Sunday, May 06, 2007

Today in Fire History: May 6

Note: This is being posted early as I'm going to be busy tomorrow.

"Oh, the humanity...."

Those simple words, cried out by a reporter in New Jersey, encapsulate the horror of one of the most tragic air crashes in history.

Thursday, May 6, 1937, Lakehurst, New Jersey: It was busier than usual at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. A number of media represent-atives, including Herb Morrison of Chicago radio station WLS, were on hand for the arrival of an airship bearing the registration number LZ-129, better known as the Hindenburg.

The ship was inbound from Frankfurt, Germany with 36 passengers (half its capacity) and 61 crew members. The return flight, however, was fully booked, primarily by people planning on attending the coronation of King George VI, on May 12.

As the craft approached the mooring pole, witnesses reported seeing a small jet of flame in front of the upper fin. Within minutes, the ship was completely destroyed, claiming 36 lives. The cause of the disaster has never been satisfactorily determined, although theories have included a build-up of static electricity, structural failure, lightning, sabotage, and being shot down.

The Hindenburg, built in 1935 and launched in 1936, had already made 17 trans-Atlantic trips: 10 to the US and seven to Brazil. It had also appeared at the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and had made a number of other propaganda flights for the Nazis.

The ship was originally intended to be filled with helium, but an American military embargo on helium forced the Germans forced the Germans to modify the design to use hydrogen, a highly flammable gas. The change did not greatly concern the Germans, however; they had extensive experience with hydrogen as a lifting gas. Additionally, the change to hydrogen gave the ship about 8% more lift capacity.

The helium embargo was somewhat ironic, in that the chairman of the Zeppelin Company, Dr. Hugo Eckner, had accepted funding from the National Socialist Party -- the Nazis -- whom he disliked, resulting in both the Hindenburg and its sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin, displaying the Nazi swastika on their fins. This apparent affiliation with Hitler and the Nazis, coupled with concerns about whether the Nazis would use dirigibles in warfare (as the Germans has done in World War I), prompted the Americans -- whom Eckner admired -- to ban the export of the helium necessary to inflate the Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg was the largest aircraft ever built, three times longer than a Boeing 747, four times longer than the current Goodyear blimp, and only 78 feet shorter than the Titanic (graphic from CiderPressPottery). The ship contained approximately 7 million cubic feet of gas in 16 compartments, with a useful lift (after subtracting the weight of the ship itself) of 247,100 pounds. Four diesel engines gave the ship a maximum speed of 84 mph. The duralumin frame was covered by cotton varnished with iron oxide and cellulose acetate butyrate impregnated with aluminium powder.

Despite the flammability of the hydrgen gas, the ship was equipped with a smoking lounge! Protected by an air-lock type entry, the lounge had one lighter locked to a table with a cord. Since all matches and lighters were confiscated by crew members as passengers boarded the ship, the smoking lounge provided the only refuge for smokers.

As noted above, no one really knows what happened that fateful day. As it approached the mooring mast, the Hindenburg caught fire. The ship's back broke and it crashed to the ground.

Among the 36 who died were 13 passengers jumping from the plummeting craft. As NPR News reported on May 4, 2007, however, the passengers who remained on board the ship all survived. 22 crew members also perished, including six who were in the bow of the craft.

The United States Navy was the primary investigative agency for the disaster, as it had happened at a Navy facility. The FBI made itself available as a backup agency, but had no direct involvement as there was no indication of any Federal violations being factors (the FBI has approximately 300 pages of investigative materials available on its website).

The loss of the Hindenburg shattered the public's faith in airships and hastened the end of these giant craft. Another factor was the almost concurrent introduction of international airliners like the Douglas DC-3.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. You got a great blog... I just wanted you to know.

    I read you from Barcelona, Catalunya, Europe.

    Go ahead! :D