In the sky above the Kalahari Desert, near the Jwaneng diamond mine in south central Botswana, one occasionally may spot an airship the length of a football field. The South African company De Beers prospects for diamonds aboard the craft, an $11.5 million Zeppelin made by a subsidiary of the company that Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin founded in 1908.
In the 1930s, passenger-carrying Zeppelins made hundreds of transatlantic flights. But their golden age ended in 1937, when the Hindenburg, filled with flammable hydrogen, burst into flames over Lakehurst, N.J., killing all 35 people aboard. Following World War II, the Zeppelin organization became a supplier of car parts. But in 1997 its Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik subsidiary introduced the NT (Neue Technologie) Zeppelin, the airship model used by De Beers.
Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik builds its airships in Friedrichshafen, Germany, where the first Zeppelin took flight in 1900. It has produced three craft so far. (An airship, as opposed to a blimp, has a solid internal structure and is more maneuverable.) Zeppelin uses the first NT for sightseeing flights over Lake Constance, near its factory. Nippon Airship Corp. purchased the second in 2004 and also uses it for sightseeing, as well as for advertising over Tokyo. In late 2005, De Beers leased the third for its exploration program over the Kalahari. (Before beginning the operation, De Beers representatives met with chiefs in the surrounding areas to brief them about the airship.)
Unlike the original Zeppelins, the NT has propellers on its sides and back, enabling it to take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, and eliminating the need for dozens of rope-toting crew members to assist with these functions. The NT includes modern avionics technology, such as a GPS system, and is filled with helium, which is nonflammable, instead of hydrogen. The airship carries as many as 14 people, can reach a maximum speed of about 77 mph, and requires about 18 months to build.
“Flying an NT is like operating any other aircraft,” says Zeppelin CEO Thomas Brandt. “You need training, certification, and maintenance.” For aspiring Zeppelin pilots, the company offers training on a flight simulator in Friedrichshafen. In addition to a certified pilot, operating a Zeppelin requires five to 10 crew members and a hangar at least 330 feet long and 170 feet wide. You also would need various support vehicles, including a mast truck, which carries a pole that serves as a tether.
On its Zeppelin, De Beers replaced some of the seats with instruments that scan the geology beneath the Earth’s surface. The instruments look for rock formations with lower density, specifically those with features called kimberlite pipes that may contain diamonds. One of those devices originally was developed by the U.S. Navy to help its ships hunt Soviet submarines.
A future owner may not employ his Zeppelin to hunt for rare stones, but he could well use it to squire someone who is wearing them.
Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH