Forget the Hindenburg: What I learned on board a zeppelin


Eden Prairie, Minnesota, is as good a place as any to learn a hard truth.

This suburb of Minneapolis is largely indistinguishable from the other suburbs that border it ... except that Eden Prairie has an airport. Last weekend, that airport played host to an air show, which featured your typical air show goodies—World War II bombers, modern military jets, stunt pilots, etc. But the Eden Prairie Air Expo also had something very special ... the Eureka, one of only three passenger zeppelins operating in the entire world.

Which brings me to the hard truth. The Hindenburg disaster often gets saddled with the blame for ending the era of airships. Plenty of sci-fi stories have started with the premise, "What if the Hindenburg disaster never happened?" and ended up assuming that we'd all be flying around in totally awesome zeppelins instead of boring old airplanes.

Unfortunately, the real circumstances that led to the demise of the airship appear to be a bit more complicated. If there's one thing I learned from getting up close and personal with a zeppelin, it's this: There are some very good reasons why the airplane won the fight for humanity's hearts and ticket fees. Reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the Hindenburg.

This is not to say that the Eureka isn't pretty neat.

Perched in a field near the end of the airport's main runway, it was easily the most noticeable thing at the air show. The Eureka is big. Bigger than a 747. It fills your field of vision in that sort of way that inspires you to turn your steering wheel towards it, even if there are ditches, and buildings, and several airplanes between here and there. That's pretty cool.

It also has some practical functions. Ground crewman David Fritz told me that the Eureka has been used for field research, helping scientists track pods of killer whales off the coast of Seattle. That's a job helicopters can perform as well, but the Eureka does it a little better—it's able to hover over the pods for longer periods of time while using a smaller amount of fuel, and it also has a bigger payload.

Zeppelins like the Eureka also have some big advantages over the common blimp. You're probably aware of the basic difference: Zeppelins have a rigid frame that the "balloon" is stretched around, and blimps don't. But that difference matters. Zeppelins can carry more weight, so their gondolas can be larger. More importantly, they're also quieter to ride in. Because the gondola is the only solid surface on a blimp, the ship's engines and propellers must be mounted directly to that. On the Eureka, the propellers are mounted above the gondola, fixed to the rigid frame. If a blimp is like riding in a motor boat, a zeppelin is like being on a cruise ship. Advantage: Zeppelin.


But what if you compare the zeppelin to an airplane? This is where things go downhill. We don't live in an airship-less world because the Hindenburg turned everybody into fun-haters. We travel via airplane because airplanes have some distinct advantages in cost, speed, and conditions of use.

I'll start with that last one. When I planned this story, I was hoping to be able to tell you about "My Ride in a Zeppelin." Unfortunately, that didn't work out. I was only able to climb into the gondola while the Eureka was parked. Why? The weather.

July 15 was pretty stormy in Minneapolis. It rained on and off throughout the day. There were a couple of brief periods of thunderstorms, and the wind was gusty. It's the wind that turned out to be the most important factor in grounding my zeppelin adventure. "An airship is like a big sail," said Corky Belanger, one of the Eureka's pilots. "We've got a square acre of fabric."

That "sail" means landings, loadings, and takeoffs are tricky on windy days. On a landing, Belanger said, the wind could catch the zeppelin and push it sideways, like a beach ball skittering across the ground. The wind also moves the ship while it's tethered down. The Eureka is 246 feet long. Not coincidentally, that's also the radius of the mooring circle that the ship forms as wind slowly pushes it around on it's little back wheel. All of that meant that the Eureka had to sit on the ground while planes were safely taking off and landing on the runway behind her.


Wind can also make a difference when a zeppelin is in flight. The Eureka has a top speed of 78 mph. But it usually flies a lot slower, crewman Fritz said, closer to 45 mph. Meet a 50 mph headwind, and suddenly your zeppelin is going nowhere fast.

Speed is, I think, a key to understanding why airplanes overtook zeppelins as the favored mode of air travel. "When we go form one airport to another, [the support vehicles] can keep up with the zeppelin on the road," Fritz said.

That's why the Eureka is popular as a tourist attraction, selling sightseeing flights for a few hundred dollars an hour, but unlikely to make inroads in the field of real transportation. Zeppelins are cool and all, but if you really need to get from Point A to Point B, you'll either do it faster in a plane, or do it cheaper in a car.


Finally, there's the issue of expense. I'm not talking about fuel, here. Zeppelins actually use less of that than planes do. Instead, it's the support staff that starts to get unwieldy. When the Eureka travels, Fritz told me, it travels with 13 ground crew members, 4 mechanics, and 4 pilots, plus guest service personnel. Remember, that's for a ship that seats 12. (The crewmen, mechanics and backup pilots travel by car.) A 12-seater airplane, in contrast, really only needs to take a couple of people with it, and have a mechanic or two standing by at the nearest airport.

Some of this could be fixed by infrastructure—if the world were full of zeppelin ports, then the Eureka wouldn't have to travel with it's support staff. But even once you take that into account, the zeppelin needs babied in a way an airplane doesn't.

You've probably seen old photos of zeppelin ground crews holding ropes to help the ships land. Today's ground crews don't have to do that anymore, Fritz told me, because the ships now maneuver with the help of rotating propellers that can change orientation and allow the ship to land like a helicopter. Instead, one of the primary jobs of the modern zeppelin crewman is to hang out on the ship, monitoring the weather and the zeppelin's ballast levels.

There must be somebody on board the Eureka, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even on a rainy, windy day, when nobody was going to take the ship anywhere, David Fritz was sitting in the gondola alone, watching the monitors. The balloon of the ship is filled with helium, but also contains two ballast bags—bladders at the fore and aft that can be filled with air from the outside. While he's on duty, Fritz controls these ballast bags. If the ship needs to be heavier in back, he sets that ballast to take in more air. The ballast bags compress or decompress the helium, making the ship lighter or heavier than air.

"That's actually why there's somebody on watch," he said. "We're managing the pressure. If the rain were to stop and the sun would come out again, it would start to heat up the helium [expanding it] and then the ship gets lighter."

Without the constant eye of Fritz and colleagues, the zeppelin could start to rise up off the ground while still tied down. Airplanes certainly need maintenance, just like everything else. But being able to turn the lights off and walk away is a distinct advantage.


Ultimately, I came away from my visit to a zeppelin with two thoughts. First, it's a nice reminder that the world is pretty complicated, and it got to be the way it is for many reasons. Sure, the Hindenburg contributed to busting the zeppelins' bubble. But improved airplane engineering probably played a bigger role.

Second, impractical or not, zeppelins are still totally awesome.

See More: My friend Mollee Francisco-Heinle, who works for The Chaska Herald newspaper, got to the Eureka on a more zeppelin-friendly day and actually was able to go for a ride. You can check out her photos, and watch a video of her zeppelin flight on the Chaska Herald website.

Photos by Christopher Baker.


  1. I wanted a ride on the Eureka- I lvoe that the description of the gondola includes “a window you can stick your head out of”.

    Romantic, ridiculous, fun- but pretty low on the practicality list. (And not quite in my budget, at ~$400 for 45 minutes.)

  2. “We’ve got a square acre of fabric.”

    Wow! That’s 1,897,473,600 hypercubic feet! I didn’t even know they sold four-dimensional fabric.

  3. Though it was built by the Zeppelin company, the Eureka is not a true zeppelin, but rather a semi-rigid airship. A true zeppelin has a complete frame, like the burned-up Erector set left on the ground at Lakehurst, N.J., May 6, 1937.
    As a member of the Goodyear Blimp Club (I still have a card from my 1969 flight on the Mayflower) I’d have to say it’s still a great way to fly — especially at zero airspeed.

    1. I was going to say the same thing except that I didn’t realize that modern day airships even had any direct relationship to the original Zeppelin company. Perhaps they’re trying to expand the common definition of the term?

  4. I’d think that monitoring the health of the airship and keeping the lift and ballast trimmed is something that could eventually be automated, which might reduce or eliminate the watch-keeping requirement.

    The speed problem – produced by a combination of restricted engine-power and a huge surface area to catch adverse winds – could be harder to overcome.

  5. Seems to me that at least a few of those problems come from not having lord-only-knows how many engineering hours behind it in the last 80 years. I’m sure that wouldn’t solve either speed, or the basic ability to deal with weather, but both of them might be mitigated. The massive ground crew and piloting costs are _clearly_ symptoms of something that has only been developed as a one off though.

  6. Living by the San Francisco bay, I see our zepplin flying out of Moffit Field (where Hanger One was built for the Macon in WWII). They are awesome.

    Your comment about practicality, though. If we had zepplin ports, there would be a central monitoring system. The control panel to deal with ballast changes in an automated way would have been built. There certainly would be no need for 24 hour human monitoring.

  7. Plenty of sci-fi stories have started with the premise, “What if the Hindenburg disaster never happened?” and ended up assuming that we’d all be flying around in totally awesome zeppelins instead of boring old airplanes.

    The game designer Ken Hite formulated what is known as Hite’s Law: “Alternate histories tend to have more zeppelins” based on that observation — that the easiest way to establish that a book, film, or game is set in an alternate history is to have zeppelins flying by. To his credit, Hite formulated his own corollary, namely that the 1930s must have been part of an alternate history that somehow bled into our universe.

  8. “the Eureka, one of only three passenger zeppelins operating in the entire world.”

    I totally mis-read that as “one of the only three passenger zeppelins.” I thought it seemed like an awfully large gondola for only three people! Then I saw the inside, thinking, “that’s more than three seats! Oh, wait…”

  9. Thanks for the report! I saw this thing flying aorund the south metro last week on my commute home and was wondering what it was all about.

  10. I suspect that the requirement to have somebody on watch would go away with the advent of Zeppelin hangers like they have in the bay area. No wind, no sun, no need to adjust for the weather.

    Also, while it doesn’t sound great for passengers, I wonder if it would make sense for freight cargo in places that are hard to reach like mountains and small islands.

  11. So a 12-passenger zeppelin needs a crew of 20-25 to keep it running. How much crew would a 800-seater need? 30?

  12. Why can’t you just tie the zeppelin down, or drain the helium into storage tanks, or both, or both while the zeppelin is inside a tall hangar?

  13. Really big rigid airships by definition have a lot of surface area. And also by definition they require extremely lightweight structures.

    This makes them extraordinarily vulnerable to turbulence and wind shear, much more so than fixed wing aircraft which pretty well just slice through those conditions except when taking off and landing.

    The US Navy had four big, helium filled zeps pre-WW2. Three of them, the Shenandoah, the Akron, and the Macon, crashed due to wind shear or updraft/downdraft incidents very early in their service lives.

    It’s hard to imagine any technological advancement that would reduce this vulnerability to the point where big zeps become commercially feasible. In fact, I’m amazed that the Hindenburg stayed in service as long as she did before encountering a similar weather catastrophe.

    1. Well yes, Wally. Basicly engines have become have progressed much further than material technology. Certainly a modern carbon fiber structure could be somewhat stronger than the duraluminum that the big rigids were made of. But engines have become vastly lighter per effective horsepower. When an airship moves faster, there is more drag. The same is true of an airplane. But as an airplane moves faster, the wing area needed to support the weight ALSO becomes smaller, which means less structure and less weight that needs to be supported. To a great degree, a real limiting factor for airplanes is the need to slow down to a reasonable speed to make landings and takeoffs easier. So the greatest utility for airships is in uses where you WANT to move slowly, preferably for long periods of time which uses the fact that the engines are only keeping you moving and not providing all the lift needed to keep you in the air.

      And as other have pointed out these are semi-rigids. The envelope is still supported and maintains its shape because it is kept pressurized. Rigid airships OTOH contain the lifting gass in unpressurized cells..

    2. The US lost a fifth rigid airship because of her fragility. ZR2 was the ex-British R38 which had been designed along the lines of Zeppelin’s ‘height climber’ bombers of World War 1. It was able to climb so high because its construction was unbelievably lightweight – and fragile.

      The Germans knew that the height climbers had to be handled carefully and only maneuvred vigorously at altitude. The British and the Americans did not.

      In preparation for her flight to America, ZR2 was being tested over the Humber Estuary in the East of England in August 1921 when she disintegrated and burned. 16 of the 17 Americans and 28 of the 32 Britons in the crew were killed. There’s a memorial to the airship in Hull. The enquiry discovered that the ZR2 was so fragile some of her girders were overstressed in normal flight. When she had been put through violent turns on her test, the girders broke and the airship disintegrated.

      The fragility of the R38 helped cause another disaster when the British built the immense R101 civilian airship. Her designers were intent on making her the strongest airship ever built, so her framework was made not from lightweight aluminium alloy, but stainless steel. She was hugely overweight and would have been useless in service. Unfortunately she was also incompetently designed and flown; the R101 crashed on her maiden journey and ended airships in Britain.

    3. @Wally Balou

      These disasters were caused to quite some degree by design flaws introduced to adhere to Navy specifications, such as the rear gondola having to have line of sight with the main one. This required changes to the structure and the fin shape which were detrimental to overall stability. So there’s no reason to be amazed at the Hindenburg’s stability – it didn’t have those structural deficits.

  14. Every so often, someone presents a ‘new’ proposal for heavy cargo airships, which never seems to work out. Recently there was one intended to haul iron ore from a remote mine in northern Canada. At least part of the reason is that if you haul a few tonnes of cargo somewhere and unload it, you then have to either ballast it up with a few tonnes of something else, or compress much of your helium and replace it with air ballast, in order to maintain neutral buoyancy.
    Coupled with the weather restrictions, it turns out to be a lot cheaper and easier to build a road and truck stuff!

  15. Never thought I’d see my hometown on BB! I saw this massive beast floating over the Minnesota River valley a few days ago and thought of how neat it would be to get a ride in one…..someday.

    Interesting article.

  16. Moffett Field is Eureka’s home base, and it’s not all that uncommon to see Eureka, a C-5 or two, and an AN-124 all parked out on the tarmac.

    It’s a megaaviation nerdgasm.

    Throw in the Collings Foundation WWII bombers and I sometimes have a hard time staying on the freeway on my way to work.

    1. The Moffatt Field museum in Mountain View CA is fantastic:
      Exhibits about each of the old airships, incredible photos, and awesome retired airmen museum docents who will tell you all sorts of stories about Moffatt’s glory days.
      Next to NASA Ames, the Googleplex, and the Computer History Museum: make a day of it.

  17. This bad boy flew directly over our back yard a couple weeks ago. It’s so big that it kinda looked like it was flying way too close to the ground, but the gondola was just too small in scale to support that theory.

    We didn’t find out until a couple days later that it wasn’t a blimp and is the largest airship on earth.

  18. I find it incredibly difficult to believe that a human needs to be present on board at all times to regulate ballast and pressure.

    Considering in 1969 we were able to send people to the moon with computer technology about as advanced as a TI-82, then I’d think a modern avionics system would have no problem measuring external/internal temp, pressure, wind speed, ect..

    And besides since it is a rigid structure it’s not like you can just deflate it whenever there is really bad weather.

    If anything it sounds more like a justification of a job.

  19. A square acre? An acre is already a measurement of area, 4840 square yards, if I recall correctly. 43560 square feet.
    Zeppelins, given their germanic origins are unlikely to be measured in acres, oh no, those folk are metrically inclined. it’s probably about 0.4… hang on, google.. 0.404685642 acres (imperial, as opposed to american, i think) An acre was originally the area of land one man could plough with one ox in one day.

    I think it’s a bit sad to call these tiny gasbags zeppelins. They are to real zeppelins like an ultralight is to a 747.

    1. Modern avionics systems still can fail in fascinating and lethal way; Air France 447 is likely a good example of just such an event.

  20. I was lucky enough to win a bid at a charity auction to take 12 people on trip around San Francisco Bay in Eureka. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of their lives for all on board. Every facet of the trip from take off to landing is more than can be imagined. The photos from the trip are my screensaver and everyone who enters my office goes away wanting to take the trip (of a lifetime). I say save your money and go for a trip around the bay. You’ll never forget it.

  21. To be honest Zeppelins figure heavily into my Zombie escape plan. because airplanes don’t beat Zeppelins in the keeping me above the mayhem for a long time area.
    So I’m always interested in knowing more about them and where I can find one should the zombie apocalypse happen.

  22. Why did the Hindenburg disaster end Zeppelin travel, anyway? Sea travel did not end after the Titanic, derailments have not ended rail travel, etc.

    1. It ended Zeppelin travel because the owner of the Zeppelin lines and Hitler did not quite see eye to eye and the disaster provided a splendid opportunity for the Nazis to shut the whole operation down.

  23. Not to be too big of a pedant, but you do not have a “square acre” of anything. An acre is an area measurement. You may have about 44,000 square feet of fabric, or an acre of fabric.

  24. In general, I believe the speed is only a problem for specific uses. Yes, a Zeppelin is not the fastest way to get you from A to B. But the fact that we have airplanes now didn’t lead to ship travel being abolished. It is still used both for leisure and for freight that isn’t urgent. What a Zeppelin could very much be is a cruiseship of the skies, allowing leisure travel to spots where no ship or bus could ever take you, independent of roads or water lanes.

  25. Giant catamaran zeppelin, with fully automated ballast management, permanently hovering above the clouds, accessed by VSTOL aircraft that can land on the airship’s deck. You’re welcome.

  26. Is there any reason (other than money) that the ballast fill management can’t trivially be completely automated?

  27. Even an extreme airship advocate such as myself must admit that they will never compete against heavier-than-air vehicles on commuter runs where speed and schedule adherence are the main considerations. However, in that form the criteria are practically self-answering questions: Q: “What does airplane stuff best?” A: “Airplanes!”

    Airships are best used as aerial platforms for military or law-enforcement purposes, vacation cruises and a few cargo applications. These are all being performed, poorly, by airplanes now simply because they got the lock on the gravy-train of commuter and rapid cargo applications and so have the infrastructure and R&D money to economically edge out the potentially technically superior blimp & co. in these fields. As all we BetaMax owners know, the course of technology is affected far more by marketing and historical accidents of economics than by any kind of technical merit.

  28. So basically the big drawbacks are weather, infrastructure and a lack of automated ballast control. Two of those are easily solved. the weather is a little trickier.

    The airship is never going to compete with passenger airlines for the same reason the railroad couldn’t. Speed. People do not want to spend days traveling.
    But it can compete with airlines for freight because the fuel costs/lb of freight are so much lower, the capacity is larger and speed is not such an issue. The bonus is you don’t need tracks going to your destination.

  29. An excellent description of the design, construction, and flight of the British R100 (not the ill-fated R101) is contained in Nevil Shute Norway’s autobiography, “Slide Rule”. He makes it abundantly clear why dirigibles lost out to fixed-wing aircraft (which he set up a company to manufacture after the British government pulled the plug on dirigibles). The R100 was designed with a geodesic frame by Barnes Wallis, a concept later used in the Vickers Wellington bomber, as a consequence of which it could tolerate extreme levels of damage and keep operating. Of course, Wallis is better known for the Upkeep bomb. The giant hangars in which the R100 and R101 were constructed are, as far as I know, still visible at RAF Cardington.

  30. Once at a rest stop outside chilecothe ohio I saw a plaque commemorating the wreck of the Shenandoah in 1925.
    So early zeppelins were dangerous, capital-intensive, and with a limited economic niche as a result of competition with airplanes and their close cousins, blimps. Still seems like something that could be viable someday. With all these internet billionaires starting rocket companies, you’d think there’d be one somewhere into zeppelins. And they’d probably want cory as a spokesperson.

  31. Great article, very interesting. Now I wish I get to ride a Zeppelin some day.

    By the way, you had a typo that made me cringe a bit, in the end:
    “I came away from my visit two a zeppelin with two thoughts”
    it should be *to* a zeppelin.

    I imagine your train of thought was far ahead and thinking of the *two* thoughts. So it tricked you into that one.

    Thanks again for this amazing article, I had no idea they needed so much crew and not to pull it down.

    By the way, do you know why they don’t compress the helium past the point that the Sun couldn’t heat it enough to get lift? would that lack of pressure hurt the materials maybe?

  32. I used to live right next to Flying Cloud Airport. Would’ve been cool to see the airship, but Eden Prairie is the epitome of suburban hell.

  33. I thought the Hindenburg only exploded because the Germans had to use hydrogen after the US refused to sell them helium.

    1. Yes, the US – quite rightly – was refusing to sell Helium to the Nazi regime as it was regarded as a potential war material. Remember Zeppelins had been used to bomb in WWI, and were still being used for anti-submarine patrols.

      It has of course been theorised that high-quality German Zeppelin designs in combination with helium fuel would have led to disaster-free airships, but of course we could have put that combination together at any time since WWII. I don’t seriously believe the image of the Hindenburg disaster has stopped people using airships to this day. As the article says, other forms of transport out-competed it. Though they are majestic, airships combine the disadvantages of airplanes with the disadvantages of ships.

      While we’re being pedantic, “it’s” appeared twice in the article where “its” was meant. This imperfection aside though, a very interesting article!

  34. Dirigible airships and airplanes came into existence at practically the same time, enabled by the internal combustion engine. The lift of an airship depends on its volume and air density only. The lift of an airplane varies with wing area, air density, and the square of the velocity. For a given load, there are more ways to design an airplane, especially as engines improved. To be practical, zeppelins have to be big–and when they fail, they fail big. For passenger transport, they are constrained to the lower troposphere–romantic and scenic, sure, but constantly at the mercy of the weather. Hugo Eckener’s autobiography, recounting his years at the head of the Zeppelin enterprise, is largely an account of fronts, squall lines, impossible head winds, cyclonic systems, and near-fatal hail.

  35. I’d like to get on the Eureka just so that I can proclaim in a loud voice that “They’re turning around, they’re taking us back to Germany.”

  36. I worked as a groundcrewman on the FujiFilm blimp for a year. I shrewdly noticed that every crash we had – and indeed, every airship crash in history – involved the airship and one other thing: the ground.

    If we could scale them up to a size where the ship never landed (using helicopters as shuttlecraft to transfer people and things instead), then there would be less need to get nearer to that damned blimp cryptonite: the earth.

    I wish the weather hadn’t been bad, and you’d had a chance to ride the Eureka. It’s like sailing on the air.

  37. Tillamook, Oregon has one of the two hangars built for a squadron of WWII K class blimps – it housed all eight blimps simultaneously – and was built big enough for a larger dirigible, “just in case”, is what I was told. Hanger ‘B’ is the largest clear-span wooden building in the world, and like Lakehurst’s hangar built for the Navy zeps, it has it’s own weather at the top of the hanger. It has a fine airplane collection hosed there now, and when I was driving to see it, I wondered aloud if I’d be able to see a sign from the highway directing me there. Turned a corner, and holy crap! it said “Air Museum” painted in gigantic letters along the hanger – I bet they could read it from the space station.

    I got to stroll around the rear gondola from a WWI Zeppelin, the LZ113 (LZ stands for Luftshiffe Zeppelin)- that’s preserved in France – when it was being tidied up at the old museum site at a research facility outside Paris, (signs warned about straying on the grounds, you might get shot) and the clear plastic screen was removed – it’s got some serious Maybach Engines in it, and it must’ve been LOUD in there, cold in there, and pretty damned scary in there. I walked to the front, and looked out the front glass, and got a glimpse of what it must’ve been for the crew on a raid over England. It was for iron men, and took guts, regardless.

  38. The 24/7 on board crewman could be replaced with an ardruino board some sensors and a few lines of code.

    Also, last I heard zeppelin development was mostly heading towards freight-hauling these days, rather than passenger trips.

  39. One of the reasons living in Silicon Valley is awesome is that much of the year there’s a Zeppelin flying around. I’ll be driving to work and it’s taking off, or somewhere random in the Bay Area and the Zep just shows up, or biking in the marshlands and just missing the first 50 feet of takeoff. Yes, there are non-awesome things about being here as well, but things can’t have totally gone down the tubes if people can still ride Zeppelins around for fun.

    Apparently after the first few months, the Zeppelin ride started showing up in the Bay Area half-price tickets dealers on occasion, but I haven’t done that yet.

  40. if you really need to get from Point A to Point B, you’ll either do it faster in a plane, or do it cheaper in a car.

    Unless there’s a significant body of water, for example, the Atlantic Ocean, in between. I wish commercial zeppelin flight between Europe and the USA was still an option. I would much rather have a slower flight on a zeppelin if the cabin were more spacious and comfortable. Unfortunately, without building a massive zeppelin, cabin size looks to be pretty limited.

  41. If Scrooge McDuck can have a money bin with “three cubic acres” of coins and currency, then a zeppelin can have a mere square acre of material.

  42. I’ve read that there used to be lighter-than-air passenger service from Europe to South America in the thirties.  That would be one classy way to travel.

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