“When you get into the larger aircraft it becomes like a hotel, with dozens of staff supporting the plane based in a galley area down below. You have very comprehensive cooking facilities, and on larger aircraft we have looked at theatres, with spiral staircases and a Steinway grand piano. The limitations for what you can put inside a plane are pretty much the limits of physics, and even money cannot always overcome that. Even so, people are still always trying to push [the limits]. ”
The Zeppelins Are Back
I hear a faint hum as the Zeppelin NT, flying low over Friedrichshafen, Germany, slips ghostlike in and out of my view through the tree line. Now it's in the clear, looking majestic and stately, a true throwback to the 1930s.
"The Zeppelin NT [New Technology] made its first flight in 1997," said Thomas Brandt, CEO of Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei. Since then, he noted, it has carried more than 85,000 passengers from the company's base in Friedrichshafen, where all the original Zeppelins were built. Today, Brandt holds 10,000 reservations for flights, and Zeppelin NTs are flying in Europe, Africa, Japan and San Francisco. In fact, you can buy one for $18 million to $20 million, fitted out to your specs.
The company has managed to retain the romance and gracious travel of the original Zeppelin era, while updating the technology for safe, near-silent, vibration-free flight. The NT, whose framework weighs only about 2,200 pounds, employs nonflammable helium and has an envelope made of tear-proof, multi-laminate fabric. The airship, longer than a 747, is powered by three Lycoming 200-hp piston engines (a proven, well-built American engine for small airplanes) that can rotate on command, via a fly-by-wire control system, for level flight or vertical takeoff and landing. The NT can be held on the ground, engines running, just like a helicopter while passengers embark or disembark. The rear engine's power can be shifted to a second prop, allowing for maneuverability unheard of in an airship. Because of this, the NT requires a minimal three-man ground crew in normal weather, with a portable mast needed only for fueling, docking or storing.
If you're looking for speed, the NT isn't for you; it cruises at a maximum 65 knots (75 mph) for up to about 20 hours. But if you're interested in a leisurely flight down around 2,000 feet, where you can see things you can't see from a jet, then contact the latest NT operator, Airship Ventures. Its new Zeppelin carries up to 12 passengers around San Francisco's Bay Area and the company plans to operate two more, most likely from New York and Florida. For more information, visit www.airship ventures.com. Or if you'll be traveling to Germany, e-mail