This Giant Balloon May Become the Way We Explore the Skies - OZY | A Modern Media Company

This Giant Balloon May Become the Way We Explore the Skies

This Giant Balloon May Become the Way We Explore the Skies

By Jack Doyle

SourceRyan Pile/Corbis


Because aviation is due for a 21st-century update, and zeppelins can do it in style.

By Jack Doyle

Picture the scene: A massive balloon resembling a prehistoric whale slips out of the fog, looming over the majestic Manhattan skyline. 

It might sound like something out of a fantastical steampunk film, but fewer than 100 years ago, this image wouldn’t have been out of place in the popular imagination. And plans are afoot to bring it all back.

Zeppelins — giant, rigid airships powered by engines — appeared to be the future of transportation in the early 20th century. 

Goodyear is now leading the way in breathing life back into the giant airships as feasible ways to fly.

The great dirigibles left their mark on science fiction, warfare and even how we shaped our cities. The Empire State Building’s spire, for example, was originally intended as a zeppelin mooring. While airplanes were still in their infancy, nations used zeppelins to wreak havoc in World War I, traverse oceans and spread propaganda and advertisements to millions. 

So what happened to them? The Hindenburg.

Built in 1936, the aerial behemoth was the pride of Germany’s airship achievements and made luxury flights around the world. A one-way ticket cost $400 — $7,000 today — and a transatlantic flight took three to four days. The Nazis also used it as a floating billboard — pictures still exist of the swastika-bedecked airship hovering over Manhattan and Washington, D.C. But on May 6, 1937, the hydrogen-filled zeppelin burst into flames as it docked in New Jersey, killing 36 people. 

The tragedy quickly put an end to further developments — until now. 

Goodyear caused a stir three years ago when it announced that the company’s trademark blimp would be phased out. So instead, they decided to bring back zeppelins (though they’re still calling them blimps). 

But these new airships won’t be full of hydrogen like the ill-fated Hindenburg, but rather helium, a safer alternative that was considered too expensive and inaccessible back in the day. In the wake of the Hindenburg disaster, however, modern blimps have chosen the safer, non-flammable route. And today’s zeppelins are also more fuel efficient, making them the modern era’s first ”green aviation” machines. 

BW image of Hindenburg on land

The Hindenburg dirigible attempting to land at Lakehurst, N.J.

Source NY Daily News/Getty

The Zeppelin company — the same German company that designed zeppelins in the late 1800s, built the Hindenburg and was re-established in 1993 — has started producing a new class of airship for the 21st century. Zeppelin NTs (“New Technology”) cruise at the leisurely rate of about 70 mph, fly just over 1,000 feet off the ground and measure a whopping 246 feet long. They have internal skeletons, unlike yesteryear’s blimps, which allow them to carry up to 7,000 more pounds in cargo.

Renewing their 70-year-old partnership with Zeppelin, Goodyear is taking the lead in breathing life back into giant airships as feasible ways to fly. They’ve trained 10 new pilots, the first people to fly zeppelins in decades, and have invited the public to participate in naming contests and sign up for free rides in the next-generation fleet. 

For now, today’s zeppelins are mostly used to attract tourists, sell advertisements or conduct scientific research. Zeppelin tourism, still largely based in Germany, attracts thousands every year for scenic aerial views, despite the steep price tag of about $350. But with Goodyear leading the way, others are starting to wonder if zeppelins might have an even bigger future in the skies.

inside cockpit during the day

The avionics of Goodyear’s new $20 million airship, code-named the Zeppelin NT.

Aeroscraft, a private American aviation company, just got a $3 million grant from the U.S. government to construct giant silver airships that will be able to carry more than 66 tons of goods. By the time the planned 24-ship fleet comes together, the Aeroscraft zeppelins could revolutionize transport, and U.S. government and military contractors won’t be the only ones to benefit. 

Because they land and take off vertically, like a helicopter, Aeroscraft zeppelins could bring significant quantities of food and other emergency supplies to isolated areas where jets can’t reach. This could make responding to natural disasters, war zones and food crises faster and more efficient.

We are able to prove that this technology works.

Aeroscraft has conducted initial float tests with a prototype of the airship, proving that its new buoyancy system works, and it has received a Federal Aviation Administration certificate for airworthiness. More tests will follow, but the team is excited by the prospect of forging a new path for cargo transport.

“We are able to prove that this technology works,” says Sadia Ashraf, of Worldwide Aeros, the company that built the prototype. 

Zeppelins may not travel at jet speed, but they use less fuel than helicopters and carry far more cargo, making them a great alternative to shipping and airplanes.

The new models are expected to be up and running by next year, and if the trend takes off, demand for zeppelins could lead to increased supply and lower costs, making a zeppelin commute or vacation trip accessible to everyone.

One thing’s for sure: The thrill and romance of zeppelins still have the power to inspire, prompting today’s innovators to transform a symbol of luxury and awe into a bold new way for people to explore the skies.

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