The Wide Blue Yonder

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Just once, scott denneker would like to see a TV documentary or magazine story about his employer that doesn't feature the airship LZ 129 Hindenburg bursting like a lava-filled egg over Lakehurst, New Jersey. "What would happen if people felt compelled to mention Pan Am Flight 103 every time you talked about airplanes?" he asks. "Or movies! I have yet to see one with an airship in it where the thing isn't there specifically to blow up." Denneker would rather talk about sleek soaring laboratories like the Norge, which pinpointed the exact position of the North Pole for the first time in 1926, or the millions of kilometers of uneventful flight zeppelins had racked up before the Hindenburg's dramatic exit.

And he isn't just reminiscing. A self-proclaimed "helium head", Denneker is a true believer in the future of lighter-than-air flight. "I was flying blimps in North Carolina and heard these guys had a prototype," the U.S.-born Denneker recalls. "I ran to my wife and said, ÔWe gotta pack.'" The guys were Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, which hired him to test-pilot their 120th rigid airship.

It's a long time coming. The last zeppelin made, the LZ 130, rolled out of the hangar in Friedrichshafen, near the Swiss-German border, in 1938. At just 75-m-long, the new Zeppelin NT — for "New Technology" — will disappoint those expecting to see hotels embedded in the bellies of stadium-sized behemoths. The company says it's limited by safety regulations to just 19 passengers, but they can only hold 12 plus crew. Other projects have loftier plans. In the Netherlands, a company called Rigid Airship Design is building a 180-m-long dirigible, and in Berlin a company called CargoLifter launched a high-profile public offering on May 30 to fund the building of a colossus 260-m-long — 15 m more than the Hindenburg.

The massive sky frigates disappeared when the Hindenburg incinerated in a matter of seconds. Helium is a lot safer, but also has 8% less lifting power and costs about eight times more than hydrogen. Although the Hindenburg was actually designed with helium in mind, the economics of acquiring it sealed the fate of the zeppelins and heralded the era of the cute little blimps — essentially zeppelin-shaped balloons that are steered somewhat ineffectively from the gondola.

Now, some of the same lightweight materials used in last year's around-the-world balloon flight have got light-headed entrepreneurs looking for ways to turn their pet technology into viable businesses. The mighty Zeppelin company, which over the last 60 years had become a heavy equipment dealer, decided to resurrect an airship division in 1989. In 1993 the new company was formed began a prototype which made its maiden flight in 1997.

The CargoLifter project started when logistics expert Carl von Gablenz experienced an entrepreneurial epiphany a few years back while waiting for a lumbering freight train to cross the road he was driving along in the U.S. That got him thinking about ways to float heavy machinery over land, and he began hitting up German logistics companies for capital to build something to do just that. He needs $250 million to get the hangar built and put a ship in the air, and so far has raised $160 million from shareholders — two-thirds from 16,000 private investors and the rest from potential users like Siemens and Thyssen Krupp and institutional investors. The state of Brandenburg has contributed $33 million to help build the hangar, and the public offering brought in another $100 million.

"Using conventional means, it takes about 60 days and costs about $250,000 to haul 140 tons of freight from Germany to Kazakhstan," von Gablenz says. "With the CargoLifter, the same freight arrives in three days, and the costs are about 20% lower." Assuming, of course, the prototype gets off the ground in 2002. They've successfully tested a one-eighth scale version called Joey, and are in the process of building a hangar in which to build the real thing. The first freight could be shipped via a CargoLifter in 2003.

For real pie in the sky, there are hale (High-Altitude Long-Endurance) airships. Designed to float in the stratosphere above the highest airplanes and below the lowest satellites, they could theoretically send and receive radio signals and monitor or even replenish the ozone layer. The Italian Space Agency is working with the Turin Polytechnic Institute on a balloon that would cost just $3 million and could carry 100-kg relay stations. The U.S. firm Sky Station with suppliers like Dornier Satellitensysteme is developing solar-powered balloons with 10 times that capacity. The goal: 250 balloons positioned above cities and forming a worldwide telecommunications network. The status: speculative.

"The European Space Agency has a hale project too, but that's a long way from implementation," says Berndt Sträter, former head of development at DaimlerChrysler's hale project and now top man at Zeppelin's airship company. "We are already flying our first airship, and a little closer to earth." The new Zeppelin NT is more maneuverable than a blimp, and doesn't vibrate as much as a helicopter — making it ideal for scientific and business projects like monitoring pipelines and detecting mines.

The project is funded by a foundation set up by companies that came into existence as parts suppliers in Zeppelin's heyday, and their motives sometimes seem more sentimental than business-driven. So far only one has been built, and another is under construction, with contracts to sell five in total. They've invested $35 million to develop the ships and will need to sell about 20 of them at $7 million each to firms like Switzerland's Skyship Cruise and Germany's Transatlantic Luftfahrt Gesellschaft to break even. With a production capacity of 2.7 per year, that could be 10 years off. Perhaps by then people will have stopped obsessing about the fate of the Hindenburg.