“Because we have a business background, the opportunity to make money out of this is much bigger,” he said in an interview, differentiating his firm from nostalgia buffs. “CargoLifter from the beginning is managed as a business project, which is using the lighter-than-air technology, but it is not that we are talking about having a revival of big airships.”
The company is in talks with Airbus Industrie about using airships to ferry heavy parts between its plants. An 850-foot airship able to transport huge objects such as oil platforms.
Zeppelin’s Straeter, whose airship cost $35 million to develop and build, said a stock offering is possible next year. “We will seek the market step-by-step,” he told Reuters. “Then we are prepared to go to the stock market or to build a larger airship. Everything is open.”
Others developing new projects include Moscow’s RosAeroSystems, which wants to develop airships for cargo.
“There is a great demand for dirigibles in Russia because Siberia is so vast,” said Chairman Gennady Verba. “I believe in 10 years we will be speaking of a large airship industry — if the Russian economic situation does not sharply worsen.”
Aboard “Spirit of Europe,” flying appears deceptively simple. A wheel on the side of the pilot’s seat moves the airship up and down. Foot pedals turn it left and right. A wide control panel offers more complex, vital details.
“We’re about as high as I can go because the helium expands,” said Kuhn, cruising over the German countryside. “If you kept on going it would just blow up and go pop like a big balloon.”
Such risks aside, perhaps the main problem of operating an airship is the need for a ground crew of six to 10 people, a requirement curbing spontaneous landings.
“We have been trying for years to sell a blimp to an eccentric millionaire but never had success,” said Swedish engineer Per Lindstrand, best known for his attempts to fly a balloon around the world with British tycoon Richard Branson.
“I think the problem is the ground crew,” said Lindstrand, who estimates it costs $100,000 to $200,000 a month to operate a blimp, most of it on manpower. “They are not self-docking. You can only land where you have planned to land.”
Other enthusiasts have come up with a wide variety of uses for dirigibles ranging from monitoring traffic and environmental disasters such as oil spills to providing communications platforms in the sky. Filming sports events from airships is already commonplace.
“It is a cheap platform to do things from the air. There is no other way to stay still in the air for such low cost,” Albrecht Graf von Brandenstein-Zeppelin, great-grandson of the inventor, said in an interview.
Advertising — the reason for the seven Goodyear blimps worldwide — has a long airship tradition.
“I flew in 1936 as we promoted election propaganda for Hitler,” said Josef Sonntag, 89, a former mechanic who recalled the crowds the zeppelins attracted across Germany. Many, like the Hindenburg, bore the Nazi swastika on their tail fins.
“It was really a sensation back then,” Sonntag said.
Straeter said advertising is likely to bring in as much as passenger tickets on his new zeppelins. Yet for all the enthusiasm about a revival, most industry officials see clear limits to airship development.
“Airships will never or could never replace other forms of transport,” said Gregory Gottlieb, an Airship Association member who once headed the British military’s airship program.
“But what they can do is complement and supplement other forms of transport. There are several niche market areas where they can make a significant market contribution.”