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Where Zeppelins are born

Road Trip 2011: CNET's Daniel Terdiman got a chance to visit the headquarters of Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, the makers of the Zeppelin NT, and to see the partial construction of the next of the new-style airships to emerge from the Friedrichshafen, Germany hangar.

A Zeppelin NT, made by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, rests inside its hangar in Friedrichshafen, Germany. CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited as part of Road Trip 2011.

FRIEDRICHSHAFEN, Germany--The thunder and lightning outside are fierce, so there are no flights today. That's disappointing for anyone who had been scheduled to fly, but for me it's a blessing: I get to see Europe's only Zeppelin NT in its home hangar.

As part of Road Trip 2011 I'd come to this Germany city on Lake Constance to visit the Zeppelin Museum, but as a bonus, I was now headed out for a meeting with Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT), the only company in the world that makes the internal-structure airships. And with buckets of water coming down and lightning crashing, I ran from the Audi A6 TFSI I was road-testing into the company's headquarters building.

This is no ordinary office building. From inside it may look normal, but it's just adjacent to the Zeppelin NT hangar. ZLT builts the NTs and operates its own "airline," Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, which flies in and around Friedrichshafen. And inside the hangar, a huge airships is resting quietly, moored to its mast truck, and not trying to fly passengers through the dramatic storm.

Once upon a time, Zeppelins ruled the world's skies, and the Graf Hindenburg is one of the most famous aircraft in history--and it already was before its infamous fiery crash in 1937. But over time, airplanes began to dominate air travel and Zeppelins disappeared. Until ZLT came along, that is, and resurrected the name--and the aircraft.

Now, ZLT has three of its Zeppelin NTs flying around the world, including one in Silicon Valley that is flown by Airship Ventures, and which takes passengers on breathtaking flights around the Bay Area and beyond.

But here in Friedrichshafen, the hangar is not just for protecting a Zeppelin between flights. This is also where ZLT is building new Zeppelins. Currently, there are parts hanging on the wall of the hangar that are being used for the reconstruction of a Zeppelin NT that formerly flew in Japan. And more famously, ZLT is designing three Zeppelins for Goodyear--which is planning to retire is iconic blimps in favor of zeppelins by 2014. But according to my host here, ZLT publicist Dorit Knorr, the airships will actually be built in Goodyear's Akron, Ohio, facilities. And that's appropriate, because that's where Goodyear made Zeppelins in the 1920s and 1930s.

Having taken a ride over Silicon Valley in the Airship Ventures zeppelin, being able to come here and see where the Zeppelin NT comes from was quite a treat. And if you find yourself in Friedrichshafen any time soon, I would have no problem suggesting that you take some time after you visit the museum and head over to the airport. Hopefully, the weather will be good enough so that you can fly.