In the late nineteenth century Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a maverick with an impressive walrus moustache and military honours, turned his attention – and most of his wealth – to airships. His pioneering LZ1 drifted above the Bodensee in 1900, to great enthusiasm and jubilation. Later the Zeppelins acquired their first real use as World War I bombers and scouts.
In 1928 the pride of the fleet, Graf Zeppelin, hummed across the Atlantic in four days, fifteen hours and forty-four minutes; a year later she circumnavigated the globe in just twelve days’ air-time: the golden age of luxurious airships had arrived. Once times improved to well under two days, a scheduled service to New York was set up, with passengers paying around 1200 Reichsmarks for a return ticket – around seven months’ the average wage of the time.
No matter that she had made 590 flights, 114 of them ocean-going, the Graf Zeppelin’s days were numbered as soon as the 245m sister-ship Hindenburg erupted into a fireball in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, killing 36 passengers and crew (61 survived). Later analysis suggests that a static spark from earthed mooring-lines ignited the varnish on the linen skin causing a blaze which quickly spread to the airship’s hydrogen tanks. Ironically the airship had been designed for inert and non-combustible helium, but the US had refused permission to use this fuel.
The disaster, along with progress elsewhere in the aviation industry, put Zeppelins out of favour for a long time, although there has been a good deal of research and development since and they’re now often seen over the Bodensee. These airships are non-rigid, filled with helium, and run by the Deutsches-Zeppelin-Reederei (from €200/30min; t07541 590 00, wzeppelinflug.de). These ships are only a tenth the size of the originals and climb to 2000m to take twelve well-heeled passengers for jaunts above the Bodensee.