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Zeppelins, and Why they Kick Ass

Posted by Michael on September 06, 2007 at 1:19 p.m.
Excerpt: "I don't believe that zeppelins are the end-all be-all of our future transportation needs; however, I think that they can fill a large role in certain areas."
Zeppelins, and Why they Kick Ass

Say it with me now. Zeppelins should be our future.

Okay, you don't believe me. I respect that, even though you're wrong. It comes down to this: we need new, different and more creative ways of traveling. Don't believe me? When is the last time you went on a plane? Was it a good experience? I'm not talking about compared to other times you've done that, I mean in absolute terms. No, it wasn't. Then you get onto the whole discussion of being eco-friendly and all that jazz and suddenly being crammed into a tiny aluminum tube and treated like an animal for however long starts to sound less and less appealing. Especially when you take into account the horrendous mess you have to go through just getting on the plane in the first place.

Here are the benefits a zeppelin can provide:

  • More leisurely/luxurious ride

  • Vastly more fuel efficient/less pollution

  • Looks TOTALLY AWESOME (okay, my prejudice)

  • Potentially able to lift an extreme amount in and out of dangerous/difficult areas


Zeppelins are never going to be as fast as jets. If you need to get across country in a matter of hours, you're probably going to need to take something else. Current efficient zeppelins cruise at about 50mph. At a proper cruising altitude, that means it will take about 54 hours to get from Boston to San Francisco, depending on the winds (hat tip to this blog post for the calculations and a good writeup on Zeppelin NT). That's fairly discouraging. Of course, that's faster than taking a train, but still. I like to think that with advances in technology we can improve that.

In spite of the slow speeds, there is the luxury of much more space.

A description of the Hindenburg (courtesy of Wikipedia):

To reduce drag, the passenger rooms were contained entirely within the hull, rather than in the gondola as on the Graf Zeppelin. The interior furnishings of the Hindenburg were designed by Professor Fritz August Breuhaus, whose design experience included Pullman coaches, ocean liners, and warships of the German Navy.[4] The upper A Deck contained small passenger quarters in the middle flanked by large public rooms: a dining room to port and a lounge and writing room to starboard. Paintings on the walls of the dining room portrayed the Graf Zeppelin's trips to South America. A stylized world map covered the wall of the lounge. Long slanted windows ran the length of both decks. The passengers were expected to spend most of their time in the public areas rather than their cramped cabins.[5] The lower B Deck contained washrooms, a mess hall for the crew, and a smoking lounge. Recalled Harold G. Dick, an American representative from the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation, "The only entrance to the smoking room, which was pressurized to prevent the admission of any leaking hydrogen, was via the bar, which had a swivelling air-lock door, and all departing passengers were scrutinized by the bar steward to make sure they were not carrying out a lighted cigarette or pipe."

Now, keep in mind that the Hindenburg was built in 1935. I think we can do better now. And it's damn certain to beat out a plane.

Not Polluting

Advances in solar technology are made every day. Within a few years it is not unreasonable to imagine a cost-efficient outer hull layered with solar cells. Recent advances in solar cells have provided us with ones that work even in indirect light as well as flexible rolls of cells. When the zeppelin is flying above the cloud cover, that could easily provide a tremendous amount of power. Remember: the Hindenburg was "245 m (804 ft) long and 41 m (135 ft) in diameter, longer than three Boeing 747s placed end-to-end" (again, thanks wikipedia). That's a lot of solar cells.

The power consumption of a zeppelin is also much less than that of a commercial jet; a zeppelin is naturally buoyant and requires no active energy to keep it in the air, unlike a jet.

Looks Awesome

Admit it. They do.

Lifting capabilities

In addition to passenger duties, zeppelins are already being used in certain parts of the world to provide tremendous lifting power in dangerous or inaccessible situations. This is mainly being done in Africa. Currently, helicopters are used for logging in remote forest areas; perhaps zeppelins would be more efficient at this.

What we need are zeppelins. To be specific, what we need are modern, advanced, badass zeppelins. What we have today isn't going to cut it.

Modern zeppelins are held aloft by helium, an inert gas that isn't combustible. The Hindenburg, the most famous zeppelin disaster, was powered by hydrogen since the German manufacturer was unable to secure the helium required to lift it after the United States posed an embargo on it following World War II. It was also soaked in jet fuel. Not, uh, the best way to prevent a catastrophe (fun tip: of the 36 passengers and 61 crew, only 13 passengers and 22 crew died) In other words, we don't have to worry about modern zeppelins exploding.

I don't believe that zeppelins are the end-all be-all of our future transportation needs; however, I think that they can fill a large role in certain areas.

I know that I'm tired of TSA and the extreme hassle and cost of traveling. I would much rather take a more leisurely approach, especially if it provided me with the ability to get work done with an efficient business center as well as potentially socialize with others. Zeppelins could be like flying hotels. (Imagine holding a convention on a zeppelin)

So, are you with me yet? Who wants a zeppelin?

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  • And let's not forget the ever-impressive badassness that was present in the last Indiana Jones film, wherein the Dr. Jonses ride the zeppelin in an attempt to escape Germany.

    But there was that little Nazi problem, however, in Indiana Jones. That shouldn't be a problem today.

    Maybe we can look at a zeppelin commuter line from suburb to suburb, as it would be pretty silly within the city. Or maybe we can designate a pick-up point and shuttle people back and forth to and from Ikea.

    Posted by: bdupree on Thursday, September 06 at 02:43 PM
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    • It's really a nice idea when thinking about a trip from, say, Portland to Vancouver or San Francisco. It's faster than a train, and if you're not stuck on the idea that you have to get there ASAP it would be a wonderful alternative.

      I know this isn't really an option for many business commuters, but you have to think of it in terms of working while traveling - you wouldn't be sitting in a seat for hours on end, you would be working, socializing, taking in the breathtaking view, whatever.

      Of course, maybe this doesn't fit in with a corporate working man view, and I should instead be trying to sell this on the 'better version of a luxury cruise' idea or something.

      Posted by Michael on Thursday, September 06 at 02:49 PM
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      • Now that's appealing to me. Back in college, I took a train trip from L.A. to Portland. Beyond the view, it was a trying experience: it was cramped, exhaustingly long, and we got stuck behind every little freight rail from here to Salem.

        Now with a zeppelin all that can change. There are infinitely many more sky routes than train tracks, so if there's another zeppelin in the way, I can go around it! At the same time, I imagine a luxurious ride like you say, with cocktails, fancy suits (those would just get frumpy on a train), and maybe even activities.

        As long as I can have a martini and not be shoved liked sardines into my seat, I'll take it-- although would we be able to make it affordable for the masses? I'm not exactly Uncle Moneybags, here...

        Posted by Ben on Thursday, September 06 at 02:56 PM
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        • On cost: Well, like Mihai Pătraşcu calculated at http://infoweekly.blogspot.com/2007/08/led-zeppelin.html that fuel alone would make a modern Zeppelin NT (which is CERTAINLY not what we would be talking about) ticket from Boston to San Francisco $533/person. It would certainly be more than that, but, there it is. However, this is on a zeppelin that goes 50mph and has a passenger compliment of 6. Not exactly what we're thinking of. A solar hull would dramatically reduce cost, I would imagine. The main costs, aside from building the thing in the first place, would come from the crew - the Hindenburg had a massive crew, as you need when you're also operating what is essentially a floating hotel. I can easily see how it can be made affordable, though.

          High speed rail is another great option and one that I hope America starts to utilize. Especially if they put wifi on the trains. mmm.

          Posted by Michael on Thursday, September 06 at 03:32 PM
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          • $533 per person? Who's going to pay more to take far longer to get somewhere? We already have this service - it's called Amtrak.

            Posted by: James on Thursday, September 06 at 03:39 PM
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            • You're absolutely right. As it stands, this is completely unacceptable, especially since (as Mihai points out) airport taxes, etc. account for more than half the cost.

              But on his post, he does some interesting calculations.

              For instance, if we carry 27 times more people, the price per person will drop by roughly 3 (yes, yes, I'm ignoring the pilot). Note that 162 passengers is really a lot for a BOS->SFO flight today; US airlines learned that US travellers are very spoiled, and the recipe for success is frequent small flights.

              In any case, this means you should pay on the order of $178 USD / person. That is not bad, but it's about what you're paying today for a regular airline, with sevices included. This means the zeppelin is not actually saving gas, and has the same oil bottleneck.

              Now, remember, this is with current technology with basically one weird company out there. There's very little innovation going on. My hope is that we have most of the power provided by solar, which will drive the cost way down, and maybe even have different infrastructure so we don't have to deal with bullshit airport taxes that are simply absurd.

              Two things, though.

              One, I'm rooting for the zeppelins of the future, not the zeppelins of today or 1934. I'm banking on the zeppelins of the future being much more efficient, larger, and awesome.

              Two, I think you're looking at zeppelins as an alternative to jets. I think they're an alternative only in certain situations. I definitely don't seem them taking up the bulk of traffic in the country.

              I think you're just a zeppelinophobe.

              Posted by Michael on Thursday, September 06 at 03:55 PM
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              • I'd certainly pay for an air hotel- it beats Amtrak, as we all agree.

                But I'm also wary of the speed factor. But, you know what, maybe it doesn't matter. Heck, isn't that why I'm moving back to Portland from L.A.? This city, bless its heart, is far too hectic and frenetic for my tastes, so I decided to go to a place where things move slightly slower but are far more interesting.

                Maybe we can consider the zeppelin Portland to the crowded jet's L.A.? In that case, what's Amtrak?

                Posted by Ben on Thursday, September 06 at 04:01 PM
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              • As a part of my senior design course at Cal Poly, back in the late 1980s, we designed a lighter than air system for highly cost efficient transportation around California; up the Central Valley, and around the LA basin, mostly.

                Part of that study was a train, of course, and heavier than air planes that would drop passengers (and cargo) off onto a Zeppelin-ish craft (called an LTAC, as I recalled) in flight at speeds up to 200 mph. It burned alcohol (ethanol), had ten very conventional turboshaft engines, and stayed aloft on the rejected heat from those same engines. It was, essentially, a hot-air zeppelin with a 400 foot wingspan deltoid pumpkin seed.

                The one I worked on could carry up to a thousand passengers and a thousand tons of cargo on a very broad, mall-like deck with multiple levels. No staterooms, but no one was expected to spend the night, either.

                And that was back in the glory days of $20/bbl oil.

                Posted by: Terry Drinkard on Monday, October 15 at 04:02 PM
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                • Very interesting... what happened to it? Or was it just a designing project?

                  Posted by Michael on Tuesday, October 16 at 09:56 AM
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                  • That design was one of several presented over a multi-year investigation of the requirements and potential solutions. I thought the air-to-train stuff pretty sporty, really, but do-able.

                    So far as I'm aware, no one has pursued this sort of thing except the academics. It would take a lot of cash to build even one, and the facilities required would be huge. Still, it would carry a lot of people and a lot of cargo at exceptionally low cost.

                    Posted by: Terry on Tuesday, October 16 at 02:32 PM
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                    • That does seem to be one problem with any new type of vehicle, a lack of infrastructure. I was looking into how one becomes trained to fly a blimp and it seems like the individual companies just take people and spend a few years training them - there's no blimp/zeppelin school or anything. HUGE disappointment.

                      The idea your team worked on is very interesting. Do you have any comments on some of the modern ideas that are being proposed?

                      Posted by Michael on Tuesday, October 16 at 06:50 PM
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                      • My guess is that the problem with zeppelin-based transportation systems is economic productivity. This is the thing that heavy jet transports excel at. Fundamentally, a jet creates available seat miles (and therefore, revenue seat miles) at an unprecedented rate. Even obscenely high acquisition and fuel costs can be rapidly covered because the airplane can fly many legs per day. Southwest Airlines, as an extreme example, flies their 737s seven or eight legs per day, on AVERAGE.

                        A zeppelin, even with its lower cost of acquisition (largely guesswork on my part), and much lower per seat mile fuel costs, will still have terrible economic productivity. In essence, it may have to charge more money per ticket than the same ride on a jet. The crew costs will probably be equivalent as they are driven by regulatory requirements. I have no idea what a zeppelin's maintenance costs might look like, but the jet may well have another advantage in that there is an existing industry that does nothing but maintain, repair, and overhaul heavy jets. Their costs are quite low with respect to the amount of money that a jet makes.

                        Zeppelin travel as currently envisioned appears to be luxury travel only. I.e., not necessarily for the rich only, but for those for whom the amount of time required is not a problem, or is perhaps, the intent of the trip. Myself, I'd love to be able to board a zeppelin and take a long trip across country, enjoying the view, but I'm not schedule driven, unlike most people, and I can afford it.

                        If a young zeppelin entrepreneur were so foolish as to ask my opinion of how to start up a zeppelin airline company, I would suggest they look at the luxury and vacation market. Not the sort of vacation where you need to get to Vegas as fast as possible because the money is burning a hole in your pocket, but rather one where the flight itself is a central part of the experience, rather like ocean cruises. Generate public acceptance, begin to develop the infrastructure that will be required, and create a financial track record of success. Continued...

                        Posted by: Terry on Tuesday, October 16 at 07:51 PM
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                      • The business model will drive the configuration of the zeppelin. Cargo haulers need different things than do passenger carriers. For instance, cargo guys have very low cycles on their aircraft because they only fly them once a day, on average. Therefore, to cover their costs, most cargo carriers need very very cheap airframes that can be converted to cargo. Only a tiny fraction of cargo haulers buy new freighters.

                        As for flight schools, you'll need certified instructors, a system that certifies them and maintains their currency, as well as a large body of students flowing through the system to maintain the school and the mechanisms that keep the school safe and legally compliant. It took decades to create a useful and safe system of infrastructure for jets; it will take at least as long for zeppelins because they will not generate the amount of cash that jets do. Yes, it does all come down to the grubby dollars, I'm afraid.

                        That said, another major hurdle will be generating a "proven" record of safe operations, safe equipment, and safe people. Dr. John Downer of Cornell wrote a lovely explanation of all this last year. Regulations follow tombstones, unfortunately, and we as a society simply do not have the necessary experience to effectively regulate zeppelins at this point. We require more experience, which means more operations to create a baseline of data. It isn't that difficult to do; it's just expensive and time consuming. Don't feel bad, Richard Branson is having the same issues starting up Virgin Galactic.

                        Posted by: Terry on Wednesday, October 17 at 09:42 AM
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  • Create a Cruise Ship Zeppelin first, the old zep ads had the whole sightseeing thing sorted. A cruise ship not limited by seaports; I wouldn't mind a summer vacation floating around the capitals of europe (and a spin around the Pyramids!)

    Posted by: Karl on Thursday, November 01 at 10:35 PM
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