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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Airships

Last week I joined my son and his partner on a little jaunt to Friedrichshafen on the Bodensee. Apart from the stunning setting, the big attraction was the Zeppelin Museum on the harbourside. The first of the photos below shows part of the full size recreation of the passenger saloon of the Hindenburg, which forms a part of the reconstruction of several other sections. One can see the sleeping cabins, dining room and even a part of the kitchen. The crew accommodation, by contrast, was extremely basic. The big attraction of these ships in the 1930s was their speed - two days from Hamburg to New York when the fastest ocean liner took five. 


On display are a couple of the hefty Maybach diesel engines which drove this huge 'lighter than air' superliner through the air. They didn't fly at a great altitude, usually under 5,000 feet, and flew round storms and other disturbances in the atmosphere. What is striking is the vast size of the ship, probably 90% of it occupied by the gas bags that kept it aloft. The re-creation of the accommodation includes sections of the framing which gives the visitor some idea of the construction. The animated displays, models and other information in the museum makes for a fascinating visit.


If one plans ahead, you can book a flight in a modern Zeppelin, the Zeppelin NT. It operates from the local airport and carries 15 passengers on a flight round the Bodensee. There are, we were told, three of these ships flying in Germany at present, and the company is planning expansion and perhaps some larger vessels. The new ships use helium in the gas cells, not hydrogen which used in the earlier ships and the direct cause of the Hindenburg's loss in New York in 1938.

I was interested to read recently that the concept of airships is far from dead. A company in California and even NASA are interested in developing large airships for cargo carrying. The latest design, I was surprised to learn, makes use of a principle I had pondered while watching the 'new' Zeppelin NT pass overhead.

It is now proposed to make an airship which has 'neutral' bouyancy or marginally 'negative' bouyancy when loaded. She would be lifted by jets or propellers which can be angled downward to lift her clear of the landing area and then gradually redirected to provide both lift and forward motion as it gathers speed. Stubby wings or 'lifting surfaces' would keep it stable and aloft as it travelled, once again at low altitude. The expectation is that these ships would be more economical than current cargo carrying aircraft and, because they are not subjected to the stresses of depressurising and repressurising within very short time frames, would be less costly to maintain.

I have to confess that there is something very appealling about travelling in one of these - as long as it isn't filled with hydrogen!


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