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German Co. Eyes Relaunch of Airship

May 28, 2000

BRAND, Germany (AP) _ As if getting a new company off the ground wasn’t hard enough, Carl-Heinrich von Gablenz has one extra obstacle to deal with that never confronts other entrepreneurs: the 1937 Hindenburg explosion.

Seared into the world’s collective memory (``Oh, the humanity!″ the radio announcer cried), the fiery crash on a New Jersey field doomed dirigibles as a mode of transportation for the rest of the century.

``It was the first live media catastrophe,″ von Gablenz said of the German airship’s demise. ``The problem is, for most people, this technology ended with that.″

But von Gablenz, chairman of CargoLifter AG, is convinced that the basic 19th-century airship technology _ using inert helium this time instead of flammable hydrogen _ has a promising future in the 21st century.

Instead of carrying people, his plan is to build giant blimps to transport oversized or extremely heavy things like turbines, preconstructed bridges and oil rigs around the world.

Weighty companies like Siemens, MAN, Mitsui and ABB have signed on with his 4-year-old company, intending to be among the first to use the lighter-than-air transport to move bulky products from factory to customer.

CargoLifter has already raised almost $180 million through private stock placements. Von Gablenz is hoping for an additional lift of $108 million from an initial public offering Tuesday on the Frankfurt stock exchange.

Whether investors seeking Internet-speed profits will be willing to sink money into a long-term investment _ the prototype CargoLifter won’t be launched until 2002 _ isn’t known.

``As an idea, I think it’s OK,″ said Thomas Koebel, aerospace analyst at BFG Bank in Frankfurt. ``The concept is brilliant.″

Yet even von Gablenz concedes that his business plan _ building 50 CargoLifters by 2013 and stationing them around the world _ is a risky one, although no more so than dot-coms, he said indignantly.

``A lot of people right now think the future is a digital world, but it’s not just a digital world,″ he said in a recent interview. ``You can’t transfer everything in bits and bytes.″

Trudging around the dusty CargoLifter construction site in a dapper black suit and tie, the one-time lawyer and banker beams with pride at his grand vision taking form.

Work has begun on a giant hall on an abandoned Soviet military airfield near the east German town of Brand, about 45 miles south of Berlin on the edge of the Spreewald forest. Curved steel girders soar 30 stories over the pastoral landscape, dwarfing the weed-covered bunkers that once hid Soviet MiG fighter jets.

The floor of the factory will be the size of eight soccer fields, enough to allow for work on two CargoLifters simultaneously.

Nearby, a much smaller hangar already houses ``Joey,″ an experimental airship so named because its 105-foot length and 26-foot diameter would fit inside the cargo bay of a CargoLifter like a kangaroo baby in its mother’s pouch. The actual CargoLifter will be eight times bigger _ about the same length as the Hindenburg, the largest rigid airship ever constructed at 804 feet.

Based on designs by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the Hindenburg was launched in April 1936 at Friedrichshafen, in southern Germany. Offering the first commercial air service across the Atlantic, it carried 1,002 passengers on 10 trips between Germany and the United States during its one year of operation.

On May 6, 1937, the airship caught fire while landing at Lakehurt, N.J., killing 36 of the 97 people on board. The tragedy was captured as it happened by New York media and reverberated around the world.

The U.S. Navy built airships to patrol coastal shipping lanes during World War II, and Goodyear and other companies have turned blimps into advertising tools, but for the most part, zeppelins fell into disuse.

CargoLifter believes that was a mistake.

``The Hindenburg was unfortunate, but it’s been so overpublicized it’s unbelievable,″ said Joey’s pilot, Mats Backlin, a Swedish air force veteran.

The idea to revive the airships was born out of a 1994 market study von Gablenz, who was teaching global logistics at the University of North Carolina, did with German heavy machinery firms.

Moving big components was proving increasingly difficult: Roads in industrialized countries were often gridlocked, and customers in far-flung places like Kazakstan or Brazil often didn’t even have the infrastructure to handle such shipments.

Ships are big and inexpensive, but slow. Cargo jets are fast, but costly and limited in what they can carry and where they can land. Helicopters don’t need runways, but can carry even less.

``We didn’t set out to reinvent the zeppelin, but we needed to find a solution for the industry,″ von Gablenz said.

Director of development Frank Bruno, an American who spent 30 years in aviation at United Technologies and Pratt and Whitney, said the CargoLifter will be fatter than the cigar-shaped Hindenburg because helium, while safer, is heavier than hydrogen.

Multilayered, tear-resistant materials are being developed for the CargoLifter envelope, compared to the Hindenburg’s cotton covering. ``That’s really what burned, by the way,″ he said.

Von Gablenz said he’s already getting inquiries from port cities from Houston to Singapore expressing interest in having a CargoLifter base station. The United Nations has certified CargoLifter already as a potential supplier of emergency aid to disaster-stricken areas.

But von Gablenz’s immediate focus is getting the first airship built and training crews to fly them.

Joey, launched in October to test computer models for the CargoLifter design, is to start a second series of flights in June. A pilot training school opens this fall with a class of 40.

To get enough ships in the air to meet expected demand, CargoLifter also plans a second construction facility in North Carolina by 2006.

``It sounds a bit crazy,″ von Gablenz conceded. ``But the potential is quite remarkable.″

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