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Last Updated: Friday, 10 November 2006, 11:34 GMT
Up, up and away?
Airship by the London Eye

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Seven decades after a series of catastrophes ended the age of the airship, the zeppelin remains an evocative image, and these floating giants could be due to return.

It is among the most iconic images of the 20th Century. The Hindenburg, a monstrous zeppelin, is consumed by fire at Lakehurst, New Jersey. A technological Icarus that flew too close to the sun.

The demise of the Hindenburg marked both the beginning of modern broadcast news and the beginning of the end for the golden age of the airship.

Herbert Morrison's electrifying radio account of the disaster with its plaintive cry of "Oh the humanity" still resonates.

The Hindenburg disaster
What not to think of: Hindenburg

The length of three jumbo jets, the Hindenburg was a truly remarkable piece of engineering. It represented the towering aspiration of trying to tame physics and cross the globe in the air.

Today, nothing on its scale remains. The British-built Spirit of Dubai claims to be the world's largest commercial airship and yet it would fit inside the Hindenburg many times over.

Its pilot, Peter Buckley is heartily sick of the three or four times each day he is asked about its flammable predecessor. No, it is not full of hydrogen. No, it will not crash. Or burn.

For the airship virgin the most alarming thing is take-off. Instead of the long run-up of a fixed wing aircraft, an airship simply points upward at 45 degrees and goes.

Taking off from Fairoaks airport in Surrey, among the buzzing of the light aircraft and helicopters, it is a majestic bumble bee to a cloud of fruit flies.

Swanning around the sky

An airship is nothing like a plane. The turns involve no banking, the passengers are unstressed by excessive G-forces. Everything is calm and smooth. It's all rather like swanning around on a yacht.

Takeoff at the airfield
I used it for scenery. It is picturesque
Philip Pullman

Drifting low over the London Eye, the passengers wave furiously at the airship, which they surely would not do so readily for more mundane forms of air transport.

The ship is about to embark on a journey across Europe and the Middle East acting as a floating billboard for the Palm Jumeirah, Dubai's enormous development in the shape of a palm on land reclaimed from the sea.

The airship will pass over the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, the Parthenon and the Great Pyramids on its way to the Palm. It seems appropriate that one great engineering project is represented by the successor of another, the Hindenburg.

Enduring image

Although the great German zeppelin is gone, its smooth lines remain imprinted on the popular consciousness.

In the recent film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the movie starts with a successor to the Hindenburg docking with the top of the Empire State Building.

While for mainstream commercial purposes, the disasters of the 1930s and the advances in aeroplane technology during World War II spelt the end for airships, their sleek cigar shapes live on in popular culture.

It is a staple of the genre known as "alternative history". Anybody wanting to conjure up the idea of technological cul-de-sacs reborn or to represent the ostentatious luxury of the 1930s goes straight for the airship.

City view with Tower Bridge
On a clear day, you can see...

From recent episodes of Doctor Who to Indiana Jones to the cover of Led Zeppelin's first album, the icon of the airship adds colour.

Author Philip Pullman populates his alternative universe in the His Dark Materials trilogy with airship travel, and CGI representations will feature heavily in the upcoming movie.

"I used it for scenery. It is picturesque. The curious notion of something that is lighter than air is fascinating to begin with.

"There are also associations with glamour and luxury, the idea of sipping champagne as you cross the Atlantic. And it ties into our feelings about the threat that conventional aviation poses to the environment."

But the rebirth of the airship is not just in fiction.

Projects in the UK, Germany, the wider EU and in California are looking at creating airships for a range of tasks from fighting forest fires, to hunting Kalahari diamonds to working as an air-borne cruise liner.

Return of the zeppelin?

But Dick Chadburn, chairman of the Airship Association, does not believe mass transportation or freight-carrying is on the cards for airships anytime soon.

He points to a previous failed project in Germany as evidence that the industry tends to attract visionaries but often suffers financial failure.

View from underneath
More a submarine than a plane

The former engineer and manager at Shell first encountered airships when a plan - ultimately doomed - was hatched within the company to avoid the vicissitudes of Middle Eastern pipeline politics and instead bring gas to Europe in giant blimps.

"The sheer scale of the thing. That attracted me. It appealed to me to think of something that would just float," says Mr Chadburn.

"They are more like ships than aeroplanes. A submarine is the closest thing to an airship.

"They remind you of a benign creature, rather like a slower dolphin or a whale the way they move through the atmosphere. They have a rather mystical appearance, the sort of thing that magicians or fairies might operate."

But one thing might just come to the rescue of the airship concept, the former oil-man believes.

"In a world with very limited fossil fuels or restricted use of fossil fuels you have got to go back to the technology of your great grandfather - no cars, but bicycles. The airships could form part of that."

The Spirit of Dubai boasts that during a week of operations it uses less fuel than a Boeing 767 uses to get from gate to runway.

But the real, glittering possibility for the airship aficionados is that future advances in solar panel technology could render them light enough to plaster over the airship's large surface area and make it an effective means of mass transport.

Until then, the zeppelins of fiction will have to do.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Finally people are again thinking creatively about transportation in ways that will reduce cost to the environment. Looking at the impact of modern air travel makes me think that Herbert Morrison's words are once more relevant. I look forward to more airships in the sky and more design engineers being encouraged to use their imagination.
Andrew Rodger, London, UK

Zeppelins are alive, well and flying around the Bodensee in Southern Germany. They are made by the Zeppelin company in the historic home of the Zeppelin.
Michael, Friedrichshafen Germany

I assume the fuel efficiency you cite includes the energy needed to produce the helium gas?
JP, Cheltenham, UK

Great. The question that comes to my mind is: would it be possible to use airships as long-range mass transport? If I want to cross the Atlantic right now, I can just take a plane and be there in 10 hours, door to door. Large ships would do this in a few days. And an airship? Could this be the answer to the future fuel crisis?
Paul, Glasgow

There must be a market of excessively rich who would want to lounge around the world on one of these things. I don't see the appeal of a Ocean Cruise but I would buy a ticket tomorrow for a graceful air cruise around the world.
Alastair, Reading

I have always been entranced by airships, just the sight off them is calming and the prospect of their being a green transport medium is delightful. Even the pictures are sunny here - at last, some good news.
Steven, London, UK

Impressive that it uses less fuel than a Boeing 767 taxiing to a runway in a week. But does this mean we will have to allow several days to fly from Heathrow to Edinburgh?
Andrew Moreland, Ashby-de la-Zouch

I don't think the airship is going to reach Dubai until January at least.

The fast-paced world of commerce, or the time-challenged traveller is not interested in the slow, lumbering see-it-all pace of these gentle giants. Think leisure; think cruise. This is not for mass transit. This is not for replacing quick travel. This is for a specific interest travel - and I'd pay the extra to take such a trip!
Blick, Texas

To the question "does the fuel efficiency you cite includes the energy needed to produce the helium gas?" the answer is obvious - no, because the helium isn't used up, only lost very slowly over time. But look at the energy required to build a passenger aircraft!
Richard, Newbury, Berks

Glad to see the thing I saw from my office window heading towards London earlier in the week wasn't a UFO after all!
KJ, Surrey

Fuel efficiency sounds great in comparison to a Jumbo but how many passengers is it capable of carrying?
Keith Hilton, Newcastle on Tyne

Crazy waste of time. Very slow, very hard to navigate and will spend more downtime in the hangers with the slightest gust of wind forecast. Been tried and tested over decades it just 'don't' work.
Douglas Reid, Inverness

Forty-six weather balloons (4ft in diameter) that each hold 1,000 litres of helium can lift a hundred pound person into the air. Why not build single person airships? Just type "cluster ballooning" into Google images.
Etienne Andlau, LA, USA

I saw the 'Palm' flying over Wendover on Tuesday at about 1530hrs. Very impressive sight but has a very high noise level from the large fans which drive the ship.
Jeremy Stevenson, Wendover, UK

It'll never take off.
Dennis, Hants, UK

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