Zeppelin-Crazy Town Is Floating
On Air Over a Shiny New One


February 20, 2001

FRIEDRICHSHAFEN, Germany -- Here by the tree-lined shores of Lake Constance, Count Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August von Zeppelin flew the first craft to carry his name in 1900.

Before World War II, his floating dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Storied airships like the globe-circling Graf Zeppelin carried high society in high style at low altitude from here to New York and Rio de Janeiro. Then the Hindenburg, built here, exploded over Lakehurst, N.J., on a stormy day in May 1937, killing 36 people and ending the golden age of airships.

The dream wasn't so easily snuffed out in this hamlet of 56,500. Friedrichshafen, which was put on the map by Count von Zeppelin and now holds title to the companies that made up his industrial empire, is building a new zeppelin. It hopes soon to get German air certification for the new craft.

Zepellin NT
The Zeppelin NT revives the spirit of the legendary airships developed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

While soft-sided blimps are a relatively common sight today, the weight of history seemed to compel Friedrichshafen to revive the semirigid design of the zeppelin. "It was an important goal for our town and our companies," says Max Mugler, 69 years old, who recently retired from a career in town-owned companies, and 10 years running the new zeppelin project.

The town already boasts the world's largest zeppelin museum. Down the lakefront, near Zeppelin Street, sits the Graf-Zeppelin-Haus cultural center. Nearby stands a bronze statue of the count himself, not far from Graf Zeppelin High School (Graf is German for count). There's a private zeppelin museum nearby to rival the big one, and a suburb called Zeppelindorf. Toy stores tout zeppelin models and book stores devote shelves to the count and his airships. Zeppelin promoters thought of asking Led Zeppelin to perform at a zeppelin centenary event last July but discovered that the band had broken up.

Now the town is back in the airship business. The shiny Zeppelin NT -- for New Technology -- is made of carbon fiber and Kevlar, and covered with a skin of space-suit material. It's full of inert helium, not explosive hydrogen like the Hindenburg. And this time around, the idea isn't upscale globe-hopping but airborne advertising and niche operations in far-flung tourist destinations, as well as "observation" jobs for TV crews, police and even land-mine hunters.

"It may seem a funny project to outsiders, but it's not," says Wolfgang Meighoerner, director of the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen, his earnest tone lightened by a Peanuts bow tie. "It's a development in the technological leadership of the region."

For people like Mr. Mugler, it's really a matter of civic pride. "We saw that there were ideas around the world to build a new airship," he recalls. "We said that if anyone in the world is going to build an airship, it must be us in Friedrichshafen."

That's because of Count von Zeppelin. A cavalry general with a walrus mustache, he first flew in a balloon as a German observer with the Union army in the U.S. Civil War. After retiring, he pioneered airship flight when his first craft floated skyward on July 2, 1900 -- three years before the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk.

In 1908, when the Zeppelin family's savings lay in ashes after the count's fourth airship crashed, the German people came to the rescue. There were stories of children smashing their piggy banks to send pfennigs. In today's money, Germans gave Count von Zeppelin more than $20 million.

Count Zeppelin

Moved by the outpouring, he established a foundation dedicated to the airship industry, which in turn built up a web of companies making engines, aluminum latticework and transmissions. When the count died in 1917, the foundation owned an industrial complex that dominated the town. By the time of the Hindenburg disaster, 119 zeppelins had lifted off from these shores, including the Los Angeles, built for the U.S. Navy as a reparation for World War I.

During World War II Friedrichshafen was flattened by Allied bombing and zeppelins faded from use. French occupying troops in 1947 transferred control of the foundation to the city and shifted the surviving companies into making parts for French army vehicles. By the 1980s, the remains of Count von Zeppelin's airship empire were churning out heavy things like truck engines and, under license from Caterpillar Inc., earthmovers. Today the foundation channels part of its companies' profits to supporting social institutions like kindergartens, a hospital and the Zeppelin Museum. The rest is reinvested in industry.

But in the 1980s, when airship enthusiasts and engineers from the U.S. and elsewhere started inquiring about building their own zeppelins, Friedrichshafen vowed not to relinquish the mantle. Mr. Mugler led the call to study a new airship.

"The town said, 'OK, we are a zeppelin town,'" he explains. Sipping coffee in a Bauhaus tower overlooking Lake Constance, with the Zeppelin NT bobbing from its mooring in the distance, he recalls that as a child he saw "the old giants" gliding above. "It was my destiny," he says of the project.

Funded by the town-owned companies, designers started building a 33-foot test model in 1988. By 1991, they felt ready to build a full-scale craft, which engineers spent three years assembling before its maiden flight in September 1997.

Fruitless discussions were held with other companies, including Westinghouse, about joint ventures. "Our talks ... were always very difficult," recalls Mr. Mugler. "They were always thinking blimp, blimp, blimp."

Sitting in an office at the zeppelin hangar outside town, Wolfgang von Zeppelin pauses to make a point he often repeats: "A blimp is no zeppelin."

A blimp is just a bag of gas. It has no spine. Pointing to a photograph of the Zeppelin NT, he explains that a zeppelin's rigid backbone makes it safer and more nimble than a blimp. "It can pirouette," says the count's silver-haired great-great-grandnephew, his balloon-festooned necktie secured against high winds by a zeppelin tiepin. Mr. von Zeppelin, a 65-year-old retired engineer and ballooning enthusiast who lobbied to start the project, today helps train zeppelin pilots.

Inside the craft's cavernous hangar downstairs, Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH chief executive Bernd Straeter strolls beneath a second, half-completed Zeppelin NT, past the early skeleton of a third, and across to the rubbery white prototype, which has logged more than 820 hours aloft. He points to the 12-passenger gondola, where the pilot and copilot use similar electronic controls to those in an Airbus jetliner.

"Here we're very near to an aircraft, with all the advantages," he says. The NT's unique swiveling propellers, he boasts, allow the one-ton craft to cruise at 55 miles per hour or hover and land like a helicopter, but it can stay in the air for 24 hours. Placing the three engines on the dirigible's 246-foot-long frame -- not on the gondola as they would be arrayed on a blimp -- gives passengers a nearly vibration-free ride, he adds. And thanks to its maneuverability, this zeppelin needs a ground crew of just three to winch it in with a cable. The Hindenburg needed 120 burly men hauling it in with ropes. A modern blimp needs about 20.

Those features prompt Mr. Straeter to figure he can sell around 60 Zeppelin NTs -- even though, world-wide, only around 25 advertising blimps fly today. People have already expressed an interest in buying NTs, he says, but the flying machine won't be put on sale officially until after at least a year of further testing.

At the world's No. 1 airship maker, American Blimp Corp. of Hillsboro, Ore., owner Jim Thiele figures the new zeppelin can help the lighter-than-air market grow, even though blimps go for a fraction of the zeppelin's $7 million price. Airships are "such a niche business that we all have a common interest in seeing each other succeed," he says. "It's friendly competition."

Some blimpers dismiss the Zeppelin NT as an engineer's fantasy. Germany's federal aviation officials at first had no idea how to assess it. They compared it to "trying to get certification for a UFO," recalls spokeswoman Jeannine Meighoerner, wife of the museum director. So the air authorities first had to create the tests.

Then, as the $23 million cost to build the prototype rose to $30 million to build a full-scale certification-worthy ship, backers at the town-owned companies began to grow skeptical. "It was difficult to persuade them to give money," Mr. Mugler recalls, but he did. The mayor, Bernd Wiedmann, backed the additional spending. He "had vision," Mr. Mugler says.

Mr. Meighoerner figures $23 million was cheap to build a totally new airship. "Try to do that with Boeing or Lockheed or Airbus," he challenges.

"People here are very proud," says Josef Vonbach, owner of a toy store that produces an exclusive, limited edition electric train, with cars emblazoned with Zeppelin NT graphics. He expects sales to rise when the airship gets certification.

Outside of town, though, building that kind of enthusiasm may take some work.

"In Friedrichshafen, people understand," says Mr. Mugler. Across Germany in Berlin, he sighs, "they don't understand." Then he smiles: "But they will understand if we are flying and selling and earning money!"

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