Long before airships became novelties associated with sightseeing tours and sporting events, they were vaunted marvels of the sky.
As military assets, they were used as aerial scouts in search of submarines and as ferries for small airplanes. Following World War I, the Treaty of Versailles required Germany to give an airship to the U.S. as war reparations. As commercial vessels, zeppelins pioneered intercontinental air travel, plied transatlantic routes and once circumnavigated the globe.
"Airships were the private jets of their day," said Eckhard Breuer, CEO of Zeppelin NT. "It was like crossing on the Queen Mary. Zeppelins really offered super-exclusive transportation."
Less appreciated in their legacy is their role as groundbreaking transportation-technology platforms — and their ties to one of the world's leading auto suppliers.
Airships designed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the late 1800s and early 1900s contained lightweight aluminum frames and harnessed hydrogen. When noise from early transmissions became unbearable, engineers at his burgeoning company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, replaced the propeller transmissions and long steel shafts with more precise drivetrains.
By August 1915, the transmissions proved so novel that the company spun off its own automotive-minded subsidiary, a company now known as global supplier ZF Friedrichshafen. The convergence is among the first known between the auto and aviation industries, coming a year before BMW's founding as a manufacturer of aircraft engines.
Zeppelins were, of course, slower than fledgling aircraft of the era. But speed was not the lone determinant in the battle for commercial air supremacy that followed over the next three decades. Cargo and passenger capacity, range, operation costs, comfort and safety all mattered.
"Incredible as it sounds now, many experts believed that airplanes wouldn't catch up until the 1980s," said Alexander Rose, historian and author of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World. "It took the interwar aeronautical revolution to change their minds, and even then, zeppelins gave them a good run for their money."
Luftschiffbau Zeppelin built 119 airships, completing its last in 1938.
Modern-day ZF employs 150,000 people around the globe. The team at sibling company Zeppelin NT, the descendant of its namesake's company, is considerably smaller. It rekindled the airship business in 1997. Approximately 100 people work at its headquarters on the shores of Lake Constance in Friedrichshafen, Germany.
Five of the company's airships produced since 1997 are still in operation. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. owns three of them and keeps them in the U.S. Two remain in the city of their birth for tourist and sightseeing purposes. A restaurant near the hangar serves as a viewing terrace for departures and arrivals, and it's owned and operated by Zeppelin NT.
"We make everything from airships to porterhouse steaks," Breuer jokes.
But that belies the complexity of the ongoing operation. Beyond its culinary endeavor, the company designs airships, maintains a supply chain, manages operations and maintenance across the globe and trains pilots.
It is the global center for airship expertise, conducting R&D into a hybrid propulsion system and working on confidential projects.
Zeppelin NT and others believe airships have a future. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin has developed the P-791 technology demonstrator that can access remote worldwide locations. LTA Research and Exploration, a startup funded by Google's Sergey Brin, positions itself as a 21st-century airship company that intends to build at least 15 airships for humanitarian-aid use.
"The primary purpose of airships — helium-filled, new light materials, better aerodynamics — would probably be very-long-range, high-capacity cargo transport at very low cost," Rose said. "I don't think anyone's catching a transatlantic zep any time soon, though one can hope."