Monthly Archives: October 2017


Between our visit to Berlin, described in an earlier post, and our Backroads bicycle trip down the Rhine, we traveled to Friedrichshafen.  It’s a nice enough city on its own, but for aviation buffs it’s a can’t-miss. We spent parts of five days there at the end of August.

Our Zeppelin approaches Konstanz.

Most folks these days, when they think about flying, think about airplanes. But airships flew above Lake Constance before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and crossed the Atlantic before Lindberg, thanks largely to the ambition of local hero Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Germany’s economic troubles following World War I, plus some later unfortunate experiences with hydrogen as a lifting agent, allowed heavier-than-air machines to surpass airships in popularity. But they never went away. Once aloft, they’re vastly cheaper to keep that way than any other conveyance (or surveillance platform). They’re relatively quiet and can operate in places where runways have yet to be built. And they’re huge, so there’s plenty of room on the side for advertising.

When the familiar Goodyear blimps neared the ends of their useful lives, that company partnered with successors of the original Zeppelin concern to produce replacements. This has been part of a world-wide renascence, in which we were happy to share during our vacation. We booked passage on the Zeppelin NT.

The flights at Friedrichshafen (or at Munich if you happen to be there instead) range from the half-hour bucket-list ascent to the two-hour circumnavigation of Lake Constance. (Twice a year they also offer instruction, during which you can get 30 minutes of time at the controls.) We chose the hour-long sightseeing trip to Konstanz. Everybody has a window seat, some windows are openable for better photography, and at the end they offer you sparking wine in the best ballooning tradition. In the picture above, we are near where the Rhine leaves the lake on its journey to the North Sea.

The ride doesn’t provide time for the luxury once lavished on transatlantic passengers, but it is gentle and quiet, and takes place at an ideal height for sightseeing.  Airplanes need to move very slowly on the ground but very fast in the sky, and weather can complicate the transition. While hot-air balloons are always struggling to be at the right altitude, the Zeppelin achieves neutral buoyancy like a diver, and then climbs and descends by directing its thrust.

Entering and leaving the airship requires some choreography though — new passengers board gradually as old ones leave, so that the load stays about the same. There’s no extendable jetway — actual steps are climbed up and down.  But, resting in its enormous hangar at night, after the tourists are all gone, while its handlers are asleep, the Zeppelin remains patiently airborne.

Our gracious, multilingual flight attendant occupied the co-pilot’s seat for takeoff and landing, an arrangement that would make sense if only to maximize room for passengers.  But I noticed that she kept her left hand resolutely on a T-handle at the rear of the control console during those procedures, its light blue color suggesting to me that it could be used to dump ballast. And indeed, after our flight, as we watched the aircraft depart with our successors, a considerable amount of water was shed, attesting to our own lot’s sveltness — at least compared to the after-brunch crowd that followed us.

The picture above looks back toward the airport from Fischbach, a town just to the west of Friedrichshafen, where an old gradeschool friend spent many years.  It also includes the restaurant “La Taverna,” where we had a memorable meal on our first night.

Aviation-wise, Zeppelins aren’t the only game in town. Count Ferdinand’s personal scientific advisor, Claude Dornier, originator of all-metal monocoque aircraft construction, founded a company of his own, capitalizing on the airplane boom to make huge flying boats, affording passengers the treatment they had come to expect from dirigibles combined with the speed and noise of heavier-than-air machines (one of his airplanes, long the world’s largest and most powerful, had twelve engines). Again, politics interfered with innovation, and eventually Dornier was swallowed up by other companies (Daimler, Fairchild, Airbus . . . ); but during its life the company led in the development of vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft and was involved in a big array of other projects, including some American aircraft (Hueys, F-104s) and in space exploration and sustainable energy.

The Dornier story (again in amazing detail) is told in their museum, on the other side of the runway from the Zeppelin hangar. Their theme is that anyone can be a pioneer, and a glance at the aircraft there — even just the ones sitting around outside — suggests a certain lack of concern about whether their airplanes looked like anybody else’s.

Post-vaction Update:  The Dornier museum will now also display a Boeing 737, the one hijacked on its way to Frankfurt in 1977, “as a symbol of a free society, undefeated by terror.”

Between flight-related missions, we traveled again to Konstanz, this time via a fast catamaran. Welcomed to the harbor by the statue of Imperia, surely one of the most remarkable pieces of public art anywhere, we faced the choice of visiting the garden island of Mainau close-up, or wandering around the streets gawking at old buildings (connected however to the city’s free WiFi, making tourism even easier).  We chose the latter, and ended our visit with a long-anticipated lunch at Tolle Knolle, a potato-centric restaurant of international repute.

Konstanz also offers the opportunity to walk, or cycle, back-and-forth across the Swiss border, if you haven’t already.  But we would soon be on our way to Basel anyhow . . . .

One more thing about Friedrichshafen. On a walk from our hotel, beyond a shopping center and an apartment building under construction, I was surprised to encounter a big field of corn. A sign nearby listed sister-cities, including Sarajevo; Imperia, Italy . . . and Peoria, Illinois. I suspect that the corn is meant for livestock, or for other uses, like compostable plastics.  We didn’t see so much of it in the markets, but we later saw it growing all along the Rhine valley.