For von Zeppelin, Widmann was the right man in the right place. The count had created a foundation to take ownership of his airship factory, and, since shortly after the end of World War II, the town of Friedrichshafen has controlled the foundation. "It was a wonderful flight over Lake Constance and the Alps," says von Zeppelin, the manager of research and design for a manufacturer near Stuttgart, "so I proposed to the mayor to undertake an open-minded investigation to find out whether a renaissance of airships makes sense.
"As an engineer, I told him that it was technically possible to build and fly airships that would carry passengers without risk. In my opinion, airships showed the most promise for tourism and would enable many people to share what he had just experienced in this balloon basket. Widmann suddenly understood." In 1993, a new company, Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, was founded in order to produce a prototype.
The first operational new-generation zeppelin, NT 01 ("NT" for New Technology), built with von Zeppelin’s close involvement, made its debut flight on September 18, 1997, the 69th anniversary of the maiden flight of Graf Zeppelin, LZ127, the airship that inaugurated the world’s first regular transatlantic air service. The NT used inert helium, safer than the flammable hydrogen of the old zeppelins.
Ten years later, Friedrichshafen, as the first NT zeppelin was called, was just completing a two-year contract for DeBeers, exploring for diamonds in Botswana, when a freak whirlwind destroyed it while it was on its mast.
Meanwhile, a second zeppelin, Bodensee (the German name for the country’s Lake Constance), had been built and was sold to a Japanese company, which used it to carry advertising before going bankrupt last year. A third, Baden-Württemberg, flies sightseeing tours in Germany. Number 4 was just beginning construction when Brian Hall decided to take a closer look.
In 2006, while in Cologne at a computer conference, he booked a ride on zeppelin NT 3. "I kind of did it like a secret shopper," he says. "I just went and flew, and I had that ‘Eureka’ moment. I knew this was the business we had to do."
ONE MORNING before flight operations begin, Matthew Kilkerr, Airship Ventures’ technical manager and chief inspector, treats me to a closer look at Eureka and its Moffett nest.
Because of a wartime shortage of steel, Hangar Two was built over a frame of redwood beams. During World War II, it housed blimps, which the United States used for minesweeping, recon, submarine patrol, and other missions. Today, one end of the cavernous, vaulted hangar is reserved for Eureka, with enough space remaining for another five zeppelins of its size.
Among the special equipment needed for Eureka’s care is a 20-foot container housing a helium purifier. "A compressor will draw out helium, which will then go through a membrane which removes the impurities, and the helium will be pumped back in," Kilkerr explains. (Impurities degrade the zeppelin’s lifting ability.)
We walk around the ship. The hull, or envelope, is composed of polyurethane-coated multi-laminate polyester fiber. Inside, Kilkerr says, "from the nose of the ship to the tail are three aluminum longerons—two come along the sides of the airship and one along the top." Attached perpendicular to the longerons are 14 triangular graphite-reinforced plastic frames. The new zeppelins are 246 feet long, and have only four percent of the maximum volume of the old ones.