The 75 meter long Zeppelin NT (New Technology) made her maiden voyage on September 18, 1997.
The modern Zeppelin NT is filled with helium, and the airframe is constructed from aluminum and carbon fiber. The entire lifting structure weighs approximately 1000 kg (2200 lbs). It requires only a 3 person ground crew for normal operation and the enormous vehicle can carry a total payload of 1900 kg (4180 lbs). The cabin comfortably seats 2 flight crew and 12 passengers, and the three Textron Lycoming IO-360 engines can propel the craft at up to 125 km/h (77 mph). The Zeppelin NT has a maximum endurance of approximately 24 hours with a range of up to 900 km (559 miles).
The Zeppelin name is synonymous with rigid airships, and a total of 119 of these beautiful craft were built between 1900 and 1938. The most successful was the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, which managed an astounding around-the-world journey in October 1929. LZ 127 went on to cover a total distance of about 1.7 million miles over the course of 590 flights, including regular transatlantic service.
The Zeppelin name is also synonymous with the fateful crash of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey in May 1937. The aircraft was engulfed with flames in a mere 34 seconds, a disaster that may have been caused by leaking hydrogen from a torn gas bag combined with an inflammable outer coating.
Ironically, the Hindenburg disaster was caused by politics, rather than technology. The original design called for the craft to be filled with nonflammable helium, but a US export embargo prevented the Germans from obtaining the gas. Politics also led to the end of the original Zeppelin line. The Nazi regime regarded airships as having limited military capabilities, and the Luftwaffe grounded the remaining fleet at the outbreak of WWII. The aircraft were destroyed for parts in 1940.
The company founded by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin still exists today, having diversified into a multinational automotive supplier that employees more than 53,000 people in 25 countries.
I've saved the best news for last, of course. The 2008 flying season starts on March 15th, and a 30 minute flight over Friedrichshafen is priced at 200 euros ($300). Longer trips are also available, including an unforgettable loop over Lake Constance in southern Germany.