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Zeppelin on tour: Take off on the largest airship on the planet

Farmers Airship one only two flying Zeppelins world comes for landing Milwaukee's Timmerman Airport. | Chris Fusco~Sun-Times

Farmers Airship, one of only two flying Zeppelins in the world, comes in for a landing at Milwaukee's Timmerman Airport. | Chris Fusco~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 20, 2011 3:30PM



Please, don’t call it a blimp.

It’s a Zeppelin.

The Farmers Airship that’s floating across the country offering flightseeing tours in 16 cities — including Chicago and Oshkosh, Wis. — is one of only two Zeppelins in the world.

The difference between a Zeppelin and a blimp is that a Zeppelin has a rigid internal frame that gives it its shape. Blimps are more like balloons.

Because blimps lack a Zeppelin’s skeletal framework, their engines are mounted on the side of the passenger cabin, creating noise and vibration. A ride on a Zeppelin is much more peaceful, thanks to the engines being tucked away on the sides of the hull and the tail end of the airship, far from the passenger gondola.

Another key difference is that “Zeppelin” sounds way cooler than “blimp.” Jimmy Page would never be in a band called Led Blimp.

I caught a ride on the Farmers Airship last weekend at Milwaukee’s Timmerman Airport, where passengers paid $375 each for 45-minute flightseeing tours. (Farmers Insurance Group sponsors the Zeppelin, which is owned and operated by California-based Airship Ventures.)

It was surreal standing in the middle of a grass field and watching this gigantic watermelon/UFO-type contraption touch down in front of us. At 246 feet in length, it’s the largest passenger airship on the planet — 15 feet longer than a Boeing 747.

Unlike a 747 and other aircraft that get their lift from wings or rotors, an airship’s lift comes from being filled with a gas that’s lighter than air. In this case, non-flammable helium. (In the ill-fated Hindenburg’s case, not-so-non-flammable hydrogen.)

Seven passengers and I filed into our airplane-like seats and buckled up before the pilot lifted us straight into the sky. A few wind gusts gently knocked us around at first. But soon it was calm enough to walk around the cabin — even stick our heads out the windows — as we floated 1,000 feet above Lake Michigan’s shoreline.

We passed over fancy homes in suburban Whitefish Bay and got a great look at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion. Boaters and sunbathers on the beach waved from below.

Summerfest was in full swing while we cruised over the festival’s lakefront fairgrounds at a speed that felt a lot slower than our actual 35 mph. With my neck craned out the window, I peered down at one of the bands performing on stage. The beats were muffled and I couldn’t quite make out the lyrics, but I still think I had the best seat in the house.

The Farmers Airship will offer flightseeing rides from Oshkosh, Wis., for EAA AirVenture July 23-31. It will be in Chicago (flying out of DuPage Flight Center in West Chicago) Aug. 5-7.

Visit farmersairship.com or call (650) 969-8100 to make a reservation.



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