In the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most cutting-edge and exciting forms of transportation was the zeppelin.
Germany’s Luftschiffbau Zeppelin Company created lighter-than-air airships that transported passengers millions of miles worldwide.
This new form of transportation which seemed to be the future, came to a sudden and dramatic end on one horrific day in 1937 in New Jersey.
Learn more about the Hindenburg Disaster, its cause, and its aftermath on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I previously did an episode on zeppelins and their history. Just to briefly recap their history, the idea of lighter-than-air vehicles goes back to the 19th century.
The initial problem with them was learning how to control them. Zeppelin crashes were actually pretty common in the early days as zeppelins were very susceptible to the wind.
However, these technical hurdles were eventually overcome, and zeppelin travel became very safe and reliable.
The world leader in airships was the German company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. Their flagship was known as the Graf Zeppelin.
The Graf Zeppelin was launched in 1928, and it became world famous. It was flown on an around-the-world trip in 1929. It flew around the Mediterranean to South America, the Middle East, and Africa. It had a very good safety record.
It flew thousands of passengers over a million miles.
Also, if you aren’t familiar with zeppelins, they were enormous. They had an internal metallic skeleton to give it rigidity and then bags of lifting gas inside to give it buoyancy.
The Graf Zeppelin was 236.6 meters or 776 feet long. You would need two football fields to park it. The airbags would provide the lift, and then propellors on the craft would provide the thrust.
Despite their massive size, they couldn’t hold that many people. It had a crew of 32 people and could hold 24 passengers.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, the Graf Zeppelin became a propaganda symbol for the Nazis.
When the Graf Zeppelin was originally proposed, a sister ship was also planned. The construction of this ship was delayed for a host of reasons, including delays in a new lightweight engine designed by the Dahmer-Benz corporation.
These delays allowed for a redesign of the ship, which would make it larger than the Graf Zeppelin, effectively creating a new class of airship.
This new zeppelin was also scheduled to use helium instead of hydrogen as its lifting gas.
The name of this new zeppelin was the Hindenburg, in honor of Paul von Hindenburg, who was President of Germany from 1925 until his death in 1934.
The Graf Zeppelin used hydrogen as its lifting gas because the world’s supply of helium was basically monopolized by the United States. Natural helium is a byproduct of radioactive decay from radioactive elements deep within the Earth.
In the 1920s, almost all of the Helium on Earth came from oil wells in the US. Because of its rarity and how valuable it was to the airship industry, the United States passed the Helium Act of 1925, which banned the exportation of helium.
Because Germany couldn’t get helium, they had to use hydrogen. Hydrogen is really easy to produce, but it is also highly explosive.
Many people think that the German zeppelins used hydrogen because Germany was specifically embargoed by the United States. In reality, it was a global embargo, and Germany just took the brunt of it because it had the largest airship industry.
The Zeppelin corporation sort of just assumed that the United States would make an exception and sell them some helium. The plan wasn’t even to fill the Hindenburg completely with helium, just partially. The plan was to have hydrogen gas bags in the core and then surround them with helium bags for safety.
However, that exception to the embargo never happened, so the Hindenburg, like the Graf Zeppelin, became a 100% hydrogen airship.
Construction of the Hindenburg began in 1931, and its inaugural flight took place in 1936.
The Hindenburg was larger than the Graf Zeppelin, making it the largest airship in history. A distinction which it still holds.
It had a length of 245 meters or 803 feet. It had a crew of anywhere from 40 to 60 and was capable of carrying 50 to 70 passengers. Two to three times the number on the Graf Zeppelin due to its increased size and lighter and more powerful engines.
Despite being the first passenger airship, the Graf Zeppelin was actually not intended for passenger use when it was designed. The Hindenburg was, however.
Oddly enough, its first official flight wasn’t passenger service but rather to spread Nazi propaganda. On March 7, 1936, it was sent to the demilitarized German Rhineland and dropped propaganda leaflets.
Later that month, starting on March 29, it began its passenger service with a trip to Brazil.
It spent the rest of 1936 making trips across the Atlantic, with seven to Brazil and ten to the United States. The first trip to the United States arrived at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 9. Lakehurst lies about halfway between New York and Philadelphia but closer to the coast.
I mention this because many people believe that the Hindenburg’s last flight was its maiden voyage. It was not; it had actually made several dockings in New Jersey the year before the disaster.
Throughout 1936 the Hindenburg actually set several records. It set a trans-Atlantic round trip record in July, traveling from Frankfurt to New Jersey and back in 98 hours, 28 minutes.
During this first year of flights, they actually had a custom-built, lightweight piano on board made of aluminum and covered in leather.
In August, it did a flyover at the Olympic games in Berlin, again mostly as Nazi propaganda.
Its last flight of 1936 was in October before it had to end its season.
Flights resumed again in late March of 1937, with the inaugural flight of the season flying to Brazil.
The 63rd and final flight of the Hindenburg left Frankfurt on May 3, 1937. It was to be the first of 10 flights to the United States that year. On this flight, it carried 36 passengers and 61 crew.
The trip across the Atlantic was uneventful. The only thing of note was stronger than usual headwinds which put the flight several hours behind schedule.
On the morning of May 6th, the Hindenburg flew over Boston and then made an unscheduled flight over Manhattan, causing quite a ruckus in the city.
The ship arrived in New Jersey around 4 pm but spent about two and a half hours going up and down the New Jersey coast waiting for weather conditions to improve.
They finally got the go-ahead to dock, which they did around 7 pm. The Hindenburg was going to do what was known as a high dock. This is where they dropped the mooring cables, and the airmen down below would then attach it to a wench and then pull the airship down.
This wasn’t the most common way to dock an airship, but it also wasn’t unheard of or rare.
At 7:21, the mooring lines were dropped. The line on the port side was connected, but the line on the starboard side never was.
At 7:25, something happened. What happened still isn’t exactly known despite photos and video footage of the event.
A fire started somewhere in the back top of the ship. The exact moment the fire started wasn’t captured by any camera, so the exact location isn’t known. What also isn’t known is what started the fire.
It was most probably static electricity, or it could have been something atmospheric like lightning, although no one reported seeing a lightning bolt.
The first signs of flame were a reddish-yellow flame, which is important because hydrogen doesn’t really have a visible flame when it burns. Most probably, what was initially burning was the skin of the ship. The ship’s skin was cotton treated with cellulose nitrate to make it rigid, which is highly flammable. It was then also coated with an aluminum powder to help reflect heat. Aluminum powder, too, is highly flammable and is used in some rocket propellants.
The skin was so flammable, in fact, you sort of wonder what they were doing putting this on the exterior of a giant bag of hydrogen.
However, while that was visible, there could have been a hydrogen leak that caught fire first, but no one would have seen the flame.
The fire caused a detonation of the gas bags in the rear of the ship, which immediately caused the back of the ship to start to fall while the front of the ship still had hydrogen and stayed aloft.
The entire event was over shockingly fast. From the initial fire to the ship’s skin and hydrogen being completely consumed by flame took less than 30 seconds.
The Hindenburg went from being the world’s greatest airship to being a twisted heap of aluminum.
The media coverage of the Hindenburg was greater than usual because it was the first Atlantic crossing to the United States that year. Normally, there wouldn’t have been so many photographers or newsreel crews there filming it. There were a total of four film crews present.
Most famously was the radio broadcast of the explosion, which was recorded by Herbert Morrison for WLS in Chicago. It was not a live broadcast but recorded and played the next day.
As horrific as the disaster was, most of the people on board the Hindenburg actually survived. Of the 97 passengers and crew on board, 35 were killed. 13 passengers and 22 crew. One airman on the ground was also killed.
While this was the most famous airship disaster, it actually wasn’t the largest. In fact, in terms of total lives lost, it was only the fifth worst accident in airship history. The worst disaster occurred four years earlier when the Navy airship the USS Akron was launched from the same facility in Lakehurst, New Jersey, and 73 men died when it crashed at sea.
Even though several disasters were worse, none were as high profile as the Hindenburg. The film footage was shown in movie theaters, the images were on the front page of newspapers, and the harrowing description of the event by Herbert Morrison served as the soundtrack.
The footage of the disaster was never shown in Germany until after the second world war.
The destruction of the Hindenburg effectually ended the era of airships. No one was interested in flying in a giant bomb anymore.
More importantly, commercial transatlantic air travel began around the same time the Hindenburg exploded. While not as comfortable or glamorous, airplanes were significantly faster.
While it effectively ended rigid airships, the Hindenburg wasn’t the last one. There was another airship with the same specs as the Hindenburg, which was under construction and was launched in September 1938: the Graf Zeppelin II.
The Nazi government had very little interest in the Graf Zeppelin II. It flew 30 flights over the next year, never with any passengers, and barely ever left Germany.
On February 29, 1940, Hermann Göring announced that all remaining zeppelins were to be retired, and their metal structures were to be repurposed for use in aircraft.
The age of the airship was officially dead.
Given the extraordinary public nature of the disaster, there were conspiracy theories that sprung up almost immediately. Some said there was a bomb in the back of the ship, others that hit was shot by a high-power rifle.
However, after the war, the findings of an internal investigation by the Zeppelin Corporation were discovered. Their conclusion was, “The actual cause of the fire was the extreme easy flammability of the covering material brought about by discharges of an electrostatic nature.”
The Hindenburg disaster has become a cultural touchstone. Its image was used for the cover of a Led Zeppelin album, and it has been used for internet memes.
Today, there is a memorial at the site of the crash at the facility, now known as Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst. There is an outline on the ground of where the wreckage landed.
There is also a small surviving piece of the skin of the Hindenburg on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC.
Despite many attempts to bring back airships, it just hasn’t happened. As cool as they look, their enormous size makes them expensive to build and maintain, and in a world with jumbo jets, it is hard to justify their existence.
So, over eighty-five years after its disastrous end, the Hindenburg still remains the largest aircraft of any kind ever built.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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As a card-carrying member of the completionist club, I must say, this podcast is absolutely amazing. Gary is will go down in history as one of the great podcast hosts of all time. One thing first though, I feel the need to test his integrity, he said he will read a review with 5 stars, I hope you read this to the end Gary, please don’t disappoint. Integrity is important to historians Gary… Brace yourself, this is going to hurt…Packers stink, Go Bears! I hope that wasn’t too traumatic.
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