The LZ-129 Hindenburg, completed in March 1936 was the biggest commercial airship ever built and was more than three times as big as a Boeing 747. It was 803.8 ft (245 m) long and 135.1 ft (41 m) in diameter. It was powered by four enormous diesel-powered Daimler engines and named after German President Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934).
It was luxuriously fitted with 72 passenger beds in twenty-five heated cabins, a dining room lined with silk wallpaper, a smoking room fitted with a double-door airlock to prevent any leaking hydrogen getting in, a lounge, a writing room and a bar. In the smoking room, the cigarette lighters were chained fast to the tables to prevent any absent-minded passengers taking them to their cabins.
There were promenades with large sloping windows which could be opened in-flight, allowing passengers to admire the view when they grew claustrophobic in their cabins.
The furniture, which included a baby grand piano, was made from lightweight aluminium.
The airship had a cruising speed of 76 mph (122 km/h) and a maximum speed of 84 mph (135 km/h), much faster than ocean liners but slower than airplanes, which were progressing in leaps and bounds.
The hydrogen was held in sixteen separate cells or bags. Totally gas-tight canisters as we’re accustomed to were still a thing of the future, and a small amount of slow seepage was allowed for. Helium would have been a much safer option than hydrogen but it was expensive and difficult to obtain outside of the US and the Soviet Union.
The Hindenburg was jointly owned by the Nazi Government and the privately run Zeppelin company.
The German minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, ordered the airship to embark on a propaganda mission before the ship’s endurance tests had even been completed. For four days it flew around Germany, blasting patriotic songs and dropping pro-Hitler leaflets. The weather was bad during the flight, and commander Ernst Lehmann ended up damaging the tail during a flight on 26 March 1936.
1936 also happened to be the year of the Berlin Olympics when Hitler got to showcase the grander features of the Fatherland before clamping down on the Jews and all the other people whom he considered sub-human and would cause so much suffering in the next nine years.
The Hindenburg made several successful flights to both Brazil and the US later in 1936. The first return trip from Brazil was marred by the failure of three of the four engines.
1937 kicked off with a flight to Rio de Janeiro and back.
On 3 May the great airship set off from Frankfurt for the first of ten scheduled passenger trips between Europe and the US. There were only 36 of a possible 70 passengers on board; there were more crew (61) than passengers and some of these were aboard for training.
The airship was however fully booked for the return flight to Europe. Many of those who bought tickets were celebrities planning to attend the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the current Queen’s parents) the following week: one of 1937’s social highlights. But they would need to make other travel arrangements…
American Airlines had a contract with the operators of the Hindenburg to shuttle some of the passengers to Newark for connections to plane flights to various destinations in the States.
By the morning of 6 May the passengers were relieved to see Boston down below. The flight had been delayed by several hours by strong headwinds and despite the luxury of their quarters they were looking forward to their arrival at Lakehurst, NJ. The crew, too, were looking forward to a proper break after the lengthy transatlantic trip.
Down on the ground many people watched the giant silver ship with mixed feelings: admiration mingled with misgivings at the sight of the stark black Nazi swastikas on either side of the tail.
Thunderstorm activity caused further delays that afternoon and Captain Max Pruss, one of two captains in charge, had the ship circle around the Empire State Building at 3:30 pm. The ship made two more flybys around the world’s tallest skyscraper as the crew waited for better landing conditions.
Passengers clustered around the viewing galleries to stare at the awesome sight. For a third of those aboard, this would be their last view of the Manhattan skyline.
After flying over the Lakehurst landing field later Captain Pruss and took the ship for a trip over the beaches of New Jersey while waiting for better weather conditions and clearance to land.
The planned landing was called a high landing, in which the ship remains at relatively high altitude and is winched down to the mooring mast once the mooring cables are in place.
Timeline to tragedy
6:22 pm: Captain Pruss is notified by Commander Rosendahl at Lakefield that the storms have passed and it is safe to bring the Hindenburg in for landing. This will later prove debatable.
7:09 pm: The Hindenburg makes a sharp left turn to the west as the ground crew aren’t ready for the landing.
7:11 pm: The ship returns to the field and releases gas. All engines are put on minimum power to enable the ship to slow down.
7:14 pm: All aft engines ordered full astern to help slow down the ship, which is at an altitude of 394 ft (120 m).
7:17 pm: The wind shifts from east to southwest. Captain Pruss orders a second sharp turn to starboard, resulting in an S-shaped flight part heading for the mooring mast.
7:18 pm: To counterbalance the heavy stern, three successive water ballast drops of 300 kg, 300 kg and 500 kg are ordered. Forward gas cells are valved. None of these measures bring the ship into balance so six crewmen are sent to the bow to help bring the ship in trim.
7:21 pm: The Hindenburg is at an altitude of 295 ft (90 m) and the mooring lines are dropped from the bow. The starboard line is dropped first, followed by the port one. The port line is tightened too much while being fastened to the post of the ground winch, causing those aboard to feel a sharp jolt. The ground crew hasn’t finished connecting the starboard one yet. A light rain begins to fall.
7:25 pm: Some ground witnesses see some of the fabric on the upper fin flutter as if gas was escaping. Others see a dim blue flame on the back. On board, some passengers hear a muffled detonation. All of a sudden fierce red flames appear.
The Hindenburg falls past the mooring mast towards the ground as the flames spread and envelop the entire stern. Flames then break out in the cone.
It was all over in approximately 37 seconds. A crumpled heap of twisted framework was all that was left of the airship which had proudly sailed the skies a short time before.
The final death toll would have been a lot worse were it not for the speedy reaction of the ground crew. 35 passengers perished: about a third of the 97 aboard. One rescuer from the ground crew was also killed. This was the 63rd and final flight for the huge zeppelin.
Documenting the disaster
Cameramen from four different newsreel teams were at Lakehurst to film the magnificence of the landing, namely Pathe News, Movietone News, Hearst News of the Day and Paramount News. Despite the delayed ETA, there was always great interest when these giants of the skies arrived. But none were expecting the human drama which would soon unfold.
Al Gold from Fox Movietone received a Presidential Citation for his photographs of the tragedy. The picture of the ship crashing with the mooring mast in the foreground was shot by Sam Shere from International News Photos. Murray Becker from Associated Press photographed the ship being engulfed by flames while it was still on even keel.
At least two members of the public were filming the landing. Customs broker Arthur Cofod Jr and 16 year old Foo Chu, both equipped with Leica cameras with high-speed film were standing in the spectators’ area near Hangar No. 1. Nine of Cofod’s images were published by Life magazine while the New York Daily News used Chu’s photos.
No known footage or photos exist of the exact instant that the fire started.
Chicago-based WLS Radio had sent announcer Herbert Morrison and engineer Charlie Nehlsen to Lakehurst on what was to be a routine broadcast on the landing.
THE RADIO RECORDING:
To hear Herb Morrison’s historic commentary which transforms in an instant from run of the mill to sudden drama, go here:
It’s practically standing still now they’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) they’ve been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again; it’s… the rain had (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from…It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it’s… [unintelligible] its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… 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! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it – I can’t even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.
It would be the first time that recordings of a news event were broadcast, and the first coast to coast radio broadcast.
There were a number of amazing escapes from the fiercely burning ship.
Passenger Joseph Spah , a comic acrobat, was making a movie of the landing from the promenade when he spotted the first sign of disaster. He smashed the window with his movie camera, clung to the windowsill until the ship was about 20 ft from the ground, then did an acrobatic jump and roll. He injured his ankle however, and a member of the ground crew lifted the little fellow under one arm and sped him to safety.
Unfortunately Ulla, the German Shepherd pup he was bringing along from Germany as a surprise for his children, did not survive the disaster.
Werner Franz was the cabin boy, aged just 14. He was busy putting dishes away when he spotted the fire and froze with shock. Then a water tank burst above him, drenching him and dousing the fire around him. He jumped through a hatchway and ran towards the starboard side, but then the wind changed and sent the flames in his direction, so he turned and ran the other direction. He was the last surviving crew member when he died in 2014 age 92.
The last surviving passenger, Werner G. Doehner (born 1928) was just 8 and travelling with his parents, brother and sister.
“Suddenly the air was on fire,” he recalled. As the ship crashed down, his mother threw him and his 10 year old brother to the ground clear of the ship.
His father and sister were killed but the rest of the family made it out. His sister died from her injuries, having returned to the ship to seek her missing father.
“We didn’t see him again,” said Werner.
Captain Max Pruss survived the crash too, but faced months of recovery and painful reconstructive surgery. He had returned to the ship to look for survivors.
Co-captain Ernst Lehmann made it out but was badly burned and died in a hospital the next day.
The Hindenburg disaster was the death knell for the airship industry. People no longer had faith in them. Aircraft were safer and faster. The Hindenburg’s sister ship, Graf Zeppelin, although sporting a perfect safety record was withdrawn from service in 1938 as Hitler’s Germany slid closer to war.
What caused all this?
Many different theories have been put forward, from sabotage to the use of flammable materials. Here is a list of some of the possible causes that have been suggested:
· Sabotage by a crew member or passenger. Commander Charles Rosendahl, commander of the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, as well as Captain Pruss believed sabotage to be the cause. Other proponents of the theory include A. A. Hoehling who published Who Destroyed the Hindenburg (1962) followed in 1972 by Michael McDonald Mooney in his book The Hindenburg. Most reputable historians reject the sabotage theory due to insufficient evidence.
· Static spark / electrical discharge. Dr Hugo Eckener who headed the German investigation believed the mooring lines became wet from rain during the four minutes from when they were lowered to the ground. If this happened, it would have grounded the frame but not the skin of the ship. This would in turn cause a sudden potential difference between skin and frame as well as between the ship and overlying air – setting off an electrical discharge or spark. This spark would have leapt from the skin to the metal framework, igniting leaking hydrogen.
· Engine failure. In a 2007 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer former ground crew member Robert Buchanan said he noticed that one of the engines, thrown into reverse for a sharp turn, backfired, emitting a shower of sparks. He believed these sparks ignited either the outer skin or leaking hydrogen. There has never been an indication that the outer skin of the ship was flammable, and the ignition temperature of hydrogen is pretty high: 482 F (250 C).
· Lightning strike. But the ship had survived lightning storms before without harm.
Possible Structural Damage
Six days before the disaster, engineers attempted to hang a biplane from the airship, but this experiment didn’t succeed as the biplane hit the trapeze of the airship several times, which could have caused some vital structural weakening.
The unusually sharp S-turns just before the landing might have weakened the structure, and it’s been proposed that sub-standard bracing wires may have been used. If a wire broke, it could have punctured one of the hydrogen cells or struck a metal girder, causing sparks to ignite the leaking hydrogen.
Zeppelin historian Dr Douglas Robinson, author of LZ-129 Hindenburg (1964) writes of a witness, Professor Mark Heald from Princeton, NJ. Professor Heald saw St Elmo’s fire flickering on the back of the ship. About a minute later by his estimation, he first noticed a dim “blue flame” flickering along the backbone girder about one-quarter the length abaft the bow to the tail. He remarked to his wife, “Oh, heavens, the thing is afire,” and she said, “Where?” “Up along the top ridge”, he replied – before there was a big burst of flaming hydrogen from a point he estimated to be about one-third the ship’s length from the stern.
What caused the fire to spread so fast?
Possibilities which have been proposed are:
· Incendiary paint (use of a flammable paint)
· A structural puncture
· A diesel fuel leak from one of the engines
· Hydrogen leak – which would explain the blue flame or “St Elmo’s fire” or static discharge seen by some witnesses.
Recent testers claim that even had the airship been coated with rocket fuel, it should have taken hours to burn – not a mere 32-37 seconds.
Hydrogen burns with a blue flame if visible at all, which would explain the “St Elmo’s Fire” observed by some.
When a single gas cell explodes, it causes a tremendous shock wave and heat, causing a domino effect of destruction among the other cells, ripping them open at which point they explode too.
Cells 1-9 burst in rapid succession. As a result of the blast, two huge tanks burst from the hull, causing the stern to disintegrate and sink while the bow lurched upwards, breaking the back section in half.
The axial gangway acted as a chimney, conducting fire which suddenly burst out at the nose cone.
Addison Bain from NASA calculated that the rate of flame spread was as much as 49 ft/second (15 m/second) at some points.
Dan Grossman, an aviation historian at Airships.net and author of Zeppelin Hindenburg: An Illustrated History of LZ-129 says the crash was the first major disaster caught on film and has sustained an interest to this day probably surpassed only by the Titanic.
He adds that most respected scholars agree there was a leak in the fuel cells, causing hydrogen to escape and mingle with oxygen, creating a highly flammable mixture, which then ignited and caused a massive fire.
“What is uncertain is why the hydrogen was leaking and what ignited it,” he says. “You could still see the lightning [when the ship was landing],” said Grossman. “There was so much electricity in the air that nearby rubber factories were closed (rubber dust is highly explosive).” Flying through the air, the ship had a positive charge. When the landing lines touched the ground, they received a negative charge. ”
“The nature of the electrostatic discharge theory that I find most convincing is that it’s consistent with as much of the physical evidence as we have,” added Grossman. “There was a difference in the electric potential of the metal framework of the ship, which was grounded by the landing lines, and the fabric covering of the ship which was electrically isolated from the framework. There was no way the charge in the fabric could discharge or equalize because it wasn’t connected to anything that was conductive. It was connected to nonconductive rami cords and wooden dowels. So you had a huge electrical charge on the fabric and a very different electrical charge on the framework because the ship was 60 to 80 meters in the air but the framework had the electrical charge of the ground.”
St Elmo’s fire is a similar phenomenon caused by the difference in electrical charges between an object and the air.
“But neither St. Elmo’s fire nor electrostatic discharge would have been dangerous if there hadn’t been a hydrogen leak”, Grossman concluded.
“The landing was rushed and they took shortcuts on some of the safety procedures,” says Rick Zitarosa, a historian with the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society.
It was known to be very dangerous to land in thundery weather. The ground crew was soaked and there was still electricity in the air.
When the ship dropped its landing ropes, they got wet and acted as conductors,” Zitarosa went on. “The ship became grounded and that’s why we think the static electricity made a spark and caught the leaking hydrogen.”
It was a perfect storm of circumstances,” said Zitarosa. “The late schedule, the weather, the leak, the decision to make the landing at that time and in that way and the use of hydrogen in general. The disaster could have been avoided on several counts, but caution was thrown to the wind.”
Once again the disaster brings to mind the Titanic, another case where everything conspired to produce the worst possible outcome.
Being twelve hours late, one can imagine that Commander Rosendahl, in charge at Lakefield, as well as the weary crew and impatient passengers were getting fed up, but maybe it would have been better for Rosendahl to postpone the “all clear” signal until later. All those in charge were probably tired and probably not in the best condition to make the right decisions.
The Lakefield Crash Site Today
A memorial on the site was dedicated on 6 May 1987, fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy. Being on military turf, it’s not usually open to the general public except by special pre-registered tours organised by the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. It is marked by a chain-outlined pad and a bronze plaque. Hangar No. 1, where the ship would have been housed before its next flight, still stands nearby.
It was opened to general members of the public on 6 May 2012 and 6 May 2017: the 75th and 80th anniversary of the tragedy. An annual memorial service is held at the approximate time of the tragedy.
Royal Society of Chemistry: What Ignited the Hindenburg?
AEI: Markets, Risk and Fashion: The Hindenburg’s Smoking Lounge
Airships.net: The Graf Zeppelin, Hindenburg, U.S. Navy Airships and Other Dirigibles