The Hindenburg Disaster (1937)

the Hindenburg disaster may 6th 1937

it's the early hours of September 3rd

1916 high above st. Albans deep in the

English countryside a giant silhouette

silently seeks cover in the clouds and

suddenly a massive search lights light

up the sky moments later an aircraft of

the British Home Defense Force targets

the Zeppelin Raider that is attempting

to bomb the town below the aircraft

finally gets within range of the

Zeppelin and opens fire with its special

incendiary ammunition almost instantly

the Zeppelin crumples into a blazing

fire ball and plummets downwards falling

apart as it does so the Zeppelin raids

on Britain during World War one in

strategic terms were largely ineffectual

causing little damage but for a short

time they caused terror and much concern

to the British military and the general

public it also underlined the potential

that aerial bombing might have is a

military tool to wage war the obvious

problem with airships was that they

would never be fast enough and never be

able to carry a useful enough bomb load

following the war initially there was

very little airship development though

by the mid 1920s engineers returned to

designing airships again trying to

exploit their one true advantage their

incredible range but it quickly became

obvious that it would never be practical

for the mass market but Mura transport

that offered luxury travel with a global

reach for the elite who could afford it

as for the military they persevered with

its reconnaissance and scouting

potential as an airship could stay aloft

for days and potentially weeks at a time

still both the civil and military

operators kept running into the same two

basic flaws with airships they kept

crashing or exploding one of the things

that caused them to crash was that they

were simply too fragile and the need to

save weight compounded this problem

further as for exploding their use of

highly flammable hydrogen may seem to be

an odd choice but it was cheap and

readily available

the only real alternative was helium

though this was relatively safe it was

very expensive and not some

available after several disasters all

the major nations started to turn their

back on the airship concept seeing it as

unworkable but there was one nation that

did and that was Germany the Germans had

pioneered the Zeppelin's way back in

1906 and they were sufficiently capable

enough to be used to fly to Britain and

back on bombing raids from 1915 to 1918

in the post war the airship was

moderately successful with Germany and

most importantly it had a completely

clean safety record the giant LZ 127

Graf Zeppelin became a source of

national pride with regular passenger

flights a successful world tour in 1929

and a trip to the Arctic in 1931 so when

all other nations had abandoned the

airship concept Germany felt confident

that with the use of advanced technology

they could overcome the problems other

nations had encountered so Germany

decided to build a new generation of

giant airships the first of these was

given the highest honor and named after

general paul von hindenburg the

decorated war hero and the president of

germany during the ship's construction

so the lz-129 Hindenburg was built with

the utmost emphasis on safety and

cutting-edge design but also on grandeur

and vanity the design team was led by

the experienced Zeppelin designer dr.

Luke Vick do using duralumin a new

copper aluminum alloy throughout the

ship's frame as it was stronger and more

durable and crucially it had been

originally intended to use the much

safer helium gas but this had to be

abandoned when America the chief source

of helium refused to export it abroad so

the design was switched to the cheaper

and more widely available hydrogen gas

the construction on the lz-129

Hindenburg started in 1931 but was

forced to stop when the company building

it lift shift Paul Zeppelin went

bankrupt the Nazi government offered to

pay for his completion as long as it

could be used for propaganda purposes

and carry the swastika on its fins the

Hindenburg was finally ready by 1936 and

was 804 feet long had cabins for 50

passengers a crew of 40 and could carry

22,000 pounds of mail

cargo it used seven million cubic feet

of hydrogen gas had a top speed of 85

miles per hour and arranged in excess of

8,000 miles though the passenger cabins

on board the ship were cramped it did

have large public rooms as well as a

dining room a bar a lounge a writing

room and a pressurized smoking room

throughout it was opulent ly decorated

with stylish design features it was most

definitely aimed at the privileged and

powerful in society offering only a

first-class service the cost of a

one-way transatlantic ticket was four

hundred dollars about seven thousand one

hundred and forty five dollars in

today's value in 1936 it started to make

transatlantic flights to the United

States and took part in propaganda

events for Reich ministry for public

enlightenment and propaganda like the

Berlin Olympics

the only problem reported that year was

some minor trouble with one of her

engines that was quickly rectified

on May 3rd 1937 the Hindenburg set out

from Frankfurt in Germany on a 3-day

3,900 mile trip to Lakehurst New Jersey

in the United States the trip was


and the only holdup was that the

Hindenburg's landing was delayed by a

few hours in order to avoid several

thunderstorms at 7:21 the Hindenburg

came in to land and dropped her mooring

lines that were promptly grabbed by a

team of ground handlers then without

warning four minutes later the

Hindenburg bursts into flames and in

less than 30 seconds the airship had

crashed to the ground engulfed in fire

by some miracle of the 97 passengers and

crew members on that trip only 35 were

killed plus there was one more death and

that was a member of the ground crew

killed by the falling airship the

majority of those kills were sadly burnt

to death while a few died while trying

to escape while jumping from the airship

when it was still high above the ground

virtually all of the crew

inside the hull were killed as for the

passenger decks and the compartments

attached below as the airship came

crashing down it had landed on its

starboard side

therefore allowing the majority of the

passengers and crew on the opposite side

the port side to escape the people on a

starboard side were far less lucky a

light wind pushed the fire away from the

portside towards them to make matters

worse part of the burning hull collapsed

on top of the starboard side decks and

compartments finally their fate was

truly sealed as suddenly the sliding

doorway to the escape stairway became


very few people made it out of that part

of the airship alive but there was one

factor that worked in the favour of the

passengers and crew that accounted for

why there were more survivors than you'd

might expect that was that hydrogen

burned sharply upwards due to its

buoyancy whereas most other fuels are

far more destructive around the general

area of the fire though many of those

that survived were still badly burned a

reporter named Herbert Morrison was

recording a radio broadcast at the time

and said after it was suddenly engulfed

in flames this is the worst of the worst

catastrophes in the world

oh it's flames crashing oh four or five

hundred feet into the sky and it's it's

a terrific crash ladies and gentlemen

it's smoke and it's in flames now and

the frame is crashing to the ground not

quite to the mooring mast oh the

humanity the Hindenburg's demise was

sudden but what had caused the explosion

the truth of the matter as we simply

don't know the various boards of

enquiries and Commission's that were

held afterwards could not come to a

definitive conclusion as to why the

Hindenburg suddenly burst into flames

and exploded due to the political

climate and the sensationalism of the

newspapers at the time sabotage was a

favored explanation but apart from a few

threatening letters before the ship took

off there was nothing to support this

theory but interestingly the head of the

company that made it as well as the

American commander of the base where the

Hindenburg was landing at the time of

the explosion and the commander of the

Hindenburg itself all thought it was


lightning was another theory put forward

as the Hindenburg was venting hydrogen

at the time as a part of its landing


there were thunderstorms in the area but

these storms work quite a ways away this

would have been very plausible if it was

not for the fact that thousands of

people were watching the Hindenburg at

the time not one reported a lightning

strike on the airship for that matter

no one saw any lightning in the sky at

the time of the landing another theory

was a problem with one of the engines

was thought at one stage to be letting

off sparks but as the ignition point of

hydrogen is quite high and sparks like

this would be over 200 centigrade below

hydrogen's ignition point the theory was

never taken seriously a favored

explanation is the static charge theory

but it's complicated and would have to

have a number of factors in place to

have happened

and then there was little chance it

would have caused the ignition needed to

cause the explosion other theories

considered and dismissed where the

airship hull was punctured causing vast

amounts of gas to escape and ignite or

that there was a diesel fuel leak from

the engines but maybe the explanation is

simply that hydrogen airships are

inherently unsafe dr. Hugo Eckener a

former Zeppelin pilot who was heavily

involved at airship development in

Germany would later say after the

Hindenburg disaster that if he ever

designed an airship again he would never

consider using hydrogen as a floatation

source under any circumstances but there

would be no more airships after the

Hindenburg disaster as the military and

the public lost confidence in the whole

concept and the last great airship the

Graf Zeppelin to sistership to the

Hindenburg was scrapped in 1940 and was

used to build German wartime fighter