Airships' comeback is more than hot air

New generation of Zeppelins are not just pie in the sky, insist their champions, writes Christian Wolmar
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The Independent Online
The airship is making one of its regular comebacks but this time, supporters say, it is here to stay. The Zeppelin company, based in Friederichshafen, Germany, is making a prototype of a new generation of airships which it hopes to have in full production by the end of 1998.

The new craft, the size of a Boeing 747, will be able to travel at 140kph and stay in the air for up to three-and-a-half days. It will be used for tourist trips and possibly for surveillance operations, where its ability to stay in the air for long periods is unparalleled.

The Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik company, a direct descendant of the original firm that made the Zeppelin (which played an important role in the First World War) and which also manufactured the ill-fated Hindenburg, is owned by the local council and has 35 people working on the project.

Matheas Mandel, the development manager, said that the new airship would be a completely new design concept: "It could be used for a variety of scientific purposes, as well as tourist flights. Because it can fly for long periods, it can be the platform for many experiments."

The Zeppelin managers are optimistic and say that they expect to sign "six provisional agreements world-wide within the next eight months".

They hope that the airships will become popular as a form of air travel which is much more environmentally friendly than aircraft.

However, it has no firm orders and although Condor, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, has its logo on mock-ups of the prototype, the company says it has no plans to buy any of the airships, which will only be able to seat a dozen people and will cost about pounds 5m.

Despite the company's hopes, there remain doubts about whether airships have a future. Conventional wisdom has it that the Hindenburg disaster, in May 1937 in New Jersey, in which at least 33 people were killed, was the reason why airships have never since been developed commercially.

There have been a number of attempts since the Second World War to revive the concept, including Airship Industries, with an airship at RAF Cardington, in Bedfordshire, but all have foundered because of the high development costs and the lack of a market.

Westinghouse, which took over the company, built a half-scale model of a big airship, but it was destroyed last year in a fire and the remnants of the company have been taken over by a British team based in Bedford, which hopes to develop a series of new airships.

Airship experts suggest it was not the Hindenburg which caused the demise of the airship but the impracticality of the craft and the development of large four-engined aircraft during the Second World War. The only airships in use now are blimps, which, unlike original airships, do not have a rigid structure but are effectively a balloon with an engine. As Robin Mackay, who runs Fairoaks airport in Surrey, where the Fuji blimp seen over Wimbledon and Wembley during sporting occasions is often docked overnight, said: "It gives you a wonderful view and is great for tourists who want to go up in the air for an hour, or for use as a TV platform, but what else can they do?"

Blimps are fairly primitive, with only basic lavatory facilities, for example. They are difficult to moor, as they need a mast and a rope has to be caught by men on the ground and attached to the mast.

When the Fuji blimp comes over from its base in Germany, a lorry with 20 men and a portable mast has to follow it through the countryside in case it should get into difficulties.

The Hindenburg required more than 200 men to tie it down but the Zeppelin company claims that only three will be needed with the new craft.

Mike Rentell, secretary of the Airship Association, reckons there is a strong niche market for airships: "There tends to be a revival in interest in airships when there is a rise in the economy," he said optimistically. But he is realistic about their potential: "They will not replace conventional aircraft, but they have a number of unique attributes which make them very useful." He said that a Dutch company had launched a project called the Holland Millennium Navigator at the University of Delft for the construction of a 540ft rigid airship by 1999 at a cost of pounds 25m. "What would be a better way of celebrating the millennium than a ride over the pyramids in that?" Mr Rentell said.