The Hindenburg disaster notwithstanding, the zeppelin was not an ill-conceived airship. Though lumbering and leisurely as a mode of air travel, the Hindenburg’s accommodations included 25 two-berth cabins, a lounge with a baby grand piano, a bar, a dining area that could seat 50, a reading and writing room furnished with Hindenburg stationery, and even a smoking room.
Nonetheless, amenities and style notwithstanding, the Hindenburg’s spectacular demise 65 years ago saddled the zeppelin with a nearly insurmountable stigma. Only with the advent of the Zeppelin-NT has the craft’s public image begun to change.
The Zeppelin-NT is only 246 feet long, 46 feet in diameter, seats 12 passengers and two crew members in its 35-by-61⁄2-foot gondola, and has a range of 559 miles—not long enough for transatlantic flight, but adequate for traveling from Paris to London. Its top speed of roughly 77 mph, while poky compared to that of a jet, is just as fast as the zeppelins of old. The crucial difference between the Zeppelin-NT (NT stands for neutechnik, German for new technology) and the Hindenburg-era zeppelins is the absence of hydrogen. The Zeppelin-NT instead employs nonflammable helium. Also, while the 20th-century zeppelins required as many as 200 people to pull them down to earth, the Zeppelin-NT needs a ground crew of only three. It has the trademark zeppelin skeleton, the rigid internal frame that stabilizes the shape of the envelope (the bag that contains the helium), making it easier to steer and control than other airships.
Since German authorities licensed the Zeppelin-NT to carry passengers in August of last year, signs of a fresh zeppelin mania have begun to appear. The reservation books are full through early 2003 for $300 sightseeing jaunts over the lake where Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin made his initial flight 102 years ago. New pilots, many of them American, are now training at the company’s German facilities, and the FAA is reportedly scrutinizing the new zeppelin. Its manufacturers say they will accept custom orders for delivery in 18 months.
Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, +49.7541.5900.467, www.zeppelin-nt.com