More Than Hot Air

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

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 2)

What has given an old technology a new boost is lightweight materials like foamed carbon fibers, similar to those used in the Brietling Orbiter 3, the balloon that Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones used in last year's record-setting flight around the world. Piccard is the grandson of Auguste Piccard, the famed physicist and part-time aviator who in 1932 became the first man to reach the stratosphere in a balloon. In 1988 an engineer named Klaus Hagenlocher began poring through the Zeppelin archives and persuaded the company's CEO, Friedrichshafen Mayor Bernd Wiedmann, to resurrect the airship. In 1993 a new company was formed to create a prototype, the LZ No. 7, which Danneker piloted on its maiden flight in 1997. Its construction was 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. Thus far, only one airship has been built, and another is under construction, with contracts to sell a total of five. Sponsors have invested $35 million to develop the ships, and to break even the company will need to sell about 20 of them at $7 million each to firms such as Switzerland's Skyship Cruise and Germany's Transatlantic Luftfahrt Gesellschaft.

The Zeppelin NT is more maneuverable than a blimp, and it doesn't vibrate as much as a helicopter--making it ideal for scientific and business projects such as monitoring pipelines and detecting mines. "This ship has the kind of precision and maneuverability that you'll never find in a blimp," says Schulthess. "We can land the Zeppelin with a ground crew of just two people, while the best blimps need 17 or 18 people."

The CargoLifter project, by contrast, started when logistics expert Carl von Gablenz had an epiphany a few years back in North Carolina, where he was a visiting professor of logistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was waiting for a lumbering freight train to cross the road in front of him when the tedium caused him to start thinking about ways to float heavy machinery over land. He began hitting up German logistics companies for capital to build something to do just that. "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 would arrive in three days, and the costs would be about 20% lower"--assuming, of course, that the prototype gets off the ground in 2002. Von Gablenz needs $250 million to build a construction hangar and put a ship in the air. To date he has raised $160 million from shareholders--two-thirds of it from 16,000 private investors and the rest from institutional investors and potential users such as Siemens and Thyssen Krupp. Von Gablenz's company has successfully tested a one-eighth-scale version called Joey. The first freight could be shipped by CargoLifter in 2003.

So will the skies soon be filled with airships? Don't bet on it. Even if everything goes well, Zeppelin plans to build fewer than three ships a year if a market for its long-lost brainchild develops.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next Page