Russia was not the birthplace of the zeppelin, although it may mark the site of its renaissance in the modern age. It was July of 1900 in Germany, when Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, unveiled the world’s first zeppelin before a crowd of disbelieving locals from the town of Friedrichshafen. Although air ships had been flown for almost 50 years, this was the very first ridged airship. (This zeppelin was the very first to have a skeleton built around bags of lifting gas.)
The huge floating cigar-shaped building anchored on Lake Bodensee had been an endless source of ridicule until that fateful summer afternoon. Two years of effort, resources and time spent with a small staff of engineers culminated in the airship named the LZ1. L stood for “luft” which is the German word for air, and Z for the name of its inventor. The first flight of the “crazy count’s” flying machine was only impressive for a few seconds, as almost as soon as the 416-foot long ship made its virgin climb into the air, trouble erupted. Engines weren’t working properly and the frame had been bent in several places. Alas, after only 18 minutes, the ship was once again on the water and towed back to its holding shed.
A second run a few months later would prove more successful, and a trend had begun that spread to other parts of the world. The very first Russian zeppelin blasted off from the then capital, St. Petersburg, in 1908. It was the realized dream of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian pioneer of space theory. He correctly predicted that given the right technology, airships with hard shells could be highly reliable and maneuverable. Tsiolkovsky theorized many aspects of space travel and rocket propulsion. Considered the father of human spaceflight, in 1895 he was actually the first man to conceive the concept of the space elevator. His inspiration was the newly-constructed Eiffel Tower in Paris. Deaf as the result of a childhood illness, he was rejected from public schools and was largely self-taught. He firmly believed that the colonization of space would lead to the perfection of the human race.
The Eiffel Tower inspired Tsiolkovsky’s far reaching desire to put a "celestial castle" at the end of a spindle shaped cable, with the "castle" orbiting the earth in such as fashion that the castle would remain over the same spot on the earth. The tower would be built from the ground to an altitude of 35,800 kilometers (22,300 miles) and an elevator would ride up the cable to the castle’s top. Building from the ground up, however, proved to be an impossible task.
Tsiolkovsky delved into theories of heavier-than-air flying machines at the same time the Wright Brothers were experimenting with similar ideas on the other side of the world. He never built any practical models, and because his ideas were little known outside Imperial Russia, the field lagged until German and other scientists independently came to the same conclusions decades later. In 1937, the German zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg, met a fiery death in Lakehurst, New Jersey ,following a hydrogen explosion in which its skin caught fire, forcing Germany to disband its zeppelin plans for the next year or so.
When the Hindenburg was built in 1936, zeppelins were enjoying a wave of popularity as a quicker and less expensive way to travel long distances than ocean liners provided. The Hindenburg was 245 meters long, (804 feet) had a maximum diameter of 41 meters (135 feet), and could hold more than 70 passengers in luxurious comfort. It boasted of a dining room, library, lounge with a grand piano, and large windows. The accident killed 35 of the 97 people on board and one member of the ground crew. Its destruction, which was witnessed by horrified spectators on the ground, marked the end of the commercial use of airships.
Today, the dreams of Tsiolkovsky are about to be realized by a Russian company known as RosAeroSistemy. After successfully building scaled-down zeppelins, this company has embarked on a project called the DT-N1 (Dirizhabl (zeppelin) Tsiolkovsky -#1). While not the first all-metal zeppelin built in Russia, it will be the most formidable. Back in the 1930s, engineers created two working models of 1,000 and 3,000 cubic meters respectively, but there were many failures with the equipment.
The current project concerns the building of an airship that is 268 meters long ( 880 feet) and 64 meters wide (210 feet). It is capable of carrying a 180-ton cargo and its maximum speed will be 179 km per hour (about 111 mph). The cruising speed maximum is expected to reach 120 km/h (about 75 mph) and it will have a range of 5,000km (3,000 miles). Like all modern zeppelins, this one will have state-of-the-art mechanics and computer-controlled engines. The DT-N1’s nine diesel engines will both propel and balance the airship.
The new zeppelin will offer much to the world of space travel and aircraft. It can be used in a myriad of ways, including the transport of heavy and off-gauge loads, which are either impossible or too expensive to move by ordinary space craft. Zeppelin production is also considerably cheaper than airplane construction and “greener” as well, due to the fact that airships do not require the expensive infrastructure that most aircraft demand. The benefits of widespread airship use include: shorter delivery periods, improved cargo safety and a reduction in shipping and warehouse costs.
Experts agree that helicopters are incapable of carrying loads of more than 50 tons, while a zeppelin can in theory transport 1,000 tons and maybe even more. There are 17 experimental, passenger and touring zeppelins registered in Russia. Some have already broken international records. In 2006, for example, the Russian airship, Polyarny gus’, (Polar goose) soared more than 8,000 meters (about 26,200 feet), beating an altitude record set by German ballooners back in 1917.
At the moment, 14 countries are engaged in the research of zeppelins and more than a dozen companies around the world are producing helium airships. The diamond company, De Beers, uses a helium-filled airship for geological exploration, to search for diamonds in Botswana and is the only one in the world used for such a purpose.
Russia leads the way in this “zeppelin renaissance.” Kudos to those who seek to resurrect the airship’s noble past and rekindle the fires of mankind’s unquenchable desire to conquer the skies.
Here’s to the zeppelin. Long may it live ( and fly).