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On May 6, 1937, at 19:25 the German zeppelin Hindenburg caught fire and was utterly destroyed within a minute while attempting to dock with its mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. Although the disaster is famous, of the 97 people on board, only 35 died.
The LZ-129 Hindenburg was the largest aircraft ever. The craft was named after President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg. He (German airships have always been referred to in the masculine) was a brand-new all aluminium design: 245 m long (804 feet), 41 m in diameter (135 ft), containing 211,890 m3 of gas in 16 bags or cells, with a useful lift of 112 tons, powered by four 1100 horsepower engines giving it a maximum speed of 135 km/h (83 mph). He could carry 72 passengers (50 transatlantic) and had a crew of 61. For aerodynamic reasons the passenger quarters were contained within the body rather than in gondolas. He was skinned in cotton, coated in cellulose varnish and then aluminium. Constructed by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in 1935 at a cost of £500,000. He made his first flight in March 1936 and completed a record double-crossing in five days, 19 hours, 51 minutes in July.
The Hindenburg was intended to be filled with helium but a United States military embargo on helium forced the Germans to use highly flammable hydrogen as the lift gas. Knowing of the risks with the hydrogen gas, the engineers used various safety measures to keep the hydrogen from causing any fire when it leaked, and they also treated the airship's coating to prevent electric sparks that could cause fires.
The disaster is remembered because of extraordinary newsreel coverage, photographs, and Herbert Morrison's recorded radio eyewitness report from the landing field. Morrison's words were not broadcast until the next day. Parts of his report were later dubbed onto the newsreel footage (giving an incorrect impression to some modern eyes accustomed to live television that the words and film had always been together). See: Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Footage)
There had been a series of other airship accidents (none of them Zeppelins) prior to the Hindenburg fire, most due to bad weather. However, Zeppelins had accumulated an impressive safety record. For instance, the Graf Zeppelin had flown safely for more than 1 million miles including making the first complete circumnavigation of the globe. The Zeppelin company was very proud of the fact that no passenger had ever been injured on one of their airships. Zeppelins were considered safe.
But the Hindenburg accident changed all that. Public faith in airships was completely shattered by the spectacular movie footage and live voice recording from the scene. Because of this vivid publicity, Zeppelin transport came to an end. It marked the end of the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airships.
Questions and controversy surround the accident to this day. There are two major points of contention: 1) How the fire started and 2) Why the fire spread so quickly.
The most commonly postulated causes for the start of the fire are sabotage or a spark caused by atmospheric static buildup.
The controversy around the rapid spread of the flames centers around whether blame lies primarily with the use of hydrogen gas for lift or the flammable coating used on the outside of the envelope fabric.
Proponents of the "flammable fabric" theory contend that the extremely flammable aluminium coating could have caught fire from atmospheric static, resulting in a leak through which flammable hydrogen gas could escape. Hydrogen burns invisibly, so the visible flames (see photo) may prove that the fire could not have been caused by the hydrogen gas. Also, the naturally odorless hydrogen gas in the Hindenburg was 'odorised' with garlic so that any leaks could be detected, and nobody reported any smell of garlic during the flight or at the landing prior to the disaster. This said, had the ship been filled with the chemically inert helium, the gas could possibly have snuffed the fire at the beginning, resulting only in a leak.
A film entitled The Hindenburg, directed by Robert Wise, was released in 1975. A highly speculative thriller, it portrays a conspiracy leading to the destruction of the airship.
See also: Airship R101