The Hindenburg Disaster, 1937

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Hindenburg

The spectacular incineration of the German airship Hindenburg in New Jersey in 1937, which resulted in the death of 36 people, was one of the most famous disasters of the 20th century.

The Hindenburg was known as the ship of dreams, the biggest craft ever to rise into the skies. It dwarfed the modern jumbo jet and it was the pride of Nazi Germany. The greatest airship in the world at 804ft-long (245 meters), it was almost as long as the ocean liner Titanic and was an inspiring sight as it sailed majestically over the cities of Berlin, New York or Rio de Janeiro. The Hindenburg had been the ultimate symbol of progress and a manifestation of Nazi Germany's power. It represented the height of luxury travel, its state rooms equipped with private showers, its dining room with exquisite blue-and-gold porcelain. Held aloft by hydrogen, it could fly at 85mph.

However, after only one year of being in service, the Hindenburg met with disaster. As it attempted to dock in Lakenhurst naval base in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, after a stormy transatlantic crossing, the Zeppelin Company's flagship was destroyed in a massive explosion. A third of its 97 crew and passengers died as spectators on the ground looked on in horror. The fiery crash signaled the end of the age of great dirigible balloons.

Historical context

The American and British dirigible industries were in tatters after a series of accidents between 1920 and 1934 resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 people, leaving the Germans as masters of the skies. Airships were the pride of German technological advancement and the Nazis used them at every opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of German know-how. At the time, the Hindenburg was the largest airship ever built, the first intercontinental passenger airliner, designed for luxury and comfort. It was also the fastest means of travel between Germany and the United States, taking two-and-a-half days, and was the favored transport of the rich; the price of passage was equivalent to one-and-a-half Volkswagens. The Hindenburg was the Concorde of its day. After the accident, though, no Zeppelin ever flew again.

Investigations

The public inquiry into the tragedy lasted a mere 18 days and simply took the word of the Hindenburg's German manufacturer, the Zeppelin Company, that its ship was in excellent condition. If such a disaster happened today, the investigation would take at least 18 months. The operating company would be required by law to disclose the full history of the craft including maintenance records, flight logs and reports of other air accidents. The 1937 inquiry asked for none of these. It relied heavily on eye-witness accounts, thus leaving the exact cause of the failure an open question to this day.

A dual inquiry conducted by experts from the German Zeppelin company, which made and operated the Hindenburg, was never published (possibly for insurance purposes) and the outbreak of WWII a couple of years later effectively ended the airship era.

Causes of the disaster

There are many diverging theories over the cause of the Hindenburg disaster. In the days and months after the airship caught fire, the most circulated theory was that the disaster was the result of sabotage, a possibility supported by the legendary manager of the Zeppelin company, Hugo Eckener. These theories were proved to be unfounded and later Eckener changed his stance and considered that the most likely cause of the ignition was the static electricity that ignited the hydrogen in its huge gas bags.

Although the theory of static electricity causing the ignition is the most largely favored one, no static discharge was observed by any witness.

A more recent theory by former NASA scientist, Addison Bain who speculates that the coating used on the Hindenburg was the cause of the accident. The airship used a coat of aluminum powder and iron oxide. Today, this combination is known to burn explosively, being used as a fuel for the space shuttle as well.