Dresden, June/July 2018

A former colleague recently mentioned to me that it was possible to do 'airship' sightseeing flights over Dresden.

I had done flights in balloons before (most notably to celebrate my 50th birthday) and I had been in a Zeppelin as well, but I've never been in a blimp.

Mandatory pedantic note at this point: If it has a fixed internal structure, it's a zeppelin. If it keeps its shape by internal gas pressure (like a balloon), it's a blimp.

So it seemed like a good idea to book a flight and have a look at Dresden from above.

But, at first, it seemed like a repeat of the previous weekend. I had been in Greece. I had booked a canyoning tour, but that was cancelled due to bad weather and I had to find something else to do instead.

On the weekend, when the flight was supposed to happen, the weather wasn't good. It was overcast, but, more critical, it was windy. So I had already expected that the flight would be cancelled and then got a message confirming it.

So instead of having a nice sightseeing flight, I amused myself by switching the window to the hotel bathroom on and off.

Hotel bathroom window

For some reason, they had a window between the main hotel room and the bathroom, which could be turned opaque by the flip of a switch. I knew these kind of windows existed for meeting rooms, but I'm not sure how practical they are in a hotel room. But it's a fun idea, it's something unusual, it was an ArtOtel, so a bit of playfulness is expected, and I could watch the TV in the main room while taking a shower.

But I would have preferred to have that besides the blimp flight instead of instead.

To do something more with a weekend in Dresden than flipping a switch, I also went on a quad tour.

Quad bikes ready for tour Quad I was riding

As that was booked on short notice, I didn't manage to go on a longer tour, but at least I managed to get on a two hour 'starter tour'.

The weather was ok, but not great. (If the weather had been great, I would have been in a blimp, not on a quad.) But it didn't rain and was ok for the activity.

For such a short tour, the terrain was unexpectedly varied.

The initial bits were on streets (we first had to get somewhere to go off-road). But after that, there were grass tracks through the fields, gravel tracks, sand tracks and short bits made out of concrete slabs.

Quads on grass track near Dresden Quads on flat sand surface near Dresden Quads on gravel track near Dresden Quads on soft sand track near Dresden

There wasn't any 'tricky' terrain to drive across (no mud, no deep sand, no rivers to fjord, no steep hills), just one short, steep-ish dip downwards. For a short 'starter tour' it was quite good.

Me on quad

And it didn't seem that the local livestock was unduly worried about us.

Cattle watching quad tour

Originally, my blimp flight would have been in the early evening.

Like balloon flights, blimp flights are scheduled at dawn or at dusk, as during the main part of the day, the sun heats the ground and the rising air creates drafts, which make the flight less controllable. Especially if different surfaces radiate heat at different rates. Like, for example, a large river running through a city and heating up slower but retaining heat longer than the ground next to it.

The next available seat on a blimp flight was on the following weekend. This time at the earliest slot on Sunday morning: 05:30.

It meant getting up early, but it was worth it.

Early sunrise

And as I was on the first flight, I did see the blimp being inflated.

(There were multiple flights that morning, probably partly to reduce the backlog from the previous weekend, as they had to cancel all flights there.)

When it's not inflated, the blimp looks insubstantial. Most plastic shopping bags look more rigid than cloth the hull is made out of.

Uninflated blimp Passenger cabin under uninflated blimp Uninflated blimp

And even though it looks quite large when it's inflated, it is not bigger than a balloon. It's a matter of shape - balloons are roughly spherical, so they have a large volume for a given surface, while the proverbial 'cigar shape' (though this would be a very odd looking cigar) needs to quite longer to have a similar same volume.

There were some balloons ready to go when we started (and some more starting when we came back). The heart-shaped balloon has about a third more volume than the blimp, even though this is a third longer than the balloon's largest diameter.

And that's a small balloon. An eight passenger balloon has about twice the volume of the blimp.

So the blimp is not as voluminous as it looks.

The way of inflating it is similar to a balloon, but a bit more hidden.

While the burner on a balloon is on top of the basket and visible on the sides, the burner in a blimp is on top of the passenger cabin, but as that is directly attached to the blimp (and not like a balloon's basket hanging a bit below it), you can't see it from the outside.

The procedure to get it inflated is otherwise the same as for a balloon.

An external fan is attached to blow in some air and inflate it partly.

Once it has a bit of a shape, the burner is started to heat up the air inside. After a while the fan is taken away and the air expands only from the heat inside.

Starting to inflate the blimp External fan attached to blimp Blimp and balloon inflating Blimp partly inflated by fan

In the meantime, the red, heart-shaped balloon in the background was getting ready for departure and next to it two more balloons were rolled out (actually three, but the third one was on the far left of the field).

More balloons being prepared More balloons being prepared

Getting the blimp ready took a while. So there was some time to watch the heart-shaped balloon take off.

Heart-shaped balloon almost ready Heart-shaped balloon almost ready Passengers entering heart-shaped balloon
Heart-shaped balloon lifting off Heart-shaped balloon on its way

While a balloon is essentially ready to lift off when it's lighter than air, it's a bit trickier with a blimp.

It also needs to be in its proper shape.

It's no good when it looks like this.

Halfway inflated blimp Halfway inflated blimp

The main attention was on the fins. I had somehow expected that they at least would contain some sort of rigid internal structure, or at least inflated separately somehow. But they were part of the main hull and only took shape when the blimp was fully inflated.

So the burner was kept on a bit longer.

Burner inside blimp

Then the lookouts on the side of the blimp indicated that everything was in proper shape and the burner was off.

Burner inside blimp turned off

Time to go.

Blimp lift-off

The wind was blowing westwards, so the balloon was drifting away from the city of Dresden. But we turned around and headed towards it.

View towards Dresden across Ostragehege

Below us, the three balloons were also ready to leave.

Balloons starting from Ostragehege Balloons starting from Ostragehege Balloons starting from Ostragehege

First we crossed Ostragehege, a multi-use sports venue in Dresden, then crossed the Elbe at Marienbrücke (yes, a blimp doesn't need bridges, but that happened to be where we crossed the river) and went towards Dresden-Neustadt.

Ostragehege Elbe on an early Sunday morning Looking over former Yenidze factory Crossing Marienbruecke

We then passed the "Japanese Palais" (named that way because it used to store a Japanese porcelain collection) and had a good view of the Königstraße behind it, with the sun being just right to shine along the street.

Japanese Palais Japanese Palais and Koenigsstrasse Japanese Palais and Koenigsstrasse

There are some obvious things to see, which you also recognize from ground level, like one of the (unfortunately turned off) water fountains at Neustädter Markt, but also 'hidden' things, like the glass roofed interior courtyard at the main public records office or an oddly shaped roof terrace. Or how much the Martin-Luther church is 'fenced in' by other buildings.

Water fountain at Neustaedter Markt Glass ceiling at public records office Shared rooftop terrace Martin-Luther Church in Dresden

From time to time, the burner was started again to maintain altitude (mostly at about 200 meters).

Blimp burned operating

There were also occasional course corrections.

Which were a lot more primitive than I had assumed.

While there was a fairly high-tech instrument panel in the blimp, that was solely for status display and communication.

Blimp instrument panel Blimp instrument panel Blimp instrument panel

And there was a smartphone, attached to one of the poles that were part of the cabin construction, to provide navigational info.

The real handling of the blimp was with one button and two ropes (and probably some lever).

The button (one the little black box to the right of the instrument panel in the next picture) fired the burner.

And the ropes (well, technically one rope going through a pulley system) are used to mechanically pull the big yaw rudder at the back of the blimp to the left or the right to steer the blimp. (There will be some pictures near the end that show the flying blimp from the outside. Those will make it clearer.)

There also must have been some way to control the speed of the propeller behind the passenger cabin, but I didn't see where that was or what it looked like.

Blimp steering rope Blimp steering rope

A balloon drifts with the wind, so it feels (sudden wind gusts notwithstanding) wind-still in the balloon. But we were heading against the wind on our way out. Quite noticeable in the open cabin.

Me in blimp over Dresden Me in blimp over Dresden

We followed the Elbe upriver beyond Waldschlösschenbrücke, until we came to a building that looked a bit like a castle or a monastery. It turned out to be a former waterworks building (called Saloppe), which is currently being renovated and turned into luxury apartments.

That was as far as we were going, so we turned the blimp around and headed back.

Elbe at Waldschloesschenbruecke Elbe at Waldschloesschenbruecke Elbe river near Dresden Saloppe water works

As I was sitting on the left side of the blimp's cabin, I had a good view towards the historic parts of Dresden on the way back.

Before reaching the 'old town', we passed the Magistrate's Court building, the football stadium in the distance and another building with an unexpected glass ceiling - this time the art gallery at the Residenzschloss.

Dresden Magistrate Court Building Dresden football stadion Art gallery at the Residenzschloss

As we were flying low, we also had a good view at the ships moored at the shore of the Elbe and could make out some details, like a miniature golf course on the upper deck of one of them.

Ships on Elbe shore Ship on Elbe shore Ship on Elbe shore Ship detail miniature golf

And then we passed the area with the highest density of historic buildings. Including the most famous one, the Frauenkirche.

Frauenkirche Dresden Frauenkirche Dresden

There was a big construction site next to Dresden Cathedral, but the view from above was not obstructed.

Dresden Cathedral Frauenkirche and Dresden Cathedral

And then a good view at the 'ensemble' of Dresden Cathedral to the left, the Zwinger in the middle and the Semperoper to the right, with the morning sun illuminating it nicely.

Dresden Cathedral, Zwinger, Semperoper Dresden Cathedral, Zwinger, Semperoper

A quick look at the hotel that I was staying in. (I could see my room from the blimp, which meant that the blimp was visible on its route from my room. Which turned out to be convenient later.)

ArtOtel Dresden behind Haus der Presse

Then we passed the regional government building.

Sachsen regional government Sachsen regional government

And then the convention center.

Convention Center Dresden

When we passed the Jenidze building, the flight was almost over.

Jenidze building Jenidze building

Right next to it, the Ostragehege sports complex begins and we could already see the landing site ahead. And two more balloons getting ready for take-off, with the four balloons that had started when we began our flight some distance ahead.

Ostragehege with balloons being prepared Ostragehege with balloons being prepared Earlier balloons in the distance

There must have been some minor sports meeting going on that weekend, since there were a lot of tents on one of the grass areas near a running track.

Tents at Ostragehege

Looking at the equipment scattered around, it probably involved lacrosse.

Lacross gear

On approaching the landing spot, I photographed a building just because it looked odd. I wasn't aware that this is, depending on your literary tastes, a meaningful location. It's part of the Slaughterhouse-Five complex, which provided the name to the Kurt Vonnegut novel. (If I had been aware of it, I'd have framed the picture so that the main entrance, which is to the left of the modern looking building behind the boiler house and which has a memorial plaque on it, would be visible as well. It can be glimpsed at the very left of this picture, which I took when we started - the small building with the round tower, right at the edge of the picture.)

Slaughterhouse 5 boiler house

Due to the wind direction, we didn't approach our landing spot directly, but circled around the balloons to approach the site against the wind.

Balloons at Ostragehege Balloons at Ostragehege Balloons at Ostragehege

We overshot the spot a little bit (we were supposed to come down where the person with the gas tanks is standing in the first picture - obviously we're still a bit too far above ground at that point - but we came down quickly and a member from the ground crew grabbed the nose rope and then three of them pulled us back to where we were supposed to be.

Intended landing point Blimp on the leash Pulling the blimp back

Time to get out and let the next passengers in.

Unlike a balloon, which is usually deflated after a flight, the blimp stays inflated and can go directly on its next flight. But that means changing passengers has to be done with care. If everyone jumps out, the blimp will take off again. So the passengers leave one by one and are replaced individually by the new passengers.

Time to have a look at the cabin and the blimp. There wasn't much time for looking at it when we started and I didn't see the blimp fully inflated. When I got in, the fins were still hanging limp down the sides.

Blimp cabin

I had been sitting where the guy with the camera is sitting in the picture.

While there is a bit of a plexiglass windscreen towards the front, the cabin is open to the sides. The front seat has a bit of an armrest, but the seats on the back are elevated and have no barriers at the sides. (But everyone is attached to their seats with four-point seatbelts.)

With no window between you and the outside, it's a great platform for photography. The flight is controllable (unlike a balloon), the blimp is above the photographer so it's not in the way (unlike a sailplane), it can fly slowly (unlike a plane) and it doesn't vibrate much (unlike a helicopter). And it's a lot cheaper to operate than a helicopter.

Most of this can also be done by an inexpensive drone, but it's more fun to be up there yourself...

Here's a good view of the complete blimp.

Blimp on ground Blimp about to take off

It gets propelled (literally) by the small propeller right behind the cabin.

And the big steering rudder at the end (pulled left or right by the rope in the cabin) can be clearly seen.

The shorter fins to the sides (and also the part of the vertical fins that don't extend beyond the hull of the blimp) seem to be non-moveable. So they are not, like on planes, to control ascent or descent (that's done with the burner). Their purpose is probably to keep the blimp from 'rolling' on turns or from side winds.

I am not sure why the propeller isn't used for steering (either by making it moveable or by putting some rudder behind it to swivel the airstream behind it). I assume that, if you do that, the main effect would be to push the cabin to a side. And that it would create a strong 'rolling' effect on the blimp with a much lesser turning effect. But I haven't checked this.

Blimp cabin

There's also a 'tube' directing some of the propeller air into the blimp. As the cooling off of the air in the blimp is to slow for landing, there must be some way to let air out of the blimp (probably something to do with the little grey square a bit ahead of the cabin).

In a balloon that's easy.

You rip open a velcroed bit at the top of the balloon and it deflates.

You don't need to lift off again.

But a blimp often will take off again after landing, so there must be a way to let the air out in a controlled way. And then you need to refill it again for take-off (just reheating the air that is left is not always sufficient).

So you blow in some air with the propeller and everything is properly set again.

By now, it was around 06:20, so the sun was well up. All the small clouds gave the sky a nice texture. And the two balloon were lifting off as well, so I was able to take some 'decorative' looking pictures of the blimp and the balloons.

Blimp and balloons Blimp and balloons Balloons Blimp and balloons Blimp
Blimp and balloons Balloon Balloons Blimp and moon
Blimp and balloons Blimp and balloons Blimp and balloons Blimp and balloons

Time to walk back again to the hotel.

On the way, there were occasional glimpses of the blimp flying towards the center of Dresden again.

Blimp and clouds Blimp and clouds Blimp and clouds

I passed the Yenidze building again - this time at ground level.

I had seen that building quite a few times, but I had never noticed that the dome was translucent. In most light conditions, it looks as if the dome is covered in ceramic tiles. Only with the sun still being low in the sky, it became obvious that it was in fact a stained glass roof.

Yenidze building in Dresden Yenidze building in Dresden

The building was built as a cigarette factory (more than a century ago). And since cigarettes were associated with the orient (for example, as 'Turkish tobacco'), it seemed like proper 'advertisement' to give the factory an 'oriental' look. (An advertising method much preferable to pop-up windows and video clips.)

While I was back at the hotel, I did see the blimp out of my hotel room window a couple of times.

The last flight of the day had been booked by a photographer (the pilot had mentioned that in the morning). It seems he wanted to do some 360° aerial videos of Dresden - at least it looked like an Insta360Pro camera hanging down from the blimp.

Blimp seem from my hotel room Blimp with 360 camera hanging below Blimp with 360 camera hanging below Blimp with 360 camera hanging below

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