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.

“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.”

Manpower Costs

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.”