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Japan-bound Zeppelin Forced to Return to Germany

A German-built Zeppelin headed for Japan is returning to southern Germany after being refused permission to cross over Russian territory. Bad weather and red tape cut stalled the historic flight.

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Zeppelin "Lake Constance" had its historic debut cut short

All the air has gone out of the Zeppelin's historic flight from Germany to Japan. After being grounded at the Finnish-Russian border for five weeks waiting for authorization to enter Russian Airspace, the cigar-shaped 75-meter-long (247-foot) airship, the first of a new generation which had intended to cross Russia to Japan last month, is now being sent back to the factory on Lake Constance in southern Germany.

Japan's Nippon Airship Corporation (NAC) had purchased the dirigible called "Lake Constance" from the German company in March for $11.7 million and wanted to fly the 12,000 kilometers from Germany to its new home in Japan.

NAC wants to use the helium-filled airship for sightseeing and advertising flights and hopes to feature the modern day Zeppelin at the 2005 world Expo in the Japanese city of Aichi.

The era of the zeppelin as a mode of transport ended when the German-made Hindenburg caught fire in New Jersey in 1937, killing 35 of the 96 people on board.

Red tape hassles

Dr Bernd Sträter, the managing director of Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik Corporation which built the airship, indicated his Japanese customers had decided to abandon the journey and send the airship back to Germany due to bureaucratic problems.

"The contract was signed in March this year and the time was very short to train the pilots and bring the ship to the Japanese certification board," Sträter told DW-RADIO. "And as far as I know the Japanese NAC shortly after signing sought the permission in Russia. And it takes a long time I think in Russia and in other countries as well," Stäter said. "Everyone who purchases planes tells you it takes a long time and that is the main reason."

Ian Aitchison, group communications officer for NYK Europe, which owns a 53-percent stake in the airship, was more candid in his assessment of the problem earlier this month. "Besides weather, the delay is primarily due to [the] Russian bureaucratic process and the need to slightly alter the flight path across Russia," Aitchison said in a statement.

Aitchison also quelled earlier Russian reports that a further reason for the delay was the airship pilot's citizenship. He holds a German passport and Russian laws require the ship to be accompanied by a Russian pilot.

Historic journey

Graf von Zeppelin

A 1929 photo of Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, a German military officer who developed the airship, or dirigible, that bears his name.

The Zeppelin, which is designed to travel great distances, had already put 3,000 kilometers behind it before being stopped in Helsinki. The journey was intended to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin's round-the-world flight in 1929. Graf von Zeppelin, a German military officer, is credited with developing the airship that bears his name.

This newer model is a third of the size and can carry 12 people on board. It was carrying a six-person crew from Japan and Germany and was expected to take 30 days to travel from St Petersburg to Vladivostok, and then onto Japan, stopping several times en route.

Security concerns and bad weather

But as the accompanying ground crew increased, Russia raised concerns about security explained Sträter.

"Originally it was planned to do it within three weeks, but meanwhile also for security reasons a lot of people have to accompany by road in trucks and this was originally not foreseen and so I believe 4-5 weeks should be the crossing time from St Petersburg to Vladisvostock or to the Pacific," he said.

Sträter also pointed to worsening weather conditions in southeast Russia as a further reason for the stalling of the project. "The main reason to stop this activity was because of the weather conditions in Siberia. Everybody has to calculate that end of September the cold comes in and the airship will have to stop somewhere there without any protection against wind and weather and there's no opportunity to bring it back to western Europe or to Japan."

Delivery problems

Sträter explained that simply packing up the airship and shipping it to Japan was not an option.

"The Zeppelin new technology is the newest technology in the world and the largest in the world, with a lot of high performance activities which not any other airships has," Sträter said.

"But it also has one disadvantage -- all the other existing airships are blimps, they don't have an internal structure. Ours has an internal structure, a little bit equivalent to the old Zeppelins and you cannot disassemble this structure very rapidly and the blimp. You take the helium and the gas and the air out and then you can pack it in several weeks into a container which you can't do with our airship," he said.

"So that means you can only bring our airship to the final destination by a fire flight."

The technicians from Germany's Zeppelin Luftshifftechnik corporation are now investigating other transport options including placing the inflated Zeppelin on a cargo ship or flying it like a kite from a smaller boat.

Otherwise Nippon Airship Corporation have said they will attempt to fly the Zeppelin again next spring after securing authorization from Russia.

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