OAKLAND — Contest winner Christopher Humphrey redeemed his prize Saturday afternoon when he and his wife boarded the Airship Ventures Zeppelin Eureka.
Humphrey won an online contest out of 1,500 entries to pick the name of the giant aircraft, which is 15 feet longer than a Boeing 747. He submitted "Eureka," which was the name the German engineers who designed it used as a code word for the project.
That entry won Humphrey, 51, of Oakland, a ride for two.
"Knowing that a lot of airships are traditionally named after cities and geographical locations I thought it would be a good name for one based in California," he said. "It seemed to fit for me."
The 246-foot Eureka was built in Germany and is one of only three zeppelins in the world. There is a zeppelin in Germany, one in Tokyo, and the Eureka, which is based at the former Navy dirigible and blimp base at Moffett Field in Mountain View.
Airship Ventures has been offering rides in the zeppelin since November with trips along the coast to San Francisco, Carmel and Big Sur and back.
The Eureka lifted off Saturday at the Oakland Airport carrying 12 passengers for an hourlong ride to San Francisco. The craft cruised over the Bay at about 1,500 feet. Passengers snapped photos from the curved picture window that wrapped around the rear cabin bulkhead, offering spectacular views of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island.
Humphrey and his wife, Frances Hui, looked out the panoramic windows and spotted family and friends below who waved from a parking lot of their apartment building. Humphrey said the zeppelin ride was special to him because of his background in aviation. He used to work for a hot-air balloon company, and his grandfather was a mechanic for Alameda native Jimmy Doolittle, the World War II general and aviation pioneer. In addition, both his parents had flown in the Goodyear blimp in 1956.
"Knowing there was a sense of history involved made it all a little more interesting," he said.
The massive white luxury passenger airship is not a blimp.
The zeppelin has a rigid hull that contains a lifting bag of gas. A blimp is a nonrigid gas bag with a cabin slung below. In addition, the zeppelin has three tilting motors — one on each side and the third in the tail, which provides a subtle sense of acceleration skyward.
Elizabeth Haller was on board the Eureka with her son Steffan Haller. He had given his mother a surprise zeppelin ride for her 77th birthday. She said she remembers growing up in Germany, when she was 7 years old and saw a zeppelin for the first time.
"This is the best gift ever," she said. "It is really a dream come true."
The Zeppelin Company began building airships in 1997 after a 70-year hiatus. The last zeppelin to fly in the United States was the ill-fated Hindenburg, which burst into flames while landing in Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937, when its hydrogen gas ignited. Helium, the same gas used in party balloons as well as airships, is inert and won't burn.
Currently, Airship Ventures offers passenger flights over the Bay Area from Moffett Field, Oakland Airport and Charles Schulz Airport in Sonoma County. Company officials say they have plans to extend their operations in the near future.
Tickets prices vary based on flight duration and destination, starting at $495 an hour per person.
Humphrey said he enjoyed the zeppelin ride so much that he would be willing to pay to go again.
"Seeing things from the air is amazing," he said. "It's a different look at what you look at every day."
Reach Kamika Dunlap at 510-208-6448 or firstname.lastname@example.org.