Germany: Reach for the sky: Zeppelins are back (without a bang)

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The Independent Online
A strange cigar-shaped object has been spotted over Friedrichshafen, the town where Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin first took to the air 98 years ago. Imre Karacs investigates.

In a cavernous hall on the edge of Lake Constance, the monster stirs. At the flick of a switch, the instrument panel begins to glow, a dark screens flicker with incomprehensible charts, and pumps whirr noisily into life. The dinosaur imprisoned in this Jurassic Park of extinct technology strains at its leash.

The Zeppelin, amazingly, is back. By the standards of its famous predecessors, the model currently undergoing air-worthiness trials is a midget. The Zeppelin NT - the initials stand for "New Technology" - is a mere 246 feet in length. The Hindenburg, consumed in a ball of fire as it came into land in New Jersey 61 years ago, was three times as long.

The ill-fated Zeppelin was also taller, heavier, and carried more passengers in infinitely greater luxury than its offspring ever will. There is no room in the gondola today for the Hindenburg's restaurant, piano and individual cabins. There is just about enough space for the pilot and co-pilot, plus leather armchairs for 12 passengers. The manufacturers are also trying to squeeze in a lavatory and tiny kitchen.

But size isn't everything. Who would have predicted after 1937 that rigid-frame airships would ever be built? The Hindenburg disaster and the arrival of the aeroplane appeared to have put an end to this kind of aircraft, deemed even more dangerous than hot-air balloons. The company founded by the count in Friedrichshafen, shut down the production lines overnight and turned its attention to gearboxes and military technology. What remained of the original hangar and the town itself was eventually flattened by the RAF.

"There was no interest in this kind of nostalgia after the war," said the Zeppelin group's president, Max Mugler. Zeppelins became the stuff of science-fiction writers; flights of fancy for UFO-lovers and hobby- horses for adherents of the "Lighter than Air" fraternity.

In the past decade, however, the fad turned serious. Research of German archives and an upswing in interest in environmentally friendly transport revealed that Zeppelins, if anything, had been ahead of their time. "Many people came to us, asking for money," Mr Mugler says. "In the end we decided to do it ourselves."

In 1993, the Zeppelin group, a company with an annual turnover of DM10bn (pounds 5.5bn), took a leap into the past. The airship subsidiary was revived, "air-head" technicians were hired, and research began anew. The count's last surviving granddaughter chipped in with several million marks. Although no longer in family hands, another von Zeppelin, distant relative Wolfgang, is one of the new subsidiary's managers.

The prototype was completed last summer. On 18 September, the new Zeppelin soared into the sky for the first time, flew over a lake, and landed safely after a short journey in front of 30,000 people - more than half the town's population. Among the crowd stood the frail figure of 93-year-old Josef Braun, wearing his 1937 Hindenburg uniform. He declared himself happy to have witnessed "the Zeppelin airship's new beginning".

There have so far been four test flights; a fifth is planned for the end of next week. If it obtains the necessary safety certificate, production is expected to begin in the autumn. Five, costing DM12.5m each, have been ordered so far. Apart from the shape, the new Zeppelin has little in common, of course, with the first generation. Inflammable hydrogen gas has been replaced with inert helium. The aircraft is powered by three swivelling propellers, which are co-ordinated from the space-age cockpit by sophisticated computer systems. There is no need for ballast because the propellers alone are able to lift the lightweight frame or bring it to land softly. The skeleton is made up of tough aluminium and carbon composite, while the envelope uses synthetic materials not available to the count. "It is 100 per cent safe," Mr Mugler asserts.

The first few are likely to be used for tourism: day trips over the Alps at the leisurely pace of 80mph. Other possible applications include atmospheric research and surveillance, for instance of national borders, fishing zones and pipelines.

The Zeppelin company has no immediate plans to build Hindenburg-sized behemoths, but another German firm is toying with the idea. Cargolifter, a Berlin-based company backed by Siemens and Asea Brown Boveri, unveiled plans this week to build giant airships that could transport massive loads. The prototype of this "floating crane" should be ready by 2000, exactly 100 years after von Zeppelin's pioneering flight. Look out for cigar-shaped objects overhead.