The familiar sight of a dirigible plying the sunny skies of Silicon Valley may well be a thing of the past -- again.
On Thursday, Moffett Field-based Airship Ventures announced it is ceasing operations immediately. The company has faced challenges including the economic recession since its founding in 2007, said CEO Brian Hall, and could not attract the regular corporate sponsorship it needed to stay afloat.
"Operating this unique aircraft has been an inspiring experience and it is with a very heavy heart that we've come to this point requiring us to cease operations and ground Eureka," Hall said in a statement.
"Our team is the best at what they do and their dedication to the Eureka, our passengers and our dream of flying a Zeppelin in the USA has been remarkable. I'm beyond sad to disband their talents and leave Moffett Field, our friends and fans without an active airship."
Unless a "white knight" surfaces in the next week or two, the 246-foot-long Zeppelin NT will be dismantled and sent back to Germany, Hall said.
"I've looked at the numbers, and for the price of a one-minute Super Bowl ad, a Fortune 500 company could sponsor the airship for a year," said Hall, who pegged the cost at $5 million to $6 million.
"You'd think that would be a slam dunk, right?"
Hall said the grounding of Airship Ventures will also cost 35 full-time and 10 part-time employees their jobs.
"There are a lot of people who were making their living with us," he said.
Hall acknowledged that tickets to ride on the Eureka were out of reach for some, but they had dropped from $495 to $375 for a 45-minute day tour. More recently, $300 hour-long night trips were added to the company's offerings.
"In terms of pricing, if you looked at it on a per-minute basis, we were actually a better value than a hot air balloon or helicopter tour," said Hall, adding that the airship also had the distinction of being one of a kind.
Awareness, not cost, appeared to be the real problem, Hall said. Most people who saw the airship didn't realize they could ride on it. With a long-term sponsorship to get Airship Ventures over the hump, he believes the company could one day subsist on passenger fares alone.
Whatever happens, Hall said he is proud of what Airship Ventures has accomplished in its short existence.
The company was the first to offer passenger airship travel in the United States since the 1930s, broke the standing Federation Aeronautique Internationale airship distance record in 2010, and helped NASA and SETI with meteorite-seeking missions over Sacramento and Sonoma.
The Eureka was a reminder of a time when airships routinely sailed above Santa Clara Valley. Dirigibles like the USS Macon were based at Moffett Field and Airship Ventures' headquarters, Hangar Two, housed blimp squadrons that provided convoy escorts during World War II.
"I think there's a huge affinity (for Eureka)," Hall said. "It's like a friend. I think people will miss it when it's gone."
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For more information about Airship Ventures, visit www.airshipventures.com