As a young boy running through a field sometime in the early fifties I saw my first airship. It flew from a naval air station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the crash site of the Hindenburg. The airships were captured from the Germans and the navy flew them for some reason, probably fun. This one flew low over a hedgerow and totally filled the sky. It glided over the trees and did not seem that it would ever stop. It was more like a silent passing freight train than a flying machine. I was never more impressed with anything before then or since.
Several years ago I found myself taking a drive through the New Jersey Pine Lands and came across Lakehurst. The empty hangars are truly amazing in size. If you ever get a chance to go, do so. It will give you an appreciation for the great airships that once flew there.
BY THIJS WESTERBEEK VAN EERTEN RNL
Airships or Zeppelins are a sustainable form of aviation. At least according to Senator Wolfgang von Zeppelin, grandson of the famous German airship pioneer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.
The Senator - a German term for a high ranking executive - is a firm believer in the environmental benefits of airship transport and has just rounded off a European tour, on which he has been presenting the latest version of his airship to the public. The new model goes by the name of Zeppelin NT, which stands for 'new technology'.
"At present it is not possible for airships to replace airline passenger planes. Far too expensive! But Zeppelins could well have a part to play on holiday flights to destinations such as Majorca, where speed is not as important."
Of course, Von Zeppelin is quick to point out that tourists should see the flight itself as part of the holiday.
"During the flight, passengers can enjoy space, peace and quiet, and good cuisine, to say nothing of the fantastic view. When you look at it that way, who cares if a flight to a holiday island takes a day and a half?"
The vision of the future sketched by Senator Von Zeppelin certainly sounds idyllic, but what about his claim that Zeppelins are fundamentally better for the environment than traditional aircraft? After all, they still have to cover the same distance, while the journey may take up to eight times as long. Surely on balance the level of air pollution must be more or less the same?
"A Zeppelin doesn't use any fuel at all to stay airborne. The gas that makes the whole craft lighter than air takes care of that. This reduces fuel consumption by half, thereby reducing emissions of greenhouse gas CO2 to the same extent.
Secondly, the new generation Zeppelin NT runs on ordinary diesel engines with soot filters, and they cause far less pollution than jet engines that burn kerosene."
But this claim is disputed by Dr Alexander de Haan, a researcher in sustainable technology at Delft University of Technology. In his opinion, airships are not so clean after all.
Dr De Haan put forward this argument at the same symposium on the sustainability of airships at Rotterdam Airport. He was invited to attend as a kind of devil's advocate, the man who was supposed to ensure the requisite level of scientific objectivity.
But in Dr De Haan, Senator Von Zeppelin and the other airship advocates probably got more than they bargained for. Especially when he went on to dismiss the argument that the diesel Zeppelins fly on is relatively clean.
But Wolfgang von Zeppelin is not one to admit defeat so easily. He points out that airships produce much less noise than traditional aircraft and that this too is a form of environmental pollution. And then there is the fact that the airship takes up far less space on the ground. No need for a runway: a humble meadow is enough to facilitate take-off and landing.
In addition, there is also the possibility of enabling people to visit vulnerable areas of natural beauty without the risk of causing any damage. Sightseers can hover above tropical rainforests or glacial lakes without causing any disturbance to the ecosystem.
There is not even the danger of a discarded Coke can falling to the ground, since the cabin is completely closed at all times. For these reasons, Senator Von Zeppelin and his backers believe they are justified in promoting their airships in the name of 'soft' or ecologically sound tourism.