Being the only woman pilot of one of only three Zeppelin airships in the world may be a rarefied job, but it certainly doesn't get you a lot of rarefied questions.
“Any mention of the Hindenburg is going to incur a $20 fine,” says pilot Katharine Board. “Or hydrogen. Swear box. Immediately. It's going to go toward the crew's beer fund. No. I'm joking.”
The Zeppelin is making stately progress one morning over Long Beach Harbor, soaring like a great white whale in the sky, its skin the texture of '80s vinyl bathroom wallpaper, when a passenger sidles up to Board. If something pokes a hole in the ship, he asks, does it spin around like a balloon? Will it explode? Is the gas inside flammable?
No, no and no, Board replies. The ship is filled with inert helium, not combustible hydrogen, she tells him.
“Everyone thinks of the Hindenburg,” Board says of the infamous giant Zeppelin that caught fire in 1937, effectively ending the golden era of airship travel. “But they had a 60 percent survival rate on that crash.”
The survival rate for airplane crashes is much lower, she notes.
Zeppelins got a bad reputation, in part because the Hindenburg accident occurred at the dawn of mass media. It was the first disaster of its kind to be reported worldwide.
“I've heard of modern airships getting damaged. But damaging people?” Board shakes her head. “Ours is a very nondramatic aircraft.”
If all engines fail? It just floats. A small hole erupts? It might take the crew three days to even notice.
National TV stations came to ask her questions when Colorado's “Balloon Boy” took to the sky, before it was learned that there was no actual boy in the big Mylar balloon (just a naughty one allegedly hiding out in an attic). “The balloon will expand and expand and expand,” she told the reporters. Then the fabric will rip, leak helium and the balloon will slowly sink to the ground. Which is what happened in the anticlimactic end.
Giant airships are so rare that the world has just 10 Zepplin pilots. Four fly from Germany, four from Japan and two from here in America. “You can't go down to the unemployment office and say, 'Have you got any Zeppelin pilots hanging around?' They just don't exist,” Board says.
They don't exist because for a long time, their aircraft didn't exist. Then, 10 years ago, Board's employer, Airship Ventures, engineered a new version of the old beast. It was like bringing a dinosaur or woolly mammoth back to life. Pilots who flew blimps — the Zeppelin's smaller, softer cousins — stepped in as test pilots.
Board is 34, British, petite and unflappable. She has spent half of her life “floating around in gas bags,” which is what she calls hot-air balloons. When she was 22 and answering phones in the London office of Virgin Balloon Flights, someone asked if she'd ever considered flying airships. “Don't know, really,” she replied. “What's one of those?”
She discovered that the easygoing but rootless blimp lifestyle appealed to her. She flew MetLife blimps for a while, following the golf crowd around on the PGA tour with her “flying billboard.” Like most airship fanatics — “helium heads,” they're called — Board lived out of a suitcase, traveling with her ship, alighting in a different city every week.
She has been to 39 states. Because passengers point landmarks out to her, she knows more about various cities than the locals, having absorbed their collective knowledge.
Unlike planes, which are “fly by numbers,” a Zeppelin requires a defter touch; it is very much “fly by feel.”
“Airplanes have a lot of numbers,” Board says. “There's the speed you must reach before you can take off; the lowest speed at which you can go before you stall. They have the highest speed that you can turn.”
Her craft isn't like that. “You have to be in tune with your environment. You have to feel where the air is moving you and counteract it.”
A Zeppelin is a high-maintenance diva. It takes a small squadron of people to get one flying. “I'm useless without a ground crew,” says Board, with a kind of rueful delight. “I can't get myself off the mast, I can't change my ballast. You have to attach it to something, you see. Because it is lighter than air. It will blow away.”
The crew tends to the Zeppelin like drones in service of a queen bee. In inclement weather, the drones are on call 24 hours. Snow settling on the ship makes it heavy. As airships grow heavier, they start to tip. The crew takes turns watching the airship, in 'round-the-clock shifts. It even travels with its own mechanics. As Board points out, “With this aircraft, you can't just call up any airport and say, 'Have you got someone who's trained to work on a Zeppelin?' ”
Board's Zeppelin occasionally moonlights on some rare and unusual errands — doing atmospheric research for NASA, or scouring the Kalahari Desert in Botswana for diamonds for DeBeers — but it is primarily a rare and unusual passenger vessel. This rareness means that you can charge people lofty prices to enjoy it.
“Does it go fast?” asks a woman waiting in the posh Airship Ventures lounge at Long Beach Airport. “I have a history of throwing up.”
She has paid $495 an hour for the privilege.
Flights range from a $199 30-minute zip over Palos Verdes to $950 for a two-hour coastal tour. The ship's inflatable portion is 15 feet longer than a 747, but the cabin attached to its belly snugly fits a dozen passengers and one flight attendant, and feels rather like the inside of a short (but luxurious) school bus.
You don't get food or drinks, but two of the Zeppelin's windows open. You can stick your head out.
The ship's maiden flight, from Texas to San Francisco, took six days. That's so slow it might seem boring. “Not at all,” Board insists. “You get a beautiful view of the world.”