Innovative mammoth project or airborne slobbering?

The CargoLifter Project

The vision of CargoLifter AG, founded by Dr. Carl von Gablenz, the chairman of the board, in September 1996, is a global transport system based on helium airships for heavy loads. It is to be this "point to point" zu beliebigen Bestimmungsorten zu transportieren. From 2004, the CL160 with a length of about 260 meters and a diameter of about 65 meters will be produced in series. The flight performance of the airship is a range of 10.000 km at a maximum flight altitude of 2.000 m and a volume of 550.000 m3. The payload of 160 tons of the "Flying crane" means a weight of about 480 tons. This means that a CargoLifter would be about one third heavier than a fully loaded jumbo jet.

innovative mammoth project or airship?

An airship is not an airplane. Interview with the chairman of the board of CargoLifter AG, Dr. Carl von Gablenz.

According to market studies by the Institute of Shipping Economics and Logistics (ISL) in Bremen and the universities of Frankfurt and Mainz, there is a minimum potential for transport services of 750 tons.000 tons per year, which is within the scope of 5.000 transports were to be requested. This represents about 25% of the estimated market potential for the CargoLifter of 3 million tons out of a market volume of 30 million tons.

From the start of series production, about 4 airships per year are to be built by CL Development in Berlin and later the same number at a site in the USA yet to be determined, which will be financed by CL Financing Lease financed and then operated by CL Transport. Around 2013, according to von Gablenz, at least 50 "flying cranes" be in operation. Four propulsion engines, each with propellers 6.5 meters in diameter and a combined output of about 8200 hp, will provide a transport speed of 80 to 100 kilometers per hour. Average fuel consumption at around 100 km/h is to be only 4.5 liters per km. maneuvering engines with a total peak power of up to 24 hp available at short notice.500 hp will be switched on for the load pick-up and set-down process.

A mammoth project

The target markets for the CargoLifter are the mechanical and plant engineering industry, the construction industry, the automotive industry and its suppliers, the offshore industry as well as special projects such as relief and disaster relief operations. According to a study by the VDMA, the average costs determined for special transports of heavy goods over land are around 26 Pf/ton kilometer. For a Boeing 747, one calculates with about 50 to 60 Pf/ton kilometer. In the case of CargoLifter, however, the direct operating costs (DOCs) per ton kilometer, which are common in aviation, were allowed to be at least a factor of 5 higher than for freight transport by air and at least a factor of 10 coarser than for the usual container ships.

Innovative mammoth project or airborne chutzpah?

Lockheed and McKinsey studies show that existing airship concepts are not competitive with conventional transportation. Taking into account that the CargoLifter has 5 times the volume of the airship "Count Zeppelin" LZ 127 and 2.5 times the volume of the airship "Hindenburg" LZ 129 from the 1930s, the dimension of this extremely ambitious mammoth project becomes clear. To build this huge airship, the central shipyard is currently being built in Berlin at a cost of 162 million DM. With dimensions of 340 m long, 200 m wide and 100 m high, the airship hall will be one of the world’s largest self-supporting halls.

Half of the high total investment of around 900 million euros is to be financed via the stock market, about 9% via debt funds and about 41% via loans. In just 2 years, substantial funds have already been raised on the stock exchange and the number of shareholders has now risen to more than 5.000 risen. At the Annual General Meeting on 10. In March 1999, it was decided to increase the share capital to 31.5 million DM and to move the company headquarters to Berlin.

In the meantime, the federal government and the state of Brandenburg are also lending a hand. Thus, in a ratio of 60:40, the federal government and the state government approved an 80% deficiency guarantee on loans for the construction of the planned airship hangar and the first prototype of CargoLifter AG totaling 104 million DM. The bank consortium financing the loans consists of Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank, Landesbank Berlin, Bayerische Landesbank and Kreditanstalt fur Wiederaufbau. German President Roman Herzog has also been photographed together with the project initiators, who want to create 250 new jobs in the state of Brandenburg.

development costs of over DM 2 billion?

While the development of the new Zeppelin LZ N07 in Friedrichshafen is being financed with 8.200 m3 will cost around DM 60-70 million up to series production, the development costs of the CargoLifter with almost 70 times the volume of the LZ N07 are expected to amount to only DM 218 million. The CargoLifter has a total propulsive power of 33.000 hp with a weight of 480 tons. The Dornier Do 328 commuter aircraft, on the other hand, has a total propulsive power of 3 kW.600 hp with a take-off weight of 12.5 tons. The CargoLifter needs a 9 times stronger propulsion system than the Do 328 and the total weight is even 40 times heavier than the Commuter.

However, since the development of the Dornier Commuter, which looks like a dwarf compared to the CargoLifter, has already cost more than 1 billion. DM, it is foreseeable that the giant of the air could cost far more than indicated today. If one considers the usual development costs in aviation, the development of the CargoLifter should have cost at least DM 2 billion. However, this means nothing other than that the development costs may have been overestimated by a factor of 10 and that the calculations of CargoLifter AG should be marked with a clear question mark.

Innovative mammoth project or air schlock?

If one takes into account that the unit price per kilogram z.B. for the technically simple design of the Blimp (760 DM/kg) is about twice as high as for a jumbo jet (ca. 375 DM/kg), the unit price for the CargoLifter would have to be at least about 200 million DM. This means that it would be twice as expensive as the price of 100 million DM calculated by CargoLifter AG. In addition, there would be a development charge per unit, which is largely dependent on sales figures. Whether 10 or 50 CargoLifters will be in operation in ten years, nobody can foresee today. Last but not least, the announced operating costs must also be critically questioned.

The operating costs mentioned by CargoLifter of 4.200 DM/h (100.000 DM/day) seem unrealistic, considering that these costs for a business jet are as high as 6.000 DM/h. Aming the optimistic amption of only 8.000 DM/h for the CargoLifter, then the operating costs were 200.000 DM/day. However, this means that a five-day transport to China would cost a minimum of 1 million DM and this is without taking into account insurance costs and infrastructure costs for the transported goods.

The moment of truth is yet to come

The sensational success of the sale of CargoLifter shares shows that von Gablenz is an excellent marketing strategist. Von Gablenz knows exactly that he cannot keep the shareholders happy if the project costs too much. That is why CargoLifter AG works with the slice method. Further capital increases will therefore be necessary in order to successively raise the rough order of the project. Now, it is not that this approach is wrong per se, as it would not be the first time in Germany that an innovative project would fall victim to the red pencil prematurely. But in this project, the innovation is not only in the airline, but mainly in the new logistics service. However, the success of the project, for which an optimistically high market potential has been estimated, will depend on whether the technologies used are safe and can be deployed at a reasonable cost.

If the trend continues that more and more emerging countries switch to their own production of machines and equipment, which are supplied from Europe today, the question must naturally also be asked to what extent the predicted market will still exist in 10 to 20 years. More powerful helicopters and transport aircraft with short take-off and landing capabilities, as well as wide-body aircraft such as the Airbus A3XX or projects like the "Blended wing body concept" of Boeing, which will also have a payload in the rough order of the CargoLifter, could additionally reduce possible market shares. It therefore remains to be seen whether and to what extent the capital market will be able to recoup the ever increasing financial requirements for a service that may no longer be competitive in 2010. In terms of design, aerodynamics and testing of the load transport method, the development of the CargoLifter is only at an early stage. So far, for example, the water prere recovery system envisaged for the CargoLifter, which is supposed to compensate for the loss of ballast due to fuel consumption, has never been built in series and tested in long-term trials.


Safety standards that apply to aircraft cannot be easily lowered and the integration of systems is a time-consuming and cost-intensive undertaking. This was also the experience of the zeppelin builders in Friedrichshafen. After many years of development work, they are in the process of making an innovative aviation device ready for series production, the first prototype of which is now undergoing flight testing. This thorny path is still ahead of the CargoLifter company. The future will show whether and to what extent cost structures that have applied in aviation up to now – as predicted by CargoLifter AG – can be undercut. Von Gablenz’s vision of the CargoLifter as a hybrid between a sea-going vessel and an aircraft could only then be shipwrecked and turn into a "Luftschlob" degenerate, if the aviation authority, the for equipment "Lighter than air" s usual approval guidelines will be applied to devices.

The real technical challenge, and the possible cost overruns associated with it, will come to the development team at Brand (a former military airport just outside Berlin) when the integration of the various systems is due to take place and the anticipated problems arise during flight testing, including the complex loading and unloading procedure. Then the moment of truth strikes, not only for the engineers, but especially for the shareholders.

The social pathology of the Germans described by Helmut Reinicke with regard to the Zeppelin cult as a "Victims of swarming – a popular potlatch (gift hybrid)", could then experience a yah end on the financial markets. Ethnologists are also familiar with the cargo cult: When the indigenous people in the Amazon saw airplanes flying across the sky several times and at some point something good fell down for them, they allegedly pulled dummy airplanes back and forth between the trees in the hope that something would fall from the sky for them again. According to David Hume, this is how human intelligence works.