Aviation Buffs See Return of Airships

Pilot Florian Kuhn pushed a red button igniting an engine while several men holding mooring ropes on the ground hoisted the airship forward as it slowly floated into the sky.

Below the 115-foot Goodyear airship an open window offered a postcard view of a German church and pastoral village next to a lake. The long shadow of the airship glided slowly along the surface of the water.

Only a few hundred people a year enjoy such stunning views from low-flying airships, which number about 30 worldwide. Yet a number of forthcoming projects — the focus of a convention last week at Friedrichshafen in southern Germany — could provide a long-awaited industry revival in this centenary year of the flight of Germany’s first zeppelin.

“Airplanes are much faster and cheaper but airships offer a journey to enjoy,” said Eugen Bentele, a 90-year-old survivor of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, which badly tarnished the airship industry. “When I fly on an airplane it’s really boring.”

Now filled with inert helium rather than the highly combustible hydrogen that lifted the Hindenburg and the ill-fated British airship of the same era, the R-101, the airship of the 21st century is also a good deal safer.

A ride on an airship can offer a unique perspective on life.

“The most surprising thing I saw was a couple having sex in a park in Stuttgart right next to a tennis event,” said Kuhn, one of only about 80 airship pilots worldwide, as we cruised over Germany. “You do get a very good view from an airship.”

Airship business people say more usual viewing for the general public will be cities, exotic locations such as the Amazon or monuments such as the Great Wall of China.

Floating Tourists

Last year, a company began offering hour-long rides above Las Vegas for about $200. Next year, a successor to the company that built the 800-foot Hindenburg is likely to start flying tourists in Europe on a new generation zeppelin.

“I don’t expect that many, many airships will be flying in every corner of the world,” said Bernd Straeter, head of Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik. “It will be a niche market. Whether this means 50 or 100 or 150 airships, I don’t know.”

A major problem in reviving airships, as it was when Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin first flew his dirigible in Friedrichshafen 100 years ago this week, is financing.

“There is a revival going on but it is not the revival of a successful business yet,” said Wolfgang Meighoerner, director of the town’s Zeppelin Museum. “It was very difficult and it remains very difficult just to generate the amount of money you need to build an airship.”

Investors enthusiastically backed Zeppelin’s first effort to sell shares to build airships in 1898, but lost money as efforts proved a commercial failure. A second try in 1909 with the Delag company was more successful.

But the 1937 Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey, when 36 people died in a fireball after a transatlantic flight, ended the era of big luxury airships. Since then airships such as “Spirit of Europe,” run by the Goodyear tire and rubber company, have continued to fly as advertising stunts, but only recently have new projects begun capturing the public imagination and investors’ dollars.

Cargo In the Sky

One such project is Germany’s CargoLifter, which raised more than $240 million from 30,000 people in an initial stock offering in May. Chairman Carl von Gablenz said business, not a love affair with airships, drives his company.

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