Steve Fossett breaks airship speed record with Zeppelin NT

On Monday the 27th October 2004 the U.S. American adventurer Steve Fossett and his Co-Pilot Hans-Paul Stroehle set a new speed world record for airships. They were flying the 1000 meter course in both directions with an average speed of 111.8 km/h. They outperformed the existing record of 92.8 km/h set in 2000 by the Englishmen James Dexter and Michael Kendrick.

The achieved speed is still below the maximum performances of the old rigid airships. For example the old Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg and LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II were able to fly at more than 130 km/h and the American airship ZRS 5 Macon even reached a top performance of 140.3 km/h. However these top speeds were never verified in the way defined by the FAI record definition where the influence of the wind is reduced by having the airship fly a course in both directions. For that reason these old achievements could not be recognized by the FAI as existing records and all the speed records achieved so far only list modern airships with lower speeds.

In order to fly this new record Fossett had to get licensed to fly the Zeppelin NT. He achieved this in the late summer of 2004 when he spent several periods in Friedrichshafen with his instructor Hans-Paul Stroehle to go through all the required steps of the flight training handbook. During that time several rumours spread around Lake Constance when his jet was seen multiple times at the airport and he was reportedly seen at the Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH (ZLT). However no official statement was available from the ZLT before the actual flight.

The observation of the record flight was delegated from the U.S. National Aeronautic Association (NAA) to the German Aero Club (DAeC) which passed on this task to the German Balloon Federation (Deutscher Freiballonsport-Verband - DFSV). The current world champion in gas balloons and vice champion in hot air balloons Uwe Schneider was announced as official observer for the record flight and I was named assistant or backup observer.

The airship speed record is defined in the sporting code of the FAI/CIA as follows: a course of 1000 meters has to be flown in both directions and the resulting speed is the average of both passes. The time between passing the finish line in one direction and the start line in the other direction has to be less than 10 minutes, the maximum altitude during the attempt may not exceed 500 meters GND or 900 meters MSL and all flights over the course and the 250 meter approach and departure area may not differ in altitude by more than 200 meters. Any number of passes may be achieved during the record flight and the best consecutive runs will count.

After some discussion with the record review subcommittee of the CIA we agreed on using a simple stopwatch from the airship to measure the time between the start and finish lines. Additionally a GPS logger would be used to verify the altitude limits over the course. The GPS logger data could also serve as a backup for the manual measurement of the time over the course. The subcommittee did not want to accept the GPS as primary timing device because it only provides a granularity of 1 second which would be to inaccurate for the expected speed of more than 100 km/h (more than 30 meters per second). Fossett arranged with the Friedrichshafen airport that the runway could be used for the record attempt. So we decided to mark the approach and the course areas by laying out lines of plastic film abeam the runway in the grass area.

In the beginning of October Fossett passed his flight examination and then was looking for a first attempt in the last week of October. The date for the first attempt was set to October 27th/28th. Getting closer to this date the weather forecast showed some chances for the flight so everybody was coming to Friedrichshafen to get ready. I arrived in Friedrichshafen the day before the attempt to make the necessary preparations. Under the supervision of the follow-me of the airport we were walking along the runway to measure the course and mark it for next day's attempt.

On Wednesday morning we all met at 06:30 in the morning so that we could take off as soon as possible. Though the weather conditions were not optimal with the upper winds blowing already at more than 10 knots at an angle to the runway direction, Fossett decided to make a first attempt. So we quickly laid out the markings for the start and finish lines and the approach areas while the Zeppelin was prepared for take off.

At 08:21 local the Zeppelin NT took off with the pilots Steve Fossett and Hans-Paul Stroehle as well as Uwe Schneider and me as observers on board. Our first flight along the course demonstrated that our measuring method worked fine and that Fossett was able to stay on course along the runway. All together we flew 9 passes along the runway with some improvement in the last passes. At 09:43 we landed in front of the airship hangar and congratulated the pilots for their preliminary result of 111.8 km/h setting a new world record.

After the press interviews we concentrated on the paper work necessary to complete the record file as well as on the evaluation of the GPS track log. No altitude limit infringements were found in the track log and we were also able to show that the manual timing was consistent with the timing derived from the track log. The record file has now been forwarded to the NAA for verification of the record attempt. As soon as the NAA has recognized the flight as a national record it will be passed on the FAI for ratification as a world record.

It was very interesting for us observers to be part of this project and we really enjoyed to work with Steve Fossett who remained an ordinary man besides all the records he has collected so far. We wish him all the best for his future record attempts.

Christian Michel

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07:16 - Zeppelin NT D-LZFN is taken out of the hangar 07:49 - Steve Fossett and Hans-Paul Stroehle are performing the pre-flight check 07:53 - Going through the check-lists 08:10 - Last glimpse on the FAI rules
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First approach to the airport from the north-east Marking for the 1000 meter range along the runway Zeppelin NT Captain Steve Fossett
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Approach to the runway from Lake Constance Airport Friedrichshafen with airship hangar and new fairgrounds Steve Fossett and Hans-Paul Stroehle preparing the landing
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Zeppelin hangar with landing pits Markings along the runway: red - 250 meter approach area, green - 1000 meter race track 09:46 - The ground crew awaits the Zeppelin for landing
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09:59 - The Zeppelin is brought back into the hangar with the mast truck View into the hangar "Yokoso Japan" and the FFH Zeppelin are already waiting in the hangar Succesful crew: Steve Fossett with his Co-Pilot and instructor Hans-Paul Stroehle
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10:08 - Reporters are waiting for the record pilots Clinking glasses on a successful record flight (left to right): Hans-Paul Stroehle, Uwe Schneider, Christian Michel, Steve Fossett, Ernst Susanek, Fritz Guenther Steve Fossett with Zeppelin GmbH CEO Ernst Susanek