With its massive radial engine, top speed of 300km/h (186mph) and phenomenal rate of climb, the Sovietbuilt Yak-50 aerobatic trainer is still regarded as a world-class stunt plane – even though its design dates back to the 1940s.
The Zeppelin NT (New Technology) airship, on the other hand, does 125km/h (78mph) flat out, and cruises at just 70km/h as it floats gracefully over the shores of Lake Constance, the natural border between Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
Try flying in one and all your speed freak urges for nosedives and loop-the-loops will disappear – this is romance in the air. Although it’ll cost you – €200 for a half-hour trip over Friedrichshafen, and up to a whopping €715 for two hours over Mainau Island, Meersburg, Konstanz and Schaffhausen – there is no better way to see the lake, medieval towns and vistas stretching south towards the picturesque Alpine scenery of Liechtenstein, and the Swiss and Austrian mountains. Don’t take my word for it – with just 12 passengers per flight and the season due to start on 15 March, trips are being booked up well in advance.
Operating company Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (DZR) has been flying its revamped “blimps” for the past 10 years, and started taking passengers back in 2001.
The Zeppelin NT’s design inspiration goes back further than the Yak-50 plane, which was built in the USSR as a trainer for jet pilots, as well as for aerobatics. I spoke with Zeppelin’s chief pilot Fritz Günther, who went from flying Yak-50s in the air force of the former German Democratic Republic to flying airships for Zeppelin (DZR). It was, as he says, a shift to a very different kind of aviation.
“When I was 14 I started flying gliders, then joined the air force and became a jet instructor,” he explains. “After the Berlin Wall came down I had to look for a different job and joined the German company WDL – which has a blimp section – as ground crew. In 1991, I qualified to fly airships and joined Zeppelin as a test pilot. “It’s very different from flying an aeroplane, but it’s not so simple. Things happen much more slowly, so in some ways it’s more like steering a ship than flying a plane.”
The Zeppelin’s big bonus is that it’s quiet, so it can fly at low altitude over major cities without breaking the noise pollution rules.
The Zeppelin NT is just 75m long and carries two pilots as well as its dozen passengers. It’s a mere baby compared with its famous ancestors of the 1930s, the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin, measuring up to 245m long and carrying up to 50 passengers and 61 crew on transatlantic flights between Germany and the US.
You’ll have seen Zeppelins in the movies, too – most recently in The Golden Compass, when the bad guys use one to pursue heroine Lyra and her allies into the icy wastes of Spitzbergen. Then, memorably, there’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy escapes his Nazi “You can fly over cities like London or Munich at 1,000ft and as slowly as you want” Did you know? In 1970, a descendant of the original Count Zeppelin, Countess Eva von Zeppelin, threatened to sue bighaired pomp-rockers Led Zeppelin for illegal use of the family name. pursuers by making off with a transatlantic Zeppelin’s scout plane. There’s even one in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and another in Disney’s The Island at the Top of the World, an inspired piece of hokum, in which an airship travels to the North Pole and discovers a lost colony of Vikings.
Unlike the famous Goodyear blimps that are used for advertising, sports events and by the US Coast Guard to hunt smugglers, the Zeppelin NT has an internal framework that makes it more rigid, faster and agile. Its skeleton, and its outer skin, unlike those of the early airships, are made from aluminium and graphite-reinforced plastic.