — a modern model of an aircraft that is a throwback to the 1930s, gives her a clear and steady view of the sea giants.

"The great thing about moving slowly and low — we fly 1,000 feet above the ground and our cruising speed is 40 mph — is that you really get to see the world," Board said.

Many associate zeppelin flight with the tragedy of the German passenger airship Hindenburg, which exploded into flames May 6, 1937, at New Jersey's Lakehurst Naval Air Station, killing 36 people. Since then, there have been many safety improvements.

Recently, Farmers' Insurance, the company that sponsors the zeppelin, donated a day of flying to a group of scientists so they could film and photograph an orca pod in Washington's Puget Sound.

"It's a balance between business and doing things that are really special," said Brian Hall, owner of Airship Ventures, which owns the zeppelin. "There are so many cool things we've done before with this platform." 

Hall's airship has gone on research flights to examine biota in salt ponds and harmful algal blooms and to seek out pipeline gas leak evidence.

Hall purchased his airship in 2006 after flying in a zeppelin in Germany. Eureka began flying in 2008 after months of negotiating permits to allow a zeppelin to fly again in American airspace.

The 246-foot-long zeppelin took off recently from an airfield in Everett, Wash., and hovered to the U.S.-Canadian border — an hour's flight away.

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