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The renaissance of the zeppelin

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The USS Los Angeles flying over southern New York City in 1930, just before the height of zeppelin popularity for transatlantic flights. Below is the famous picture of the Hindenburg fire in 1937, marking the end of zeppelin popularity. (Both Images: US Navy, public domain)

A team of scientists at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas recently announced that static electricity was responsible for the disaster that destroyed the zeppelin Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J. on May 6, 1937, after ruling out other possible causes. The fiery crash killed 35 of the 97 people on board and one member of the ground crew.

The zeppelin, also known as a rigid airship or dirigible, was named after its inventor, Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin. He was born in 1838 in Konstanz, Prussia, and served in the Prussian army. In 1863 he came to the United States where he worked as a military observer for the Union army in the Civil War. Here he first encountered military balloons, and made his first ascent at Saint Paul, Minnesota.

It took von Zeppelin ten years to develop the dirigible. The first flight took place on July 2, 1900 near Lake Constance in Germany. Called the LZ-1, the zeppelin had an aluminum structure, contained seventeen hydrogen cells, two 15-horsepower internal combustion engines, and had two propellers. It was 420 feet long and 38 feet in diameter. The first flight lasted 17 minutes, reached a height of 1,300 feet and covered almost four miles. Due to technical difficulties, however, von Zeppelin and his five passengers had to land in the lake.

In 1910, the first commercial zeppelin, the "Deutschland," was ready for passenger service. Between 1910 and 1914, over 34,000 passengers were transported safely via zeppelin.

By the time von Zeppelin died in 1917, he had created a fleet of zeppelins at the company he founded, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin ("luftschiffbau" means "building of airships"). Some of the zeppelins were used during World War I for reconnaissance and the bombing of London. When the war ended, the remaining zeppelins were to be delivered to the Allies according to the Treaty of Versailles.

That would have spelled the end of the zeppelins except for a deal struck between the zeppelin company's new leader, Hugo Eckener, and the U.S. government. Eckener offered to build a large zeppelin for the U.S. military. In 1924, he personally delivered the LZ-126 (also known as the ZR3), which was renamed the Los Angeles. The dirigible made over 250 flights, including to the Caribbean and Panama.

When the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles were lifted, von Zeppelin's company once again turned to making passenger dirigibles. In 1929, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II flew around the world in 12 days. This zeppelin ultimately flew over one million miles.

Zeppelins were used for transatlantic flights, and in 1937 were at the height of their popularity. The Hindenburg, built from 1931-1936, was 804 feet long, had a diameter of 135 feet and contained seven million cubic feet of hydrogen in 16 cells. Four engines supplied a top speed of 82 miles per hour. It could carry more than 70 passengers in a luxurious setting that included a library and a lounge with a baby grand piano. The Hindenburg's first regularly scheduled trip from Frankfurt, Germany to Lakehurst, N.J. took 60 hours.  

When the Hindenburg exploded in 1937 just before landing on its final flight, the horror of the event was famously recorded, creating a roll of historical footage never to be forgotten. This singular disaster heralded the end of airships for commercial use, a dry spell that lasted for six decades.

In 1997, a new zeppelin, the NT (\"Neue Technologie\") was built by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH. The zeppelin began commercial flights in 2001.

Four others have been constructed since. This new fleet of zeppelins is smaller, only 246 feet long and 46 feet in diameter. Top speeds are generally around 80 miles per hour, and while standard operating height is around 1,000 feet, they can operate at 8,500 feet. They can hold up to 12 passengers and two crew members. Unlike the old zeppelins, they carry non-flammable noble gas helium instead of flammable hydrogen.

Today they are used primarily for sightseeing excursions, advertising and sporting events. In May 2011, Goodyear announced it would replace three of its blimps with zeppelins. The first Goodyear Zeppelin is scheduled to fly in 2014.