More Than Hot Air

Six decades after the Hindenburg disaster, giant Zeppelins could soon become commercially viable once again

  • Share
  • Read Later

Just once, Scott Danneker would like to see a TV documentary or magazine story about his employer that doesn't feature the airship Hindenburg's bursting like a lava-filled egg over Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937. "What would happen if people felt compelled to mention Pan Am Flight 103 every time they talked about airplanes?" he asks. Danneker would rather talk about sleek, soaring dirigibles like the Norge, which in 1926 pinpointed the exact position of the North Pole for the first time, or about the millions of kilometers of uneventful flight the Hindenburg racked up before its dramatic exit.

A self-proclaimed "helium head," Danneker is a true believer in the future of lighter-than-air flight. He believes both that it has a future and that he's part of it. In fact, Danneker is helping set the course for a new generation of lighter-than-air flying machines that are about to appear in the skies of Europe and the U.S. "I was flying blimps in North Carolina, and I heard these guys had a prototype," the Boston-born Danneker recalls. "I ran to my wife and said, 'We gotta pack.'" The guys were Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, the maker of giant airships based in Friedrichshafen, Germany, which hired Danneker to polish up and test-pilot its 120th creation.

After more than 60 years on the dustheap of aviation history, the Zeppelin is making a comeback--sort of. The fiery death of the Hindenburg put an end to the hydrogen-filled balloon for passenger travel, and even when the lifting gas was replaced by helium, passengers never again trusted the big airships. The last Zeppelin made, the LZ 130, rolled out of the hangar in Friedrichshafen, near the Swiss-German border, in 1938, and it was eventually turned into scrap. At 246-ft. long, the ship that Danneker will pilot, the new Zeppelin NT--for new technology--will disappoint those expecting to see hotels embedded in the bellies of stadium-size behemoths. German regulations limit the number of people aboard a commuter aircraft to 19, and the Zeppelin NT will carry just 12 passengers and two crew members. Testing is complete, and it's only a matter of waiting for the aviation rule book to be updated to accommodate the "new" type of ship. So far, ships have been sold to tourism and computer companies, and oil companies are interested in using the ships to monitor pipelines.

The German airship is the first of many that will soon be soaring over Europe. In the Netherlands a company called Rigid Airship Design is building a 591-ft.-long dirigible, which it hopes to begin testing at the end of next year. The company aims to carry as much as 30 tons of cargo or 240 passengers. In Berlin a company called CargoLifter launched a high-profile public stock offering on May 30 to fund the building of an 853-ft. colossus--49 ft. longer than the ill-fated Hindenburg. "I've been watching the airship industry for 15 years, and now it's getting very exciting," says Christian Schulthess, who for 20 years was a pilot with Balair-CTA, the charter subsidiary of Swissair. He is now president of Skyship Cruises in Switzerland, which ordered the first Zeppelin. "CargoLifter and Rigid Airship Design get your imagination going," he says, "and here the Zeppelins are really flying."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2