Zeppelin plans to revive airship Ancestor: A relative of the man who designed the ill-fated Hindenburg and other airships is planning to build a tourist version.

Sun Journal

February 01, 1997|By Mary Williams Walsh | Mary Williams Walsh,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FRIEDRICHSHAFEN, Germany -- Imagine a slow, scenic glide through the skies in an aircraft that burns little fuel, pollutes hardly at all, affords a good view for all on board and makes no bothersome noise or vibrations.

Sixty years ago, before the advent of the jet engine, the rich did travel in this grand style, aboard the giant "silver cigars" )R developed by German aristocrat and army officer Count Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich von Zeppelin.

Count von Zeppelin's zeppelins made fortnightly flights between Friedrichshafen and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and trips every 24 days from Friedrichshafen to New York. But then came World War II: Count Zeppelin's bulbous beauties were melted down to make fighter planes.

A zeppelin is quiet. It's safe. It's relatively clean. Its rigid inner framework should, in theory, give it a maneuverability unmatched by the blimp, which has no internal frame and pays its way by hovering over football stadiums and generating corporate goodwill.

But the zeppelin concept has never really been tried in modern times -- until now.

In this southern German city that owes its prosperity to Count von Zeppelin, a grandnephew, Wolfgang von Zeppelin, is resurrecting his ancestor's invention.

This spring, the hot-air balloon pilot and industrial engineer will begin the arduous process of getting the zeppelin recertified for modern passenger travel.

The new ship will use nonflammable helium gas, rather than the flammable hydrogen that caused one of its famous ancestors, the Hindenburg, to explode while docking in New Jersey on May 6, 1937.

"This is not a nostalgia enterprise," says von Zeppelin, 60, managing director of Zeppelin Luft-schifftechnik, a 4-year-old subsidiary of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, an arm of the industrial empire his ancestor founded in 1908.

"I would not spend my best years on a nostalgia project. I am convinced we can create jobs and new profitable enterprises through airship activities."

If von Zeppelin gets anywhere, his success will bring back the era of sedate, lighter-than-air travel -- not for trans-Atlantic travelers but for day-trippers who want to see Europe from a 1,000-foot vantage point.

The aircraft could be used for projects ranging from ozone research in the Arctic to honey collection in the jungles of Malaysia.

Von Zeppelin and Max Mugler, chairman of Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, are promoting their creation as a quieter, smoother-riding workhorse than its look-alike and rival, the blimp.

The blimp has its engines mounted on the gondola, exposing passengers to noise and vibrations. Thus blimp tourism, says von Zeppelin, is not the heavenly glide that landlubbers might imagine it to be.

Nor do blimps offer the ideal platform for sensitive scientific instruments that he says his zeppelin will, with its engine mounted far back on the tail.

It is drawbacks like these that have kept blimps from catching on as anything but lovable advertising novelties.

Only one company -- American Blimp Corp. of Hillsboro, Ore. -- has found a way to make blimp-building pay in today's economy, and its trick has been to make blimps of a relatively small size. They are just big enough to carry an advertising message, but small enough to be brought to Earth by small and relatively inexpensive ground crews.

These specialized, traveling crews are a big cost factor in blimp-flying. According to Jud Brandreth, American Blimp Corp.'s vice president for marketing, there are only about 20 blimps operating in the world -- and no airships like the zeppelins.

Airship fund

The Friedrichshafen operation, however, has a secret weapon: money that Count von Zeppelin set aside before he died in 1917, explicitly for rigid-airship research.

Count Zeppelin's airship operations suffered a serious setback in 1908, when the fourth model to lumber out of its floating hangar here on Lake Constance ran into engine trouble over Stuttgart, tried to make an emergency landing and was bent hopelessly out of shape after hitting a building.

The subjects of the king of Wurttemberg felt terrible, for they considered the count a local hero. He had taken the king on a pioneering zeppelin ride that year -- a trip whose impact Wolfgang von Zeppelin compares to "Bill Clinton flying to the moon." And he had built a model village for his workers to live in.

The public now rushed to help the beleaguered count. Schoolchildren and even banks donated money. The count used the donations to rebuild his airship business.

Later, he paid the public back: He endowed a foundation, owned and controlled by the city of Friedrichshafen, whose profits were to be returned to the city in the form of hospitals, museums, theaters and day-care centers.

But "the initial purpose of this foundation was to promote airship activities," says von Zeppelin.

After World War II, the count's business empire shifted to building automotive transmissions, under the name ZF Friedrichshafen.

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