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The long, great history of zeppelins

Road Trip 2011: The last one was decommissioned in 1940, but there was a day when Germany's zeppelins were the royalty of the skies. CNET visits the Zeppelin Museum to look at the history of aerial royalty.

The famous explosion of the Hindenburg is just one of many things explored at the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

FRIEDRICHSHAFEN, Germany--It's one of the most famous photographs ever--the Hindenburg exploding on its mast, lives instantly lost, the romance of a modern way of travel forever tainted.

That is probably true nowhere more than this modest city on the northern shore of Lake Constance, a place where zeppelins were invented and the Hindenburg called home.

Of course, that disaster took place in 1937, but here in Friedrichshafen, the memory of that famous airship, and its many German cousins, lives on every day at the Zeppelin Museum, an homage to an age long before jumbo jets, when flying across the Atlantic meant three days, but three luxurious days for sure.

The Zeppelin Museum is part history lesson, part cheerleader. Visitors--about 250,000 a year these days--are treated both to an education in the origins of the zeppelin as an aircraft, and to a bit of a love affair with the Hindenburg and its famous predecessor, the Graf Zeppelin.

I stopped in as part of Road Trip 2011, and it didn't take long before I was taken in by the sheer scale of what once dominated the skies. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'm no stranger to zeppelins. After all, we have one that flies overhead frequently, a modern version from an outfit called Airship Ventures.

But even though that zeppelin is visible from miles away and when close overhead, seems to take over the sky, I now know that it is but a pup compared to the big dog that was the Hindenburg. The new-fangled airship measures about 80 meters long, while the one that exploded onto the front pages of newspapers all over the world came in at 245 meters long. It's hard to fathom the difference in size.

Until you visit the Zeppelin Museum, that is, and you take a look at one of the early exhibits, a simple print on the wall that compares the size of the museum building itself--which was Friedrichshafen's main train station starting in 1928--to the Hindenburg. To say that the building is smaller than the zeppelin is an understatement. It is out and out dwarfed by it; it's just a third the size.

Zeppelins were the invention of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a man whose professional passion was a joke to most, but who had one very important patron: the king of Wurttemberg, who believed in him and who financed what others thought was a folly.

The first of the Zeppelin airships took to the skies in 1900, the Lenbarker Luftfahrzug. In the early days, the vessels were quite different, explained my host, Sabine Ochaba. Rather than having a large, roundish, fairly rigid shape, the first zeppelins looked like a pencil and were built to flex, much like an accordion.

That's because they flew out and in of hangars that floated on water, and could be pushed around violently by wind. This was a real problem in Friedrichshafen, one that Ochaba said might well have been the most dangerous thing zeppelins faced--they could easily be blown into the sides of their hangars and ripped to pieces. Blowing up was a wholly unexpected kind of danger.

Over time, however, the style changed, and zeppelins took on their more familiar shape. All told, the Germans built 119, with a total of 130 planned. They would likely have continued on as a favored means of transportation and, given their military utility, surveillance, were it not for World War II, and the disfavor they earned from one of the Nazi leaders, Hermann Goering.

Luxury ride
The Zeppelin Museum is full of the wide civilian and military history of the airships. But there's no escaping how much the Hindenburg towers over that history.

Early on in any visitor's time at the museum, they encounter their first reminder of just how big the Hindenburg was: a replica subsection that everyone climbs up into for a "tour" of the great vessel. The subsection is but a mere fraction of the full size of the zeppelin.

Before the Hindenburg, Ochaba told me, traveling by zeppelin was more like traveling by train. But with the Hindenburg, the thought process changed, and it was decided that those who were able to pony up the money to fly around this way needed to be treated to a very modern style of conveyance.

Though the ship was gigantic, just 72 passengers were on board for the ship's first flights, each of whom could relax and luxuriate in its lounge, its reading room, or in their fairly spacious individual quarters. The china was classy, the wine list was enviable, and the promise of being able to send a postmarked postcard from the Hindenburg motivated passengers to pay enough for postage to finance the Hindenburg's journeys across the world.

Those postcards have become collector's items, and the museum itself has a nice set of them, each with a postmark that proves that the sender got a chance to tour the skies, zeppelin style.

Airships' archives
Of course, the museum is about far more than just lionizing the Hindenburg. It also has a wide collection of memorabilia and other items from various zeppelins, and others that recall the ships' history. That collection includes an original gondola from the Graf Zeppelin, radios from the Hindenburg and other zeppelins, scale models of a number of civilian and military airships, including two flown by the U.S. Navy, medallions celebrating the various flights around the world, as well as the Hindenburg's ignominious end, and even the Nazis' adoption of the crafts as propaganda tools during the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

Yet it was may well have been because Count von Zeppelin was ambivalent to the ambitions of the Nazis that Goering was so cool to the airships. In 1940, with World War II in full throttle in Europe, Goering ordered the Graf Zeppelin dismantled so that the aluminum could be given over to the manufacture of airplanes for the Third Reich. And that was the end of the German zeppelin program.

But the war, and Germany's subsequent defeat, didn't dim the memory of the flying ships. After all, there was something entirely mysterious and worldly about them. Perhaps it was because they were so big. Maybe it was because they flew so slowly that if they went overhead, you couldn't help but stare at them for minutes on end. Whatever it was, zeppelins had the power to captivate, and that power long survived the actual crafts themselves.

From 1940 through 1997, zeppelins were absent from the sky. There were blimps, of course, but blimps are not zeppelins. It's an entirely different floating machine. But then along came Zeppelin NT, the company that produced the craft flown by Airship Ventures in the United States. As it turns out, the company is based in Friedrichshafen.

Before I left the museum, Ochaba agreed to help me get an appointment the same day with Zeppelin NT. But the weather was rough, and while I might get a tour of the hangar and see the airship on its home field, it was unlikely, she said, that I'd be able to take a flight. It was simply too windy. "In 100 years," Ochaba said, "nothing's changed."