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Zeppelin

This is an article about Zeppelin airship class. For general article about airships, see airship. For a famous British rock band, see Led Zeppelin.
LZ127 Graf Zeppelin, the most traveled airship in history

A Zeppelin is a type of rigid airship (or dirigible) pioneered by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the early 20th century. Due to the outstanding success of the Zeppelin design, the term zeppelin in casual use came to refer to all rigid airships. This article, however, focuses on Zeppelins in the narrower sense of the word.

These giant aircraft were used for passenger transport as well as for military purposes. The DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG), which can be considered the first commercial airline, served scheduled flights well before World War I, and after the outbreak of the conflict, the German military made extensive use of Zeppelins as bombers and scouts.

The German defeat halted the business temporarily, but under the guidance of Hugo Eckener, the successor of the deceased count, civilian Zeppelins experienced a renaissance in the 1920s. They reached their zenith in the 1930s, when the airships LZ127 Graf Zeppelin and LZ129 Hindenburg profitably operated regular transatlantic passenger flights.

The Hindenburg disaster in 1937 triggered the fall of the "giants of the air", though other factors, including political issues, contributed to the demise of the Zeppelin.

Table of contents

Principal characteristics

The most important feature of Zeppelin's design is a slim, rigid aluminium skeleton, made of rings and longitudinal girders. The advantage of this concept is that the ships can be built much larger, which enables them to lift heavier loads and be equipped with more and stronger engines. This makes the craft quite distinct from non-rigid airships commonly known as blimps, which rely on a slight overpressure within their hull to maintain their shape.

The overall form of the first Zeppelins was cylindrical with rounded ends. During World War I, the design was changed to the familiar streamlined shape that has been used by almost all airships since. Within this outer envelope several separate balloons called "cells" contained the lighter-than-air gas hydrogen. The cell design is another conceptual difference compared to blimps.

Motive power was provided by several internal combustion engines, mounted in nacelles rigidly connected to the skeleton at the peak of maximum air resistance. Steering was made possible by adjusting and selectively reversing engine thrust and by using rudder and elevator fins.

A comparatively small compartment for passengers and crew was built into the bottom of the frame.

History

Early Zeppelin history

The first Zeppelin

The first ascent of LZ1

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin became interested in constructing a "dirigible balloon" after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871, where he witnessed the use of French balloons during the siege of Paris. He had also encountered the military use of such aircraft in 1863 during the American Civil War, in which he participated as a military observer on the side of the Union.

He began to seriously pursue his project after his early retirement from the military in 1890 at the age of 52. He based his idea upon the design created by Hungarian inventor David Schwartz. On August 31, 1895, he obtained a patent which already included most of the aforementioned features. One peculiar idea however that never made it into construction was to provide the ability to connect several independent airship elements like train wagons; in fact, the patent title called the design "Lenkbarer Luftfahrzug" (steerable air-cruising train).

An expert committee to whom he had presented his plans in 1894 showed little interest, so the count was on his own in realizing his idea. In 1898 he founded the Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Luftschiffahrt (company for the promotion of airship flight), contributing more than half of its 800,000 Mark share capital himself. He delegated the technical implementation to the engineer Theodor Kober and later to Ludwig Dürr.

Construction of the first Zeppelin airship began in 1899 in a floating assembly hall on Lake Constance in the Bay of Manzell, Friedrichshafen. This location was intended to facilitate the difficult starting procedure, as the hall could easily be aligned with the wind. The prototype airship LZ1 (LZ for "Luftschiff Zeppelin") had a length of 128 m, was driven by two 14.2 horsepower (10.6 kW) Daimler engines and was balanced by moving a weight between its two nacelles.

The first Zeppelin flight occurred on July 21900 over Lake Constance. It lasted for only 18 minutes before the LZ1 was forced to land on the lake after the winding mechanism for the balancing weight broke. Upon repair, the technology proved its potential in subsequent flights (Its second flight was in October 1900. The third and final flight was on October 241900.), beating the 6 m/s velocity record of the French airship La France by 3 m/s. But this performance was unable to convince possible investors. With his financial resources depleted, Count von Zeppelin was forced to disassemble the prototype, sell it for scrap, and close the company.

Birth from disaster

It was largely due to support by aviation enthusiasts that von Zeppelin's idea got a second (and third) chance and could be developed into a reasonably reliable technology. Only then could the airships be profitably used for civilian aviation and sold to the military.

Donations and the profits of a special lottery, together with some public funding and a further 100,000 Mark contribution by Count von Zeppelin himself allowed for the construction of LZ2, which took off for the first and only time on January 17, 1906. After both motors failed, it made a forced landing in the Allgäu mountains, where the provisionally anchored ship was subsequently damaged beyond repair by a storm.

Its successor LZ3, which incorporated all parts of LZ2 which were still usable, became the first truly successful Zeppelin, which by 1908 had traveled 4398 km in total in the course of 45 flights. Now the technology interested the German military, who bought LZ3 and renamed it Z I. It served as a school ship until 1913, when it was decommissioned as technologically outdated.

Wreckage of LZ4

The army was also willing to buy LZ4, but requested a demonstration of the ship's ability to make a 24 hour trip. While attempting to fulfill this requirement, the crew of LZ4 had to make an intermediate landing in Echterdingen near Stuttgart. During the stop, a storm tore the airship away from its anchorage in the afternoon of August 5, 1908. The airship crashed into a tree, caught fire and quickly burnt to ruins. No one was seriously injured, though two technicians repairing the engines escaped only by making a hazardous jump. This accident would have certainly knocked out the Zeppelin project economically had not one of the spectators in the crowd spontaneously initiated a collection of donations that yielded an impressive total of 6,096,555 Marks. This enabled the count to found the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH (airship construction Zeppelin Ltd.) and to create a Zeppelin foundation. Thus, the Zeppelin project not only rose like a Phoenix from the ashes, but was at last financially secure.

Zeppelins before World War I

In the following years until the outbreak of World War I in summer 1914, a total of 21 more Zeppelin airships (LZ5 to LZ 25) were finished. (See List of Zeppelins for a complete reference).

In 1909, LZ6 became the first Zeppelin to be used for commercial passenger transport. For this purpose, it was taken over by the world's first airline, the newly founded Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG). Another six airships were sold to the DELAG by 1914, and were given names in addition to their production numbers. Two such were the LZ11 "Viktoria Luise" (1912) and the LZ17 "Sachsen" (1913). Four of these ships were destroyed in accidents, mostly while being transferred into their halls. There were no casualties.

Altogether, the DELAG airships traveled approximately 200,000 km, and transported about 40,000 passengers.

The remaining 14 pre-war Zeppelins were purchased by the German Army and Navy, who labeled their aircraft Z I/II/... and L 1/2/..., respectively. (During the war, the Army changed their scheme twice: following Z XII, they switched to using the LZ numbers, later adding 30 to obscure the total production.)

When World War I broke out, the military also took over the three remaining DELAG ships. By this time, it had already decommissioned three other Zeppelins (LZ3 "Z I" included). Five more had been lost in accidents, in two of which people died: a storm pushed Navy Zeppelin LZ14 "L 1" down into the North Sea, drowning 14, and LZ18 "L 2" burst into flames following an engine explosion, killing the entire crew.

By 1914, state-of-the-art Zeppelins had lengths of 150–160 m and volumes of 22,000–25,000 m3, enabling them to carry loads of around 9 tonnes. They were typically powered by three Maybach motors of around 400–550 horsepower (150 kW) each, thus reaching speeds up to about 80 km/h.

Zeppelins in World War I

Bombers and scouts

Zeppelins were used as bombers during World War I but were not notably successful. At the beginning of the conflict the German command had high hopes for the craft, as they appeared to have compelling advantages over contemporary aircraft – they were almost as fast, carried many more guns, and had a greater bomb load capacity and enormously greater range and endurance, but their great weakness was their vulnerability to gunfire.

The first offensive use of Zeppelins was just two days after the invasion of Belgium. A single craft, the Z VI, was damaged by gunfire and made a forced landing near Cologne. Two more Zeppelins were shot down in August and one was captured by the French. Their use against well-defended targets in daytime raids was a mistake and the High Command lost all confidence in the Zeppelin, leaving it to the Naval Air Service to make any further use of the craft.

The main use of the craft was in reconnaissance over the North Sea and the Baltic, where the admirable endurance of the craft led German warships to a number of Allied vessels. During the entire war around 1,200 scouting flights were made. The Naval Air Service also directed a number of strategic raids against Britain, leading the way in bombing techniques and also forcing the British to bolster their anti-aircraft defences. The first airship raids were approved by the Kaiser in January 1915. The nighttime raids were intended to target only military sites, but after blackouts became widespread, many bombs fell randomly in East Anglia.

The first raid was on January 19, 1915, the first bombing of civilians ever, in which two Zeppelins dropped twenty four 50 kg high explosive bombs and ineffective 3 kg incendiaries on Great Yarmouth, Sheringham, Kings Lynn and the surrounding villages. In all four people were killed, sixteen injured and monetary damage estimated at £7,740, although the public and media reaction were out of all proportion to the death toll. There were a further nineteen raids in 1915, in which 37 tons of bombs were dropped, killing 181 people and injuring 455. British defences were initially divided between the Royal Navy and the Army at first, before the Army took full control in February 1916, and a variety of sub 4-inch calibre guns were converted to anti-aircraft use. Searchlights were introduced, initially manned by the police, but their inexperience led to a number of illuminated clouds being mistaken for attacking airships. Aerial defences against Zeppelins were haphazard and the lack of an interrupter gear in early aircraft meant that the basic technique of downing them was to drop bombs on them. The first man to bring down a Zeppelin in this way was R. A. J. Warneford of the RNAS, flying a Morane Parasol on June 7, 1915. Dropping six 9 kg bombs, he set fire to LZ 37 over Ghent and as a result won the Victoria Cross.

Raids continued in 1916. London was accidentally bombed in May and in July the Kaiser allowed directed raids against urban centres. There were twenty-three airship raids in 1916 in which 125 tons of ordnance were dropped, killing 293 people and injuring 691. Anti-aircraft defences were becoming tougher and new Zeppelins were introduced which were able to fly at twice the altitude, increasing the operating altitude from 1,800 m to 3,750 m. To avoid searchlights these craft flew above the cloud layer whenever possible, lowering an observer through the clouds to direct the bombing. The improved safety was counteracted by the extra strain on the airship crews and the British introduction in mid-1916 of forward-firing fighters. The first night-fighter victory came on September 2, 1916 when W. Leefe-Robinson shot down one of a sixteen strong raiding force over London. He too won the Victoria Cross. Early in the morning of September 24, 1916 an airborne fighter and anti-aircraft guns caused the L.33 Zeppelin to crash land at Little Wigborough near Colchester, Essex on its first raid. The pilot was Kapitanleutnant Bocker. A close inspection of its wrecked structure enabled the British to understand where their own rigid airship designs had been deficient. Furthermore, one 250hp engine recovered from the crashed L.33 was subsequently substituted for two (of four) 180hp engines on a Vickers-built machine, the hitherto underpowered R.9.

The introduction of effective fighters marked the end of the Zeppelin threat. New Zeppelins came into service that could operate at 5,500 m but exposed them to extremes of cold, and changeable winds could, and did, scatter many Zeppelin raids. In 1917 and 1918 there were only eleven Zeppelin raids against England, and the final raid occurred on August 5, 1918 which resulted in the death of KK Peter Strasser, commander of the German Naval Airship Department.

A total of eighty-eight Zeppelins were built during the war. Over sixty were lost, roughly evenly divided between accident and enemy action. Fifty-one raids had been undertaken, in which 5,806 bombs were dropped, killing 557 people and injuring 1,358. It has been argued that the raids were effective far beyond material damage in diverting and hampering wartime production, and diverting twelve squadrons and over 10,000 men to air defences.

Technological progress

Strategic issues aside, Zeppelin technology improved considerably as a result of the increasing demands of warfare. In late World War I the Zeppelin company, having spawned several dependencies around Germany with shipyards closer to the fronts than Friedrichshafen, delivered airships of around 200 m in length (some even more) and with volumes of 56,000–69,000 m3. These dirigibles could carry loads of 40–50 tonnes and reach speeds up to 100–130 km/h using five or even six Maybach engines of around 260 horsepower (195 kW) each.

In fleeing enemy fire, Zeppelins rose to altitudes up to 7600 m, and they also proved capable of long-range flights. For example, LZ104 "L 59", based in Yambol, Bulgaria, was sent to reinforce troops in German East Africa (today Tanzania) in November 1917. The ship did not arrive in time and had to return following reports of German defeat by British troops, but it had travelled 6757 km in 95 hours and thus had broken a long-distance flight record.

A considerable, though frequently overlooked contribution to these technological advancements originated from Zeppelin's only serious competitor, the Mannheim-based Schütte-Lanz airship construction company. While their dirigibles never became comparably successful, Professor Schütte's more scientific approach to airship design led to a number of important innovations that were, over time, copied by the Zeppelin company. These included, for example, the streamlined hull shape, the simple yet functional cruciform four-fin empennage replacing the more complicated box-like arrangements of older Zeppelins, and gas ventilation shafts which removed excess hydrogen for safety.

The end-of-war Zeppelins

The German defeat in the war also marked the end of German military dirigibles, as the victorious Allies demanded a complete disarmament of German air forces and delivery of the remaining airships as war reparations. Specifically, the Treaty of Versailles contained the following articles dealing explicitly with dirigibles:

Article 198.
The armed forces of Germany must not include any military or naval air forces. [...] No dirigible shall be kept.
Article 202.
On the coming into force of the present Treaty, all military and naval aeronautical material [...] must be delivered to the Governments of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers. [...] In particular, this material will include all items under the following heads which are or have been in use or were designed for warlike purposes:
[...]
  • Dirigibles able to take the air, being manufactured, repaired or assembled.
  • Plant for the manufacture of hydrogen.
  • Dirigible sheds and shelters of every kind for aircraft.
Pending their delivery, dirigibles will, at the expense of Germany, be maintained inflated with hydrogen; the plant for the manufacture of hydrogen, as well as the sheds for dirigibles may at the discretion of the said Powers, be left to Germany until the time when the dirigibles are handed over. [...]

On June 23, 1919, a week before the treaty was signed, many war Zeppelin crews destroyed their airships in their halls in order to avoid delivery. In doing so, they followed the example of the German fleet which had been sunk two days before in Scapa Flow. The remaining dirigibles were transferred to France, Italy, England and Belgium in 1920.

Zeppelin history after World War I

First steps towards a renaissance

Count von Zeppelin had died in 1917, before the end of the war. Dr. Hugo Eckener a man who had long before envisioned dirigibles as vessels of peace rather than warfare, took command of the Zeppelin business. With the Treaty of Versailles having knocked out their competitor Schütte-Lanz, who had specialized entirely on military airships, the Zeppelin company and the airline DELAG hoped to resume civilian flights quickly. In fact, despite considerable difficulties, they accomplished two small Zeppelin constructions: LZ120 "Bodensee" which first flew in August 1919 and in the following two years actually transported some 4000 passengers; and LZ121 "Nordstern" which was foreseen for a regular route to Stockholm.

However, in 1921, the Allied Powers demanded these two Zeppelins be delivered in the context of war reparations as well, as a compensation for the dirigibles destroyed by their crews in 1919. Further Zeppelin projects could not be realized, partly because of Allied interdiction. This temporarily halted German Zeppelin aviation.

However, Eckener and his coworkers refused to give up and kept looking for investors and a way to circumvent Allied restrictions. Their opportunity came in 1924. The United States had started to experiment with rigid airships, constructing one of their own, the ZR-1 "USS Shenandoah" (see below), and ordering another one in England. However, the British R38, foreseen to become ZR-2, broke apart and exploded during a test flight above the Humber on August 23 1921, killing 44 crewmen.

Under these circumstances, Eckener managed to acquire an order for the next American dirigible. Of course, Germany had to pay the costs for this airship itself, as they were calculated against the war reparation accounts, but for the Zeppelin company, this was secondary. So engineer Dr Dürr designed LZ126, and using all the expertise accumulated over the years, the company finally achieved its best Zeppelin so far, which took off for a first test flight on August 27, 1924.

ZR-3 "USS Los Angeles" over southern Manhattan

No insurance company was willing to issue a policy for the delivery to Lakehurst, which, of course, involved a transatlantic flight. Eckener, however, was so confident of the new ship that he was ready to risk the entire business capital, and on October 12, 0730 local time, the Zeppelin took off for the States under his command. His faith was not disappointed, and the ship completed its 8050 km voyage without any difficulties in 81 hours and two minutes. American crowds enthusiastically celebrated the arrival, and President Calvin Coolidge invited Dr. Eckener and his crew to the White House, calling the new Zeppelin an "angel of peace".

Under its new designation ZR-3 "USS Los Angeles", the former LZ126 became the most successful American airship. It operated reliably for eight years until it was retired in 1932 for economic reasons and dismantled in August 1940.

The Golden Age of Zeppelin aviation

With the delivery of LZ126 the Zeppelin company had reasserted its lead in rigid airship construction, but it was not yet quite back in business. Acquiring the necessary funds for the next project proved to be hard work in the difficult economic situation of post-World-War-I Germany, and it took Eckener two years of lobbying and publicity work to secure the realization of LZ127.

Another two years later, on September 18, 1928, the new dirigible, which was christened Graf Zeppelin in honour of the Count, flew for the first time. With a total length of 236,6 m and a volume of 105,000 m3, it was the largest dirigible so far.

Eckener's initial concept consisted of using LZ127 "Graf Zeppelin" for experimental and demonstration purposes to prepare the way for regular airship traveling, but to carry passengers and mail to cover the costs. In October 1928 the first long-range voyage led the craft to Lakehurst, where Eckener and his crew were once more welcomed enthusiastically with confetti parades in New York and another invitation to the White House. Later Graf Zeppelin toured in Germany and visited Italy, Palestine and Spain. A second trip to the States was aborted in France due to engine failure in May 1929.

In August 1929 LZ127 departed for another daring enterprise: a complete circumnavigation of the globe. The growing popularity of the "giant of the air" made it easy for Eckener to find sponsors. One of these was the American press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who requested the tour to officially start in Lakehurst. From there, Graf Zeppelin flew to Friedrichshafen first, continuing to Tokyo, Los Angeles and back to Lakehurst. It completed the voyage in 21 days, 5 hours and 31 minutes. Including the initial and final trips Friedrichshafen-Lakehurst and back, the dirigible travelled 49,618 km.

In the following year, Graf Zeppelin undertook a number of trips around Europe, and following a successful tour to South America in May 1930, it was decided to open the first regular transatlantic airship line. Despite the beginning of the Great Depression and growing competition by fixed-wing aircraft, LZ127 would transport an increasing amount of passengers and mail across the ocean every year until 1936. Besides, the ship pursued another spectacular venue in July 1931 with a research trip to the Arctic; this had already been a dream of Count Zeppelin twenty years earlier, which could, however, not be realized at the time due to the outbreak of war.

Eckener intended to supplement the successful craft by another, similar Zeppelin, projected as LZ128. However the disastrous accident of the British passenger airship R101 in 1931 led the Zeppelin company to reconsider the safety of hydrogen-filled vessels, and the design was abandoned in favour of a new project. LZ129 would advance Zeppelin technology considerably, and was intended to be filled with the inert gas helium.

The fall of the Zeppelins

The Hindenburg on fire

However, from 1933 on, the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany began to overshadow the Zeppelin business. The Nazis were not interested in Eckener's ideals of peacefully connecting people; they also knew very well that the dirigibles would be useless in combat and thus chose to focus on the development of heavier-than-air aircraft technology.

On the other hand, they were eager to exploit the popularity of the airships for propaganda. As Eckener refused to cooperate, Hermann Göring, the Nazi Air minister, formed a new airline in 1935, the DZR (Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei), which took over operation of airship flights. Zeppelins would now prominently display the Nazi swastika on their fins and occasionally tour Germany to indoctrinate the people with march music and Nazi propaganda speeches from the air.

On March 4, 1936, LZ129 "Hindenburg", named after the former President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg, made its first flight. However, in the new political situation, Eckener had not obtained the helium to inflate it due to a military embargo; only the United States possessed the rare gas in usable quantities. So, in what ultimately proved to be a fatal decision, the Hindenburg was filled with flammable hydrogen. Apart from the propaganda missions, LZ129 began to serve the transatlantic lines together with Graf Zeppelin.

On May 6, 1937, when landing in Lakehurst after a transatlantic flight, in front of thousands spectators the tail of the ship caught fire, and within seconds the Zeppelin burst into flames, killing 35 of the 97 people on board and one member of the ground crew. The actual cause of the Hindenburg disaster remained undiscovered, though sabotage speculations abound (alternately blaming the Nazis or their enemies.) Some present-day researchers have hypothesized that a new coating material on the skin of the dirigible may have played a key role in the accident. Other investigators have rejected this "flammable coating" explanation. (See Hindenburg disaster for a discussion of these continuing controversies.)

Whatever may have caused the Hindenburg disaster, the fire led directly to the end of German airship transportation. Public faith in the security of dirigibles was shattered, and transporting passengers in hydrogen-filled vessels became totally unacceptable. LZ127 "Graf Zeppelin" was retired one month past the disaster and turned into a museum. Dr. Eckener kept trying to obtain helium gas for the Hindenburg sister ship, LZ130 "Graf Zeppelin II", but in vain. The intended new flagship Zeppelin was completed in 1938 and, inflated with hydrogen again, made some test flights (the first on September 14), but it never transported any passengers. Another project, LZ131, which was designed to become even larger than the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin II, never progressed beyond the production of some single skeleton rings.

The career of LZ130 Graf Zeppelin was not ended. It was assigned to the Luftwaffe and performed about 30 test flights prior to the start of World War II. Most of those test flights were carried out near the Polish southwestern border; first in the Sudetes mountains region and later in the Baltic Sea region. During one flight LZ130 crossed the Polish border near Hel Peninsula where it was intercepted by a Polish Lublin R-XIII plane from Puck naval airbase and forced to retreat beyond Polish territorial waters. During this time LZ130 was used as an electronic scouting vehicle and was equipped with various telemetric equipment. From May to August 1939 it performed flights near the coastline of Great Britain in an attempt to determine whether the 100 meter towers erected from Portsmouth to Scapa Flow were used for aircraft radiolocalisation. Tests included photography, radiowave interception, magnetic analysis and radio frequency analysis but were unable to detect operational British Chain Home radar due to poor quality of the German equipment. The conclusion was that the British towers were not connected to radar operations, but form a network of naval radiocommunication and rescue.

After the German invasion of Poland started the Second World War on 1 September, the Luftwaffe ordered the LZ127 and L130 moved to a large Zeppelin hangar in Frankfurt, where the skeleton of LZ131 was also located. In March 1940 Göring ordered the destruction of the remaining vessels and the aluminum parts were fed into the German war industry. In May of that year a fire broke out in the Zeppelin facility which destroyed most of the remaining parts. The rest of the parts and materials were soon scrapped with almost no trace of the German 'giants of the air' remaining by the end of the year.

Non-German Zeppelins

U.S. Navy Zeppelin ZRS-5 "USS Macon" over Moffett Field in 1933
Airships using the Zeppelin construction method are sometimes referred to as zeppelins even if they had no connection to the Zeppelin business. Several airships of this kind were built in the USA, Britain, Italy, and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly imitating original Zeppelin design derived from crashed or captured German World War I airships.

One example for these is the first American-built rigid dirigible ZR-1 "USS Shenandoah" ("daughter of the stars", with ZR standing for "Zeppelin Rigid"), which flew in 1923. The ship was christened on August 20 in Lakehurst, New Jersey and was the first to be inflated with the noble gas helium, which was still so rare at the time that the Shenandoah contained most of the world's reserves. So, when the Los Angeles was delivered, it was at first filled with the helium from ZR-1.

Recent developments

Economically, it was a bit of a surprise even in the 1930s that Zeppelins could actually compete with other means of transatlantic transport. Their advantage was the ability to carry significantly more passengers than other contemporary aircraft, while providing convenience not unlike the luxury of ship voyages. Less importantly, the technology was potentially more energy-efficient than heavier-than-air designs. On the other hand, operating the giants was quite involved, especially in terms of personnel. Often the crew would outnumber passengers on board, and on the ground large teams were necessary to assist starting and landing. Also, to accommodate Zeppelins like the Hindenburg (which had about the height of the Statue of Liberty without the pedestal, not to mention its length of 245 m), vast hangars were required at the airports.

Today, in times of large, fast and cost-efficient fixed-wing aircraft, it is, to say the least, questionable whether huge airships can ever operate profitably in regular passenger transport again, even though the idea of comparatively slow, "majestic" cruising at relatively low altitudes and in comfortable atmosphere certainly has retained some appeal.

There have been some niches for airships in and after World War II, such as long-time observations, platforms for TV camera crews, and advertising; these, however, generally require only small and flexible craft, and have thus generally been better fitted to cheaper blimps.

It has periodically been suggested that the Zeppelin concept could be employed for cargo transport, especially for delivering extremely heavy loads to areas with poor infrastructure. One recent enterprise of this sort was the Cargolifter project, in which a hybrid (thus not entirely Zeppelin-type) airship even larger than the Hindenburg was envisioned. Around 2000, this idea had become reality, when the CargoLifter AG constructed the world's largest cantilever shop hall measuring 360 meters long, 210 meters wide and 107 meters high some 60 km south of Berlin. But in May 2002 the ambitious project ran out of money and the listed company had to file bankruptcy.

A small company in Germany is currently examining the possibility of building a cruise airship, currently referred to as the Zeppelin ET (for Euro Tour), that could carry passengers on week-long cruises at comfort levels and prices comparable to those of luxury sea cruises of similar duration. However the project is still in its early stages and nothing practical has resulted from this as of 2004.

A "Zeppelin NT" airship

In the 1990s, the successor of the original Zeppelin company in Friedrichshafen, the Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, reengaged in airship construction. The first experimental craft (later christened Friedrichshafen) of the type Zeppelin NT flew in September 1997. Though larger than common blimps, the "Neue Technologie" Zeppelins are much smaller than their giant ancestors and not actually Zeppelin-type in the classical sense, but only semi-rigid high-tech hybrid airships. Apart from the greater payload, their main advantages compared to blimps are higher speed and excellent maneuverability. Meanwhile, the Zeppelin NT is produced in series and operated profitably in joyrides, research flights and similar applications.

In June 2004, a Zeppelin NT was sold for the first time to a Japanese company, Nippon Airship Corporation, who will be using it for tourism and advertising mainly around Tokyo. It will also be given a role at the 2005 Expo held in Aichi. The aircraft made a slow journey from Friedrichshafen to Japan, stopping at Geneva, Paris, Rotterdam, Munich, Berlin, Stockholm among other European cities and in Russia before reaching its destination in August 2004.

Cultural influences

The history of Zeppelins is of particular interest to stamp collectors. From 1909 through 1939, Zeppelins carried mail during their international flights, including covers (envelopes with stamps attached and cancelled) prepared by and for collectors. Many nations issued high-denomination Zeppelin stamps, intended for franking of Zeppelin mail. Among the rarest of Zeppelin covers are those carried during the fateful flight of the Hindenburg; those which survived are invariably charred along the margins, and are worth thousands of dollars. An airship museum is planned to open in Suffolk, England.

Zeppelins have also occasionally inspired fictional works. Some notable examples include:

Zeppelins are a prop of a modern sub-genre of science fiction that is inspired by the visions of the 1930s. Examples are Crimson Skies and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

See also

External links

  • Ferdinand von Zeppelin, US 621,195 Patent, "Navigable Ballon". March 14, 1899.

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