HANOVER, Germany -- ZF Friedrichshafen is one of the most technologically minded global automotive suppliers. Best known for transmissions and driveline products, ZF is also a leader in cutting-edge braking systems thanks to its recent acquisition of TRW, and it is about to invest 12 billion euros in electrification and autonomous drive. But the company still has a link to its past through an affiliated enterprise, Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, which builds and operates semi-rigid helium-filled airships.
First, a bit of history. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin took an interest in flight in the 1890s after a career as a diplomat and military officer. His first airship, developed near Friedrichshafen, Germany, flew in 1900, and by 1910 a host of associated companies had developed alongside the Zeppelin works. Among them was ZF Friedrichshafen, which originally developed gears for the airships.
World War II resulted in the near-death of ZF and effectively ended the airship division. In the early 1990s, the airship division was reborn with ZF as a 49 percent shareholder.
The model that resulted is the Zeppelin NT, which first flew in 1997. Its carbon fiber-and-aluminum frame weighs about one ton, although at 75 meters, the NT is about as long as a Boeing 747. Three pivoting 200-hp Lycoming engines provide propulsion and lift when needed. Top speed is 125 kph (78 mph), maximum altitude is 3,000 meters and range is 900 km (559 miles). Unlike the original Zeppelins, which contained combustible hydrogen, the NT's lighter-than-air gas is helium. ZF Friedrichshafen still makes gears for the engines.
Crew members, who undergo 1,000 hours of training, say the NT flies like a cross between a helicopter and a ship. "In terms of how it moves, it is a ship," one told me. "But we can turn on the spot and take off and land vertically."
Two NTs are based in Friedrichshafen, where they are used for flightseeing trips around Lake Constance and other areas of Germany. Goodyear has commissioned three, although the tire company still calls them "blimps." The price of an NT starts at about 16 million euros, but as a crew member pointed out, that does not include pilots, ground crew, maintenance and infrastructure — although the NT can "land" anywhere flat, including a grassy field, so long as there is a ground crew to grab hold of its anchoring ropes.
Pilot training offered
For those seriously intrigued by committed to lighter-than-air flight, Zeppelin offers a training course for any licensed pilot. Interestingly, it is the least-experienced pilots who often fare best, because they do not have ingrained airplane or helicopter habits, crew members said.
On a 90-minute flight from an airfield outside Hanover to Wolfsburg, the Zeppelin cruised at 60 kph at about 300 meters. The 14-seat cabin was noticeably quieter than an airliner — in fact, climate researchers often use the Zeppelin because it is nearly vibration-free. The fields and villages of northern Germany gave way to Volkswagen Group's vast Wolfsburg plant and headquarters.
Zeppelin says the sightseeing flights, at several hundred euros a ticket, cover operating costs — but, the company notes "development and acquisition costs cannot, in all likelihood, be amortized."
The current value of the NT, however, is probably best measured in eyeballs. Zeppelin promotes it as a kind of flying billboard, offering advertisers "a crucial emotional value for the profile of the brand like no other medium."
It's hard to argue after seeing a Zeppelin emblazoned with a huge "ZF" flying over the Hanover commercial vehicle show. But the NT is also a reminder that many of today's automotive giants have their roots in a time before the buzzwords were "electric, autonomous and connected."