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Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Hindenburg Disaster, May 6, 1937

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Today in 1937, The German zeppelin Hindenberg caught fire and was destroyed while attempting to land at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Although not the first airship accident, this disaster marked the beginning of the end of passenger-carrying lighter-than-air craft due to its extensive coverage on radio and in newsreels.

The rigid dirigible had been around since the 1870's, but it took German engineering to make the craft successful. The term "zeppelin" came into common use as a result of the work of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the early 20th century. The word came to refer to any lighter-than-air craft, or dirigible, with a rigid frame covered by fabric or some other material. Zeppelins saw use in the First World War as German bombers, but they were high susceptible to attack by Allied fighter aircraft. After the war the German airship business nearly died, but in the mid-1920's it experienced a great renewal as the demand for transatlantic transportation grew.

By the 1930's, it appeared that travel by airship had a permanent place in the world. While passenger-carrying aircraft were in use, nothing matched a zeppelin for style, range and speed when compared to travel by ship. When the Empire State Building was completed in 1931, the top of the structure included a docking mast for airships. Travelers imagined a day when hundreds of zeppelins would fill the skies over the major cities of the world.

No one born after 1940 has seen an airborne manmade object the size of the Hindenburg. Built in 1935 and named after former German President Paul von Hindenburg, she was 804 feet long, 135 feet in diameter and her 16 gas cells held over seven million cubic feet of hydrogen. Helium was and is the preferred lifting gas, but the United States had placed a military embargo on helium years before. Hydrogen was flammable, but the Germans had extensive experience with the gas and a hydrogen-related fire had never occurred on a civilian zeppelin. The Hindenburg was propelled by four 1,200 horsepower Daimler-Benz diesel engines and could make a top speed over 80 miles per hour. The ship's frame was covered by varnished cotton cloth. A ticket from Germany to New Jersey was $400, a sum that would be nearly $6000 today.

The Hindenburg completed her first year of service, during the 1936 season, without incident. She flew over 191,000 miles and carried nearly 2,800 passengers on 17 round trips across the Atlantic. In addition to service to Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Hindenburg also flew to Brazil, a popular destination for German travelers. On top of her regular passenger service, the airship also made an appearance at the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Berlin. She was a symbol of national pride for Germany, a fact that was not lost on the ruling Nazis. She sported a swastika on both of her vertical fins, a reminder that Hermann Goering, the Nazi Air Minister, had formed a new airline to operate the Hindenburg and the nation's other airships in 1935. Part of the Hindenburg's duties also included propaganda flights over German cities.

During the winter of 1936-37, 10 passenger cabins were added to the Hindenburg. This increased the total passenger capacity to 72 in addition to a crew of 61. When she left Frankfurt, Germany for the last time on May 3rd, 1937, she was only carrying 36 passengers and the full crew complement. The Atlantic crossing took 3 days, but even at that fast clip the ship arrived over the United States behind schedule. Bad weather near the landing site made a prompt landing impossible, so the airship's captain, Max Pruss, took the passengers on a flying tour of New York City.

At 7PM on the 6th, the Hindenburg was cleared to approach the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. This was to be a high landing, thus called because the ship would be essentially be pulled down from a height of nearly three hundred feet by the ground crew. At 7:21PM, the ship was 295 feet off the ground and the command went out for the crew to drop the ship's mooring lines. Four minutes later, witnesses reported seeing flames near the upper vertical fin.

Many theories have been put forth as to what caused the fire aboard the Hindenburg, so many that an entire series of podcasts could be done just discussing a small percentage of them. To this day, no conclusive proof has been found that determines exactly how the fire started. Suffice it to say that the ship quickly caught fire near her tail end and the conflagration quickly spread forward. The ship remained in one piece, but she folded in the center as she plunged to the ground. By the time she impacted the earth, nearly all the fabric covering her frame was gone. Newsreel cameramen and radio announcers, all there to report on the Hindenburg's first Atlantic crossing of the season, caught the blaze in all its terrible reality. The voice of Herb Morrison, a reporter for WLS in Chicago, became synonymous with the disaster. Morrison described the accident as it was happening, fighting to keep his composure. His cry of "Oh, the humanity!" is one of the most remembered lines in all of radio history. What is less known is that Morrison and his engineer, Charlie Nehlson, continued to report on the fire-fighting and rescue efforts for some time after the crash. Their recorded story, which was not broadcast until the next day, paints a highly accurate portrayal of the day's horrific events.

Of the 97 people onboard the Hindenburg that day in 1937, 13 passengers and 22 crew died. One member of the ground crew, a US Navy sailor, also died. Most people who died did so as a result of jumping from the ship, not from the fire itself. In fact, most of the people who stayed aboard the craft lived.

The Hindenburg was the not the first airship accident, but it was the most reported. Prior to this accident, the zeppelins of German manufacture had a perfect safety record. But it did not matter. The public's fascination with the zeppelins turned to fear and the days of passenger-carrying airships was soon at an end. The Zeppelin name survives today in the Zeppelin NT, airships built in Germany that are smaller than their predecessors but are much more advanced and are used in a variety of applications.

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