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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 October 2007, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Flying from a different perspective
An airship passes the London Eye

Travelling by plane is often seen as the quickest and easiest way for people to get to their destinations abroad, but after his trip in a Zeppelin, Anthony Smith wonders whether the humble airship may provide an alternative.

When was the last time you actually enjoyed flying?

Whether you were off to Paris, Spain or California did you settle into your seat with happiness, apart from the thought of reaching somewhere else?

Or were you cramped, almost from the start?

A passenger fastening a seatbelt on an plane
Restricted space on aircraft is a fact of life for most passengers
Loathing the person in front who jerks his seat back into your lap, and even resenting that lightweight girl who twists her legs into some kind of knot and actually sleeps, dammit, for most of the journey?

Ok, so I am talking about economy class, which also means I am talking about the flights most of us endure.

And queue for. And pay for, plus all the taxes. And have to go on if we wish to get practically anywhere else, such as all those places investigated for this slot by all our own correspondents.

Well, it does not have to be like that.

Flying heyday

Last week I flew in a Zeppelin.

And from the spot, Friedrichshafen by Lake Constance in southern Germany, where the very first Zeppelin ascended back in 1900.

What a flight, with meals in the dining room, cabins to sleep in
We just cruised for 40 minutes, but could open the windows, speak without effort, enjoy watching the world go by 1,000 ft (300m) below, and tell ourselves what it must have been like when far bigger airships were having their heyday. Such as the Graf Zeppelin which went around the world in 1929 in four hops, starting from the US, touching down in Germany, then in Japan, and then in California.

What a flight, with meals in the dining room, cabins to sleep in, and our beautiful planet not six miles down and invisible but usually a mere 1,500 ft (450m) below.

Think of all such trips.

Perhaps down to Rio in one hop, dancing if you felt like it, walking about, and not just to a doll's-house loo.

And then stopping above your destination, watching the sun come up, shouting at the locals and then disembarking without the used-rag feeling which modern aircraft induce but refreshed, invigorated, well-fed, well-slept and delighted to be alive, instead of merely grateful that the long-haul, as they call it, has finally been concluded.

Safer travel

The one thing everyone knows about airships is that the Hindenburg spectacularly caught fire in May 1937 when landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey after a flight from Germany.

Hindenburg airship burst into flames on May 1937
The Hindenburg crashed along with the airship industry in 1937

What is less well known is that two-thirds of those on board, 62 out of the 97 passengers and crew, survived the disaster.

Of course hydrogen catches fire - just as petrol or aviation spirit do given the incentive of an accident, but no airship uses hydrogen these days, however much airlines use their combustible fuel.

Helium is now used as buoyancy for airships, this is sometimes called non-flammable helium as if there is another kind. There is not.

And this light gas is more inert than water. It certainly cannot catch fire.

Leisurely pace

So let us dream a bit.

Imagine taking off in an airship from Heathrow, ascending far more quietly and steeply than everything else, before setting off for, say, Rome at the entrancing height of 1,500ft .

Paris skyline including the Eiffel Tower
Imagine a leisurely airship journey with time to enjoy the city sights
Watch Kent and its orchards go by, then Dover's white cliffs, and the busy English Channel.

Cruise over French chateaux, admire their vineyards, and then repair - as they say - to the dining area.

Meet France's contours towards the south, and then drop down to the famous Cote d'Azur, have a look at all those Anglais on their promenade, perhaps speaking with them through an open window after halting in mid-air with the engines no more than idling.

Then out, lower still, over the Mediterranean - say at 500ft above the waves - until it is time for supper, for a final drink at the bar, and then to bed.

That single accident 70 years ago should not blind us to the fact that airship flying is total joy from beginning to end and in between
Wake up east of Corsica and cruise down Italy's coast, past Elba, past Orbetello and Civitavecchia while you breakfast before touching down at Rome, not with a solid thump plus a flurry of brakes and reverse thrust, but gently and perhaps even unnoticeably as a ground-crew catch hold of the landing lines.

Yes, it has taken 24 hours from London rather than two or three, but the holiday and joy and wonder began at Heathrow instead of when your aircraft's wheels yelp on meeting ground again.

Glory days

On my German flight there were 14 on board, one pilot, one stewardess, and 12 punters.

Yes, it cost 250 euros (174) per person, and London to Rome would be rather more, but what joy would be possible, perhaps only once in a lifetime.

The trip would certainly remind us that flight does not have to be foul, cramped, undignified and an easy way to get a DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis).

It could actually be glorious just as it was in the old days when, starting in 1910, airship passenger flights were frequent - and without mishap - until 27 years later when the Hindenburg caught fire.

That single accident 70 years ago should not blind us to the fact that airship flying is total joy from beginning to end and in between.

Like every other economy sardine, I long for the alternative of actually enjoying a flight.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 13 October, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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