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Clive Palmer’s magnificent flying machines

Forget WikiLeaks, Oprah and the Warne-Hurley saga, all eyes are on iron ore baron Clive Palmer today, after the mining magnate made a surprising announcement yesterday. No, not about hiring Chinese workers. The other announcement.

Palmer is investing in the commercial viability of the Zeppelin.

Yes, the Zeppelin. And no, we’re not talking the ‘Led’ variety — the band haven’t toured here since 1972, FYI — but those magnificent flying machines which, since the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, have reserved for themselves possibly the most infamous place in aeronautical history.

In what Palmer has described as a “$2 dollar company”, new start-up Zeppelin International will investigate the possibility of the rigid airship being employed once again for commercial use, 70 years after it was assumed they were confined to the scrap heap for ever.

When the inevitable Hindenburg disaster was brought up by journalists, the iron ore baron shot back that it if the Germans had been granted access to helium during war time, instead of the highly-flammable hydrogen, “there wouldn’t be any problems” and that “the basic technology is still pretty sound.”

What they had was the wrong sort of gas in them at that time, they had hydrogen which exploded,” Palmer told journalists.

Indeed it did Clive. On Thursday 6 May 1937, 35 people died when the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire while attempting to land. The airship was filled with hydrogen, a tremendously light but also extremely flammable gas, and was consumed with flames in less than a minute.

As others have noted, there were more catastrophic incidences than the Hindenburg disaster, but the spectacular footage captured of the explosion was believed to have permanently destroyed the public’s confidence in the Zeppelin.

Despite Palmer rarely missing with his string of mining investments, the colourful personality has taken one punt recently which has seen mixed results. The BRW-rich lister currently owns A-League soccer club Gold Coast United, after initially bank rolling the club’s successful bid to enter the league in 2009. Gold Coast has been dogged by poor crowds this season and there are continuing media reports that Palmer is ready to pull his millions out of the club.

Unfortunately, information on Palmer’s new Zeppelin start-up is slim. There is currently no online presence for Zeppelin International, while news reports have been confined to the coy snippets offered by Palmer at press conferences.

Calls to Clive Palmer’s Mineralogy office this morning for further information yielded no luck, while Crikey spoke to his business partner Andre von Zeppelin — a travel agent and descendant of original Zeppelin pioneer Count Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin — however that was also less than fruitful.

von Zeppelin had no comment, telling Crikey that Palmer will be in charge of all press for the new endeavour.

UPDATE 1:55pm: Clive Palmer called Crikey not long after deadline to say that, despite today’s press reports, Zeppelin International would “not necessarily” be investing in Zeppelins.

It’s just a company named after the two other business partners who have the name Zeppelin,” he told Crikey. “There are hundreds of businesses named after family names. I could call it Clive Palmer International.”

Palmer said that Zeppelin International would be looking into a variety of potential investments, including beef cattle.

I did answer questions saying that the Zeppelin is interesting, but that’s another issue. If the press want to go that way they can,” Palmer said. “I don’t think the interest at the moment is in Zeppelins, but maybe in the future. We’ll see.”

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  • 1
    Flower
    Posted Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. So can the taxpayers of WA see all or part of the $45 million environmental bond Palmer weazled out of paying on his iron ore project, before he invests in Zeppelin International? After all, the state of the environment in resource rich WA has been thoroughly trashed by his ilk and free of charge too!

  • 2
    mark hipgrave
    Posted Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Alan Bond dabbled in the same industry in the 1980s

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airship_Industries

  • 3
    Posted Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Maybe he should invest in losing weight.

    Because he is fat. Clive Palmer is a fat man. He is grotesquely obese.

  • 4
    Meski
    Posted Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Apart from “hydrogen is extremely flammable” what do you have against them, given that they’ll inevitably be inflated with helium?

    Oh the humanity”

  • 5
    michael crook
    Posted Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Yes, fortunately someone else mentioned obese bit so I dont have to. While I do not generally agree with any of Australia’s many billionaires on anything, this idea has great merit and there have been several proposals in recent years, none of which unfortunately, have got off the ground. (sorry) There is great merit in the proposal to carry freight by airship, far more environmentally friendly than our armies of trucks, and great also for both in country and international air travel for passengers, and lots less space needed for landing areas. Bring it on. I, who have no shares in the casino called the stockmarket, would definitely invest in this.

  • 6
    zut alors
    Posted Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    I wonder which will have the first maiden flight ie: Virgin Galactic or Big Clive’s zeppelin?

  • 7
    Flower
    Posted Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    If Big Clive’s on the maiden flight, will he be charged for excess baggage?

  • 8
    Michael Noonan
    Posted Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    There have indeed been several attempts at reviving the dirigible before. All have failed. They’re complete bastards, and potentially highly dangerous, in a major storm, so schedules are hard to keep, they have to be huge (HUGE!) to carry useful amounts of freight if you use helium(much less efficient than the inflammable hydrogen) as the lifting gas, and they’re too slow to compete with fixed wing aircraft. The only niches where they’ve had any success is as mobile advertising billboards, and as free flying camera platforms. These niches have not made enough money to keep the companies that owned them going.
    Never say never, but it’s hard to see the financial case for bringing them back to life once more.

  • 9
    Michael Noonan
    Posted Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and Flower, Clive wouldn’t be on the maiden flight, he’d BE the maiden flight. A bulk purchase of helium suppositories and he’d be away, an inspiring sight in the skies of Western Australia.

  • 10
    Flower
    Posted Wednesday, 15 December 2010 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    Right you are Michael Noonan. Palmer’s leased his 632,000 hectare Mardie cattle station in WA to the Chinese for 25 years. Between Big Clive’s gaseous emissions, your helium suppositories and a whirly gig up his behind, he should stay sky-bound long enough to land in the dirty big hole the Chinese are digging – an open-cast pit 5.5 kilometres long, three kilometres wide and hundreds of metres deep. I’ll be at Mardie for splatdown with a Toro 50D dump truck to tidy things up a bit.

    Yee haw ……up up and away…..!

  • 11
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 15 December 2010 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    The problem was not the hydrogen but the dope used to waterproof the outerskin, made up of iron & nitrate oxides - excellent rocket fuel or thermic explosive but not great to enclose hydrogen. When colour corrected the Hindenburg conflagration can be seen to be burning bright orange whereas any 1st year sceince student knows that hydrogen burns pale blue.
    As MickN points out, helium is less than half as efficient as hydrogen hence they have never met expectations since the first era.
    The best skin for an Ozigible would be black wool - waterproof, fireproof plus it increases slightly in temperature when wet.
    The other main problem alluded to is handling, again due to their invention in the 19thC. These days are combined turbine compressor could use the lifting gas, hydrogen, as a fuel & coolant, to reduce lift when landing, previously the time of greatest vulnerability.
    I recommend the wonderful ABC series voiced by Robin Williams.

  • 12
    Roger Clifton
    Posted Wednesday, 15 December 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Helium is rare in the atmosphere, but it is common in the ground. Helium is usually dumped as a waste byproduct during the liquefaction of methane. It would only take a rise in the price of helium for the various LNG plants around the world to add a helium extraction stage.
    .
    The old, salt-trapped reservoirs of Central Australia are particularly high in helium and may yet become world-class producers.
    .
    The lift of helium in a gas balloon is in direct proportion to the weight of the air displaced, less its own weight. Thus helium lifts (28.5-4)/28.5*1.3 = 1.12 kg/m3, comparable with hydrogen at (28.5-2)/28.5*1.3 = 1.21 kg/m3.
    .

  • 13
    db
    Posted Thursday, 16 December 2010 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    As for those who think that handling of enormous lighter than air objects in anything other than dead calm is a solved problem need to do something like hang a sheet on a line on a windy day and watch. The aviator and explorer Wilkes had a lot to say about weather and the Graf Zeppellin when he travelled on it as a journalist on it’s circumnavigation of the world.

    However I think the main problem here is that it’s not an engineer behind it but a travel agent that just happens to have the right name. It sounds like the Cape York spaceport scam or Horvath’s car that runs on water all over again.

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