Everything You Have Ever Wanted to Know About The Hindenburg Disaster

May 2019 was the 82nd anniversary of the destruction of the airship Hindenburg, and the end of the era of lighter-than-air ships.
Marcia Wendorf

May 2019 was the 82nd anniversary of the airship Hindenburg's destruction. On May 6, 1937, the German airship came in for her usual mooring at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in Manchester Township, New Jersey. On board were 97 people, 36 passengers and 61 crewmen.

Without warning, the German passenger ship burst into flames. 13 passengers and 22 crewmen were killed in the ensuing inferno, and one worker on the ground died.


Unsurpassed luxury

Hindenburg was in her second year of commercial service, and was known for her unsurpassed luxury. She even had a smokers' lounge despite the presence of 7 million cubic feet of highly combustible hydrogen gas. The room was pressurized to prevent any hydrogen from entering, and a steward admitted passengers and crew through a double-door airlock.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had wanted to name Hindenburg after Adolph Hilter, but her designer, Hugo Eckener, refused, and instead named her for the late German president Paul von Hindenburg.

Eckener had originally wanted to use helium rather than hydrogen in the airship because helium is a less flammable lifting gas, but the U.S. controlled most of the world's supply of helium, and feared that other countries might use the gas for military purposes.

Hindenburg Sets Out for the U.S.

Hindenburg had departed Frankfurt, Germany, on the evening of May 3, on what would have been the first of ten scheduled round trips between Europe and the U.S. Heavier-than-air aircraft regularly crossed the Atlantic at a speed much faster than Hindenburg's 130 km/h (80 mph), but Hindenburg's advantage was the comfort that she afforded her passengers.

She only carried half her usual complement of passengers, 36 instead of 70, but she carried more than her usual number of crewmen. Of the 61 crew, 21 were trainees observing how the airship was run. Hindenburg's return flight was fully booked with passengers who would be attending the coronation of England's and Queen Elizabeth, the parents of England's current monarch.

Due to afternoon thunderstorms at Lakehurst, Hindenburg's captain, Max Pruss, took the ship on a leisurely tour, floating over Manhattan. Even jaded New Yorkers rushed out of their homes to catch sight of the airship.

At 7:00 p.m., Hindenburg made her final approach for what was known as flying moor, a high landing. After that, the airship would drop her landing ropes and mooring cable, and be winched down to the mooring mast.

At 7:11 p.m. Captain Pruss was trying to reduce Hindenburg's speed. He ordered the dumping of water ballast, and that the forward gas cells be valved. At 7:21 p.m. while at an altitude of 295 feet (90 m), Hindenburg dropped mooring lines from her bow, and the ground crew grabbed them and connected the port line to the ground winch.

At 7:25 p.m., witnesses variously reported seeing the fabric outer skin of the airship flutter as if from a gas leak, a blue flame, possibly from static electricity, and a flame on the port side just ahead of the port fin. Those on board heard a muffled explosion and felt a shock as the port rope over tightened.

Hindenburg explodes
Hindenburg explodes Source: Sam Shere/Wikimedia Commons

Quickly, Hindenburg was engulfed in flames and the ship dropped rapidly. Four separate newsreel teams were on the ground awaiting Hindenburg because her first passage of the year was newsworthy. Radio journalist Herbert Morrison was there with his sound engineer Charlie Nehlsen to cover Hindenburg's arrival for radio station WLS in Chicago. His recording became the stuff of legend:

"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 between it. This is terrible; this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it's... [unintelligible] its flames... Crashing, oh! oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen.

"There’s smoke, and there’s 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, a 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."

Hindenburg crashing into the ground
Hindenburg crashing into the ground Source: Murray Becker/Associated Press/Wikimedia Commons

Inside Hindenburg, 14-year-old cabin boy, Werner Franz, was in the officer's mess putting away dishes when the fire broke out. He jumped through a hatch that was used to load provisions and dropped to the ground, making it clear of the wreck with no injuries. When he died at the age of 92 in 2014, he was the last surviving crewmember.

The last surviving passenger is Werner G. Doehner, a retired electrical engineer who was an eight-year-old child traveling with his parents, brother, and sister at the time of the accident. His father and sister were killed.

Hindenburg wreckage
Hindenburg wreckage Source: Wide World Photos/Wikimedia Commons

Today, the consensus is that the hydrogen was ignited by a static spark, and a hydrogen leak is borne out by the fact that the airship remained stern-heavy before landing. A ground crew member had reported seeing the fabric cover of the upper port side fluttering, "as if gas was rising and escaping," and another crewman on the top of the mooring mast also reported seeing a flutter in the fabric.

While the cause of the fire has never been conclusively determined, the accident shattered the public's faith, and marked the end of the giant Zeppelins. Travel across the ocean was quickly taken up by heavier-than-air aircraft such as those used by Pan American Airlines.

On the ground at Naval Air Station Lakehurst there is a permanent ground marker to honor Hindenburg.

Lakehurst permanent marker
Lakehurst permanent marker Source: Paxswill/Wikimedia Commons
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