The Hindenburg Disaster
The History Cat Classroom
The Hindenburg Disaster
The LZ 129 Hindenburg stood hovering over a small crowd gathered at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. At 100 feet longer than a battleship, the airship was the pride of Nazi Germany. Camera crews were on the ground to do a small write-up about the arrival of one of the most luxurious airships ever built. But May 6, 1937, would soon burn itself into the pages of history - not because of the arrival of the giant zeppelin, but for what happened at precisely 7:25 p.m. Just as the ship’s mooring ropes were being tossed down to the ground crew below to anchor the ship, a small fire erupted in the ship’s stern (rear) that in a matter of seconds turned the ship into a raging inferno. The crowd below watched in horror as the ship crashed to the ground in a burning hulk with 97 people trapped in the its gondola. It seemed impossible that anyone could survive such a disaster, yet miraculously 62 survived!
This was the golden age of the airship which promised to change the way people traveled. One of the oldest and largest manufacturers of rigid airships - called dirigibles (airships powered by an engine) - was the German Zeppelin Company that came to give its name to all rigid airships. The Hindenburg was the largest and most luxurious of the Zeppelin’s airships and at a top speed of 80 MPH, it could make the Atlantic voyage in less than two days. Consider the fact that it took a week for an ocean liner to make the same journey. Throw in the fact that airplanes were still new and were seen as dangerous machines that had to make frequent refueling stops and you can see why zeppelin was the wave of the future. That is until the evening of May 7, 1937, brought passenger air travel to an abrupt and fiery halt.
Nazi Germany was so proud of this zeppelin. They saw it as being so stable, fast and modern that it was going to transform the way people traveled. Its 800 foot long steel frame (that’s what made it a rigid airship as opposed to a blimp, which has no frame) was covered by cloth and powered by four Daimler diesel engines, each with 1,420 horsepower. Linked to the frame was a gondola that could carry 72 passengers and about 60 crewmen. (On this particular New York trip, it carried only half the number of passengers.) This entire steel framework made the giant dirigible very heavy. To get the ship in the air took dozens of airtight bags filled with lighter-than-air hydrogen gas. The problem was that hydrogen gas is extremely unstable.
Traveling on the Hindenburg was the height of luxury. Passengers could stroll the two window-lined promenade decks of the gondola, relax in the reading room, hang out with friends in one of the lounges, or have a world-class meal served by world famous chefs for only $400 (about $4,300 in today’s money). For a one-way trip, this was a bargain. Travel by airship was smooth sailing - literally. A few passengers commented on how the ship didn’t even seem to be moving. One woman, when she asked a crew member when the ship would be taking off, was shocked to learn that it had been in the air for two hours.
The Hindenburg was not built to be a hydrogen ship. The ship’s designers knew too well of the dangers of this flammable gas and planned to use helium (used in modern blimps) to give the Hindenburg a lift. The problem was that in 1936, Hitler was already stirring up trouble in Europe with his talk of a greater Germany and military rearmament. This made the United States, which happened to hold a monopoly on the secret of helium, nervous and they refused to sell any to the Nazi government. The makers of the Hindenburg were forced with no other choice than to use the more dangerous hydrogen.
The Zeppelin Company went to work to retrofit the ship with safety measures that would prevent an explosion. The crew wore asbestos suits and felt boots whenever they went inside the interior. The ladders were covered in rubber. The crew’s uniform had no metal buttons or zippers. These precautions prevented a buildup of static electricity that would certainly trigger an explosion. Since hydrogen is odorless and colorless, a garlic scent was added to give the crew a warning in case of a leak. (No word if garlic toast was ever included in the menu.) The ship’s diesel engines were designed to start up without using an igniting spark.
Even the passengers had to observe strict rules. It might seem a bit insane for a ship that could explode at the slightest spark would include a smoking room on board, but the designers even took care to fireproof that. The smoking room was sectioned off by airtight doors that pressurized the room to prevent any stray hydrogen from leaking in. The ship's only cigarette lighter was chained to the wall as the crew had already confiscated matches and lighters before passengers boarded. As an added measure of security, passengers' clothing was checked for any ashes or still-ignited cigarette butts.
The Hindenburg was traveling south from Boston when the captain got word of an approaching storm. The ship was already a half-day behind schedule but would have to divert its course until the storm passed. The zeppelin took a detour to give passengers a view of downtown Manhattan. New Yorkers raced out onto the street to catch a glimpse of the massive ship passing overhead. By about 7:00 p.m., the crew was given the all clear to proceed onto Lakehurst.
Of course, we know what happened at 7:25, just as the Hindenburg was dropping its mooring lines to the ground crew below. What we don’t know is why the Hindenburg went off like a time bomb. Several theories have been given. One of them was that it actually was a time bomb to embarrass the Nazi government. Some of the crew reported seeing a passenger go into the luggage compartment right before the explosion. Others say that it was a small hydrogen leak that was set off by a stray bolt of lightning. The official report is that Elmo's Fire was at work. No we're not talking about the 1980s classic film starring Emilio Estevez. St. Elmo's Fire is a weather phenomenon sometimes seen during electrical storms like the one on May 6, 1937. St. Elmo's Fire is similar to lightning in that it is caused by an imbalance between positive and negative atoms. Unlike lightning, however, it leaves a bluish glow that can last a minute or more. St. Elmo's Fire was said to have ignited a small gas leak somewhere near the tail of the ship. The problem with this is that no one saw the characteristic blue glow.
What caused the Hindenburg disaster may remain one of those unsolved mysteries that history is full of. What we do know is that the Hindenburg was the last commercial dirigible ever flown. It wasn't the first or even the worst airship disaster, but it was the first to be caught on camera. Within hours, the haunting footage of reporter Herbert Morrison was being beamed around the world and with it, the end of the Golden Age of the airship.
The Hindenburg explosion killed the era of zeppelin commuter travel.
Herbert Morrison was a Chicago radio reporter sent to do a small piece on the landing of the Hindenburg. What you are hearing is Morrison's actual recording but the film was done without audio. The film and audio were later on dubbed together.