The CargoLifter Scandal

by Dirk Pohlmann

Airships can’t fly in bad weather conditions; they are extremely susceptible to wind and can’t be integrated in the air traffic control system. Cargo airships are at best redundant because there is no market for them. Moreover, most of the experts are convinced that they are technically not feasible. There will never be stratosphere airships. The lighter-than-air technology is a crazy idea [1] that was propagated
by tricky stock traders on quasi-religious events before simple-minded victims. CargoLifter was expert on hot air issues [2]. The CargoLifter management was incapable, maybe even criminal [3] and that is why the firm is bankrupt today.
Since 2001/2002 that is, since the beginning of CargoLifter’s project-end, the above mentioned allegations have received the status of reliable expert knowledge in the public opinion.
Whoever discloses those allegations in an attitude of supremacy (“Spiegel-Leser wissen mehr” [“The Spiegel-readers know more”]) at a guest table has conquered the sovereignty over the airspace. How could it come to this?
After the trustworthy key media sources like the Financial Times Deutschland and the Spiegel [4] set the “critical” ton on the theme “Cargolif-f-f-f-f-f-f-ter“ (according to the Financial Times’ headline [5]), there was no holding back and hardly any more investigation. If journalists still investigate information at all, then the phone numbers of dissatisfied CargoLifter-engineers who were then able to live up to their sentiments of resentment due to unfulfilled career hopes in TV reportages. The insinuations and allegations got increasingly more sinister. The Stern and the TV magazine Panorama reported on “fraud allegations against CargoLifter” [6].

Meantime, the German media has a credibility problem as astonishing news has been coming in from the USA for some time now [7]. Eight years after the German media-offensive against CargoLifter, the US-armed forces announce that the first prototype of a surveillance-stratosphere-airship is expected to fly in one to two years, a total of 12 “Spy Blimps” [9] are expected to be built. The structure of a forerunner project of a HAA (High Altitude Airship) hovers in the Lockheed hangar. It had been constructed under military secrecy until the project attained its present status. US-$ 400 million are allocated for the new Lockheed Project ISIS [10] where the first flight is planned for 2011. The sum of money allocated by the US Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan and Iraq for aerostats equipped with communication and surveillance technologies [12] is well above the billion mark [13]. Those aerostats have been in use for years. The prototype of a cargo-airship that Lockheed Martin had developed at its own risk and that has gone through 6 test-flights is built double size and is expected to be deployed in 2011 over Afghanistan as an unmanned spy aircraft [14]. Boeing is developing, together with Canadian experts, another cargo airship with a load capacity of 40 tons (see page 11). The US Navy has set up a project office for the airship theme [15]. The US Army stated that the lighter-than-air technology is a new segment in the aerospace industry that ought to be developed in a concentrated effort of the civilian and military sectors [16].
A reminder: CargoLifter AG worked on airships, stratosphere airships, cargo balloons and aerostats. In other words, on all types of aircraft that are now being built in the USA for the military [17]. How could it come to that the lighter-than-air-technology in Germany gets initiated by share holders and transacted on by the state [18]? How is it possible that a few years later LTA technology is granted state financing from the ground up in the USA where the same is then for shareholders to partake in? Is the US Military today as foolish and ill informed as the CargoLifter shareholders were back then? Or, could it be that the American experts draw their analyses from sources [19] other than the German key media? Should one give the US Air Force a gift of a year’s subscription in the Spiegel so that they get to “know more” and be able to meet the “right” decisions?
The ones who have been following up on the situation in the USA will have also noticed the discrepancies between the German and American assessments. For many years (at least since 1992), airships have been a highly controversial discussion in the US military [20], but it has always been a matter of weighing up the chances and risks involved [21] whereby the issue of the fundamental feasibility was never considered at any point of time. In the last transparency of a presentation by the US Army [22] in 2004 was a picture of the USS Akron, a marine airship that resembles the Hindenburg; under the signature was: “If we were only able to build this in the 30s…”
In contrast, and following their initial jubilation over CargoLifter, the media scene in Germany had coordinated like in a pack of wolves joining in a howling choir and produced only variations around one wrong keynote, namely: “CargoLifter muss fail because airships are just a crazy idea.”
Detachment from reality and absence of diversity are some of the basic problems in today’s German media. They adapt their assessments to the coverage in the key media, in other words among themselves instead of looking into the reality of matters. Theoretically, a free “press” provides a broad range of themes and opinions in society thereby delivering the basis for a reasonable formation of opinion. The reality however is quite different; the established media constrict the spectrum of opinion, offer a limited frame of reference where differing views are ostracised. The effect is such that there is no diversity; there is only the dissemination of a narrow opinion and analyses spectrum through all information channels. This apparent “expert consensus” insinuates competent reporting. In the case of CargoLifter, the narrowing of information was fatal. Nobody wanted to get involved anymore in this project based on shares [23] over which the media reports stipulate that nobody would get involved in anymore.
But it wasn’t only the media that promoted the misjudgments; politics was actively involved in the liquidation of the Cargo-Lifter-project. Some essential decision-makers at the federal and state levels adopted the media analyses which in turn, facilitated the total sellout without having to assume any responsibility for the consequences.
CargoLifter came about as the weed beyond the state-planned-aerospace company; it was a start-up-project within an economic sector which, like in the construction industry, is dominated by dubious business practices, power play and intrigue. The aviation industry is increasingly evolving into a monopolistic planned economy. Due to time delivery delays and cost overruns during the economic crisis after September 11th, CargoLifter did not receive bridging loans but rather a mercy killing.
On the other hand, Airbus suggests that the contracts for the A 400 M be amended [24] because the time and cost plans are no longer realistic.
As a reminder: the financing requirements until the completion of a prototype during the past economic crisis amounted to app. 1 billion Euro; that was for a project that raised 320 million Euro from the disposal of shares. A sum that can easily be raised from the bonus and rewards of managers whose casino-mentality got us into the mess of the current economic crisis. The attitude of the financial elite, by the way, didn’t inspire the central organ of the “Financial Times” to publish mocking headlines with seven consecutive Fs. After CargoLifter became insolvent, the company was liquidated, completely and totally. The future shipyard was turned into a swimming pool. The CargoLifter-project brought Brandenburg a density of experts in the lighter-than-air-technology that was unique in the world. This human capital was also scattered to the winds; it is reassembling now in the USA.
The CargoLifter bankruptcy can only be seen as a disaster, especially for the credibility of the German political and media elite. The supposedly misguided shareholders out of the population had apparently a better nose for sustainable technologies as the full-time aviation experts. It’s therefore not surprising that in the randomly selected reports of the coordinator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from 2002 [25] and 2009 [26], the words “lighter-than-air”, “airship”, “LTA” are nowhere to be seen. When one is ignorant then, all the way and full blast!
There are a lot of embarrassing details that are now becoming public. In 2002, Spiegel Online reported on CargoLifter’s sale of the CL 75 cargo balloon to themselves and cast enough questions on the caliber of the Canadian CL –business partner Pete Jess and John Angus [27]. The name Peter Jess is now analogous to Boeing’s cargo airship. He is considered a visionary entrepreneur in the Canadian media. In the USA, it is publicly stated that the persistence of the LTA-advocates has finally paid off [28]. This statement is however applicable only in North America.
The development in the USA raises many questions. If CargoLifter’s management was that incompetent, as Brandenburg’s Minister for Economics Fürniss who was later suspected of fraud [29] had dictated reporters, why wasn’t the promising future technology simply handed over to a competent management after the insolvency?
Why wasn’t there at least an attempt to persuade some of the experts with unique LTA know-how to stay in Germany? Why was the CargoLifter AG totally liquidated?
Was the German politics plainly incompetent or were there other reasons for their disastrous misjudgment? Was it maybe not about LTA technology being outdated but rather the exact contrary? Is their military strategic importance such that they may only be realized in the USA [30]?
Finally: should one entrust the answers to those questions to the media which stained the theme “lighter-than-air technology” in general and “CargoLifter” in particular with everything possible aside from glory?


Sources (State: 23.11.2009)


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