Germany builds 'trucks' that fly

reinventing the zeppelin

The German love affair with airships is being revived on a former Soviet Air Force base southeast of Berlin.

More than 60 years after the fiery explosion of the Hindenburg over New Jersey, a group of ambitious entrepreneurs has launched an aeronautic project of gigantic dimensions. They are hoping the mammoth zeppelins will prove an ecologically and economically responsible option to the logistical headache of industrial transportation in places like Europe.

The desolate airfield here has become a gigantic construction site, where workers toil around the clock, erecting the future airship hangar. When the structure is completed this fall, it will cover the area of some eight football fields - just enough room for the assembly of two giant airships at the same time.

Once the CargoLifter airship is operational, it is expected to convey bulky loads weighing up to 175 tons through the air. Currently, the largest cargo plane, the Russian Antonov, can carry 130 tons. Freight delivery by truck can be as slow as 5 m.p.h. at border crossings in Europe, whereas the airships cruise at an average 56 m.p.h.

Given the troubled history and tainted reputation of the zeppelin, its rebirth comes as somewhat of a surprise.

Despite the technical challenges that have dogged the dirigible over the past century, engineers at CargoLifter are remarkably confident of its modern feasibility.

But when the company began selling shares last week, low share prices reflected consumers' wariness of the venture. Nonetheless, companies like Siemens, MAN, Mitsui, and ABB have all shown faith in CargoLifter with substantial investment. The powers-that-be hope their investments in moving massive, unwieldy products by air will prove profitable.

Exactly 100 years ago, a retired Army officer - Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin - flew the first airship over Lake Constance.

"Primarily the military was interested in this technology because they believed - at least until the end of World War I - that airships were the ideal machines to win wars," says Willi Hallmann, author of a forthcoming book on the history of German airships.

During that conflict, the German Army used zeppelins, which could fly higher than the planes of the time, for long-range bombing raids. Only after the war, when Germany had to deliver an airship to the United States as part of war reparations, was the idea of transatlantic passenger service born.

When the giant Hindenburg, the Titanic of airships, went into service in 1936, it was praised as a marvel of technology. The flame-engulfed crash of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg in 1937 seemed to spell the end of the airship. Advertising blimps carried on a vague memory, but subsequent plans to revive them as viable means of transportation never left the ground.

That is, until the reopening of the Zeppelin factory in southern Germany two years ago - and the plans to build the CargoLifter, the largest airship yet. Unlike the Hindenburg, the latter-day zeppelin is held aloft by nonflammable helium.

"An airship can't crash," says Sven Bobrowski of CargoLifter. "Even with a hole of several square yards, it could fly 1,000 [miles]."

The main problems with airships, says Rolf Haupt of the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, are technical considerations. Loading and unloading a CargoLifter will be tricky. When moored on an "anchor mast," the airship could be buffeted by strong winds. And with a cruising altitude of only 6,000 feet, the CargoLifter will have to make detours to avoid most mountain ranges.

The technical details are still being worked out by a team of engineers in Brand. Experiments have been carried out on a prototype airship, one-eighth the size of the planned CargoLifter.

"There is a risk, but we believe that it is technically doable," says Mr. Hallmann, himself a shareholder in the company.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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