Float in a Zeppelin Where Air Travel Began: Friedrichshafen, Germany

Written by Kevin Pilley
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“Float in a Zeppelin Above The City Where Air Travel Began: Friedrichshafen, South Germany”

There was no taxiing. No waiting for a slot. No engine roar. No ear-popping. There was not even a runway. Our Zeppelin simply floated up into the sky above Friedrichshafen and Lake Constance in South Germany until we reached our cruising altitude of 350 metres.


Once, this was the only way to fly. The ultimate high life and only the very rich could afford to travel the world in the belly of the leviathan. But on a recent trip in a Zeppelin, I could not only see four countries from my elevated position, I could also feel the past and the future of air travel as I drifted with the clouds.

The History

Count Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich von Zeppelin, a cavalry general and diplomat, born in Konstanz in 1838, first flew a Zeppelin in 1900 from pontoons moored off the Bay of Manzell on Lake Constance. This was three years before the famous Wright brothers flew their heavier-than-air plane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Two hundred locals had to hold the aircraft down before take-off and then pull it in on landing, to anchor it.

Having first seen balloons during the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, von Zeppelin bought a design off Croatian inventor David Schwarz and patented it as “a steerable all-cruising train”.

The first lighter-than-air flight lasted eighteen minutes, before being curtailed by “technical difficulties”. The cloth-covered prototype was 128 metres long and powered by Daimler engines.

One hundred and seventeen airships or “dirigibles” eventually came off the production line. The first airships were used for surveillance and bombing raids during the World War I, and Friedrichshafen became the cradle of German industrial history.

In 1928, the hydrogen-fueled airship Graf Zeppelin carried twenty paying passengers on the first trans-Atlantic flight.

A year later, with a crew of thirty-six looking after nine passengers, Graf Zeppelin completed a deluxe 12-day, 30,831-mile world tour via New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. It was the press baron William Randolph Hearst who organized the junket at roughly £28,000 per person. He also paid the modern equivalent  of $2 million for the media rights.

Before being retired in 1937, the Graf Zeppelin completed 590 flights, including a polar expedition and two trips to the Middle East.

View from Zeppelin Over Harbour

Her successor, the ill-fated Hindenburg airship, was no less luxurious, with incomparable facilities. She became the flagship for the opulent “New Germany”.  A return ticket between Frankfurt and Lakehurst, New Jersey on the 242 ton airship, which carried seven million cubic feet of hydrogen, cost $720, with single occupancy of one of her two-berth cabins an extra $1000. Westbound flights took sixty-four hours. Eastbound, fifty-two.

At 245-metres, the earliest airships were longer than three 747s put end-to-end.

The Zeppelin NT finally took to the skies on its maiden flight from Friedrichshafen on September 10, 1997.  In 2001, commercial flight operations began in Friedrichshafen.

Von Zeppelin, the man who invented commercial air travel, died more than one hundred years ago. A statue of him stands beside Lake Constance as a reminder of where it began.

The Flight

Now, between April and November, you too can fly in a modern, helium-lifted Zeppelin that takes off in the place where commercial travel all began—Friedrichshafen, Germany, on the scenic shores of Lake Constance.

Flights are between thirty minutes and two hours, and www.zeppelinflug.de has twelve scenic routes that fly close enough to the ground to make out details of sights such as the Rhine Falls of Schafhausen, Europe’s largest waterfall, and the garden island of Mainau.

We drifted us over Hagnau, Meersburg and  Kreuzbergen. Then to Konstanz and the Rhine inlet.

During my flight, we silently lapped Germany’s largest  lake, Lake Constance, at a speed of  35 knots or 65 kilometres per hour, burning 90 litres of gas in the process. Below we could see the Pfander cablecar at Bregenz, the old Lighthouse and Gunpowder Tour of Lindau, a charming Bavarian town on an island in the lake.

There are now Zeppelin airfields in Bonn, Munich, Moechengladbach, Bad-Homburg and Essen/Mulhein too.

The 14-passenger Zeppelin LZ NO7-101 is 75 metres long and 19.5 metres wide. It can fly for twenty-two hours.The Zeppelin takes off with a static gravity of about 350 kg, so it’s actually heavier than air.

Explained our pilot , “The Zeppelin NT maintains its outer shape with the help of an internal structure, which is like a framework of beams and struts, and the overpressure of the non-flammable helium.”

“The semi-rigid structure of the Zeppelin consists of three longerons made of an aluminum framework and triangular struts made of carbon fiber. The envelope material is fastened to the longerons and is made of a high-strength multilayer laminate. The engines are also mounted on to the internal framework and are far from the gondola. The internal structure of the Zeppelin allows the engines to be attached  at a location where they can operate most efficiently”.

With its three swiveling engines, our Zeppelin operates like a helicopter and only needs a ground crew of three. The giant airship moved silently over the landscape of the “Swabian Sea” (as Lake Constance is called at times), gliding over orchards, hop fields, castles, convents,  marshlands, fishing and sailing boats, windsurfers, and the monastic island and UNESCO World Heritage site of Reichenau.

We came down as gently as we had gone up. There was no holding pattern. No screeching of brakes. No bumps.

Views from our Zeppelin 

The Museum

Once back on the ground, your air travel experience doesn’t need to end.

In the Zeppelin city of Friedrichshafen, the second largest city on the Bodensee, it makes sense you’d find the worthwhile Zeppelin Museum, idyllically set against Lake Constance, where you can discover two collections. The first is the world’s largest collection on airships and the innovation of “lighter than air” travel, including a  reconstruction of the infamous LZ129 Hindenburg, named after the Prime Minister, Paul von Hindenburg.

Museum visitors can walk through this replica and see what passengers experienced aboard the original airship, which made 18 round-trip flights before meeting its deadly demise while landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937.

Altogether, nearly six hundred commercial Zeppelin flights were made covering 1.7 million miles. Some artefacts from these momentous events in civil aviation history can be seen at the museum. You can also see  blueprints, engine parts, original ticket stubs, commemorative coins and stamps, posters, menus, cutlery and crockery used on the VIP flights.

The Zeppelin Museum also houses an impressive art collection, with close to 4000 works of art from significant artists of the region, spanning medieval to modern times.

Meanwhile, the airplane hanger turned Dornier Museum brings 100 exciting years of air and space travel to life, with exhibits that include 12 original aircraft, seven full-scale aerospace exhibits, and two full-scale aircraft replicas: the Dornier Merkur and Dornier Wal.

From Friedrichshafen you can also explore the lakeside towns of Uberlingen, Langenargen with its Moorish Montfort Castle, Wasserburg, and Bad Schachen.

The Zeppelin Cockpit

The Takeway

The last Zeppelin airship produced in Friedrichshafen was the Graf Zeppelin 11,  which entered service in 1938. After the Hindenberg disaster, Zeppelins stopped flying. As of today, fifteen thousand people have gone up in the Zeppelins over the last five years, and giant airships may be on the cusp of a comeback as an eco-friendly means of shipping goods around the globe.

For now though, head to Friedrichshafen and www.zeppelinflug.de for a nostalgic flight into the past and look toward the future.


BeSeeingYou In:  Lake Constance, Germany

Good to know: Skip August if you want to avoid the crowds, but arrive between May and October for the best Zeppelin flying weather

WOW! Factor: Lake Constance borders four countries— Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein and Austria—which means you can experience four cultures in one stay

Tip: The White Fleet connects the small shoreline towns and attractions around the lake


Author bio:  Kevin Pilley

Kevin Pilley
Kevin Pilley is a former professional cricketer and ex-chief staff writer of PUNCH magazine. His work appears worldwide. He has been published in over 800 titles. Allegedly. He lives in Wales and collects roses.

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