Behind the Scenes of Discovery Channel’s “What Destroyed the Hindenburg?”

by Dan Grossman on December 8, 2012

The new Discovery Channel documentary “What Destroyed the Hindenburg?” airs Sunday, December 16, at 9 PM E/P.

I was pleased to participate in this project as technical advisor and on-air historian.  I won’t give away the specific technical conclusion, but the show does a wonderful job of explaining and illustrating how a spark was likely generated by a combination of atmospheric conditions and the inherent properties of the ship’s structure, and how that spark created the fire pattern that we have all seen on film.

In order to explore various theories about how the fire began and spread we built three models of the airship at 1/10-scale, inflated them with 200 cubic meters of hydrogen, and ignited them in various ways.  The models were designed to replicate the ship’s major features; a framework of rings and girders with individual gas cells, ventilation shafts, and an open area around the keel.  The models were designed for function rather than appearance; they were not especially pretty, but the important structural elements were realistic.

Hindenburg model (Courtesy: Discovery Channel)

Hindenburg model burning

The use of such large scale models (over 80 feet in length) was itself a real first.  In addition the team replicated some of the key experiments done immediately after the crash in 1937 (such as the analysis of the electrostatic properties of the ship’s fabric covering done in Germany by Dr. Max Dieckmann), and explored a theory about the spread of the fire that has not been discussed in any previous documentary.

Although I have studied the Hindenburg for decades these experiments brought to life for me, in a vivid and dramatic way, various phenomena that had been purely theoretical before.

I just had a chance to see the rough cut and I am very pleased with the project, which was the result of months of hard work by the director, producers, and a large and enthusiastic crew.  We had access to the impressive facilities and expertise of the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, and a great team that included presenter Jem Stansfied, who has a degree in aeronautical engineering, and documentary filmmaker Nic Young, who was determined to do justice to the science while keeping it accessible to the general public. And I need to give a shout-out to my colleagues Patrick Russell of Faces of the Hindenburg and Cheryl Ganz of the National Postal museum, who were wonderful resources as always.

Jem Stansfield, Steve Wolf, and Dan Grossman (Courtesy: Discovery Channel)

Director Nic Young

Participating in this project also gave me new insights into the Hindenburg in ways I had not anticipated.  If nothing else, simply working that closely with vast amounts of hydrogen gave me a new sense of how zeppelin crews might have felt and a new understanding of why they were so comfortable working with a substance that is so inherently dangerous.

Hydrogen Tank

I have studied hydrogen for decades but this was the first time I have been right up close to the actual stuff; as we were building the models I was inside the hull, with my hands right up against the gas cells feeling their level of inflation.  I have always assumed it must have been at least a little intimidating to walk through the hull of the Hindenburg, surrounded by all that flammable gas, but working inside our models, surrounded by giant bags of hydrogen, I felt perfectly at ease.  We followed safety procedures established by the experts at SWRI and I didn’t feel the slightest fear; I was literally surrounded by hundreds of cubic meters of hydrogen and I felt as comfortable as I do in my own house, and I think every other member of the crew felt the same way.  I came away with a personal insight into how and why the men of the Zeppelin company felt so comfortable working with a gas that we now view with such fear.

I am very glad I decided to participate in this project.  It was fascinating from a scientific and technical perspective, it gave me new insights into the minds of the zeppelin crews, and it was great to work with such wonderful people.  But let’s be totally honest.  I spent a week building giant models and then blowing them up.  Now if that isn’t every boy’s idea of a damn good time, I don’t know what the hell is.

Behind the Scenes

Here are some photos from the set that I thought you might enjoy.

(All photos, unless otherwise credited, are © Dan Grossman 2012).

Hindenburg model

Fabric covering for Hindenburg model

Fabric covering for Hindenburg model

Fabric for Hindenburg model

Hindenburg model

Hindenburg model

Mark Fenn covering the Hindenburg model

Mark Fenn covering the Hindenburg model

Hindenburg model

The nose of the Hindenburg model

The nose of the Hindenburg model

Hindenburg model

Inside the Hindenburg model

Cylinders of hydrogen

Hydrogen Tanks

Filling the Hindenburg model with hydrogen

Filling the Hindenburg model with hydrogen

Hindenburg model gas cells

Jem Stansfield holding Hindenburg model

Crew of "What Destroyed the Hindenburg"

The crew of “What Destroyed the Hindenburg” (Courtesy: Steve Wolf)

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Hendrick Stoops March 29, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Neat photos (Then again, this is coming from the guy who has to watch films with the directors’ commentary on!) By any chance would you know the material that the crew used for the airships’ skin?

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Dan March 29, 2013 at 9:19 pm

LOL, of course I know; I was there working on the models. :-)

We used Mylar.

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Adrian. T. March 10, 2013 at 1:20 pm

The hydrogen/air explosion of the reconstruction matches well with the start of the actual fire, but the subsequent spread of the fire through the model diverges more and more from that of the original disaster. The propagation of the fire downwards through the structure of the model was much reduced, could this be because the materials of the model did not give off as much radiant heat as the original materials when they burned?

The reconstruction did not take account of the probable damp condition of the outer fabric and I have read a statement somewhere (but I cannot recollect where) that the starboard side, away from the news cameras, had dried out because it had been in sunshine. Are there any photographs of the spread of the fire along the starboard side? The fire on the port side appears in many places to break through from the back, which suggest that it was caused by radiant heat from behind, but the radiant heat from the hydrogen would have been insignificant, because hydrogen burns with very little radiant heat – and most of the hot combustion gasses would have gone upwards.

The gasbags would have been protected from contact with oxygen on the inside until the hydrogen had gone; presumably they would have collapsed downwards by the time they could have burned, so where did the radiant heat come from? Have there been any experiments on how a hydrogen-filled gasbag collapses when fired from the top?

Might the fire have propagated forwards much faster on the starboard side outer covering? The gasbags would have initially protected the port side covering from the radiant heat of the burning starboard side and then progressively exposed it as they collapsed. The burning pattern of the port side is consistent with that.

As a footnote, the word “volatile” is not a synonym for “potentially explosive”.

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Scott Lobdell January 13, 2013 at 5:47 pm

What sort of safety considerations are required with hydrogen? Aside from not intentionally lighting it and being mindful that it is combustible, are there extra necessary precautions? I ask because I’m working on a 20 foot blimp that I intend to fill with hydrogen since it’s 1/4 the cost of helium. To me it makes sense to use hydrogen on an unmanned system given the drastic reduction in cost.

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G W Elderkin January 28, 2013 at 4:16 pm

In response to your question – We urge great caution!!! In fact your safety and those of others warrants the use of helium no matter what the costs. You better check with your insurance company too – you may not have coverage for this endeavor.

You are playing with fire – first and foremost. Keep in mind back in the day of these ships they had acquired vast skill and special equipment was available to them for handling the gas. This would include but not be limited to the following:

All metal pipes, fittings, fixtures, connections would be of brass/bronze etc (to prevent any possible sparks). Plastics were out of the question.

This would include all kinds of tools used to perform tasks.

Special shoes & clothing was the order of the day. Plain cotton clothing worn to help reduce static charges. No nylon or any synthetic cloth was used. Sneekers were worn instead of leather sole shoes to prevent sparks from heel nails.

Ventilation is critical with max CFM Fresh air at all times with Positive air pressure in a given area. What is need would be equal to a deVilbis air flow system.

The structure your working in has too be of proper material so as not to foster or transmit any type of electrical charges, that also means light fixtures, switches & plugs. All floors & decks will need to free of rugs, carpets only plain
concrete or tile etc.

Hydrogen gas has a bad habit of building up or collecting into nooks & pockets then its boom time.

In the final analysis you have to ask yourself that famous Clint Eastwood question:
“Do you feel LUCKY ……. P”

G. W. E. – NAVAL AIRSHIP ASSOCIATION: http://www.naval-airships.org also on Facebook

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william klapper January 8, 2013 at 7:31 am

Many times in each trip the gas exit shafts were filled with a hydrogen air mixture. Each time this mixture was flushed out with the movement of the Zeppelin through the air. When hydrogen and air mix together an explosive mixture is formed which if ignited will detonate with great violence. It only takes a very small amount of energy to cause this detonation and it cannot be stopped. Hydrogen should not be mixed with air in enclosed space. The gas exit shafts were designed for helium which cannot burn. They relied on the experience of the captains to prevent disaster. The luck ran out on the last flight. The use of gas exit shafts on the Hindenburg was a mistake when used with Hydrogen.

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Jason Wallace December 22, 2012 at 4:41 am

sorry about posting twice it didn’t go where i wanted it too! :/ hahaha :)

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Jason Wallace December 22, 2012 at 4:39 am

Stu;

It really is great discussing such matter’s with the likes of my fellow LTA Advocates not many people around me are positive on such matters they laugh and joke every time i mention Zeppelin/Airships but when i explain about the Crafts themselves and they low and behold are in Aww at such a spectacle of Grace and majesty in the sky’s!! :D they may not be interested as i am but it’s a start when they dop there jaw and start asking me questions. HOW BIG?? how fast?? and OMG how Luxurious?? haha i love it but anyway i was wondering if you may have Facebook?? so we could chat on a easier source and if you or i like post our thought’s up here for all the LTA Advocates to see and agree or disagree with. haha looking forward to talking with you soon.

Regards: Jason Wallace

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Stu December 23, 2012 at 7:15 pm

For purposes of privacy, perhaps I can set up a Facebook page on LTA stuff just for people like you and I to chat. My Facebook page is basically private now, and I would like to keep it that way. I sincerely do want to share thoughts with you and others on LTA possibilities. I am hoping the folks from Airship Ventures out in Sunnyvale remain in the LTA chat loop and we can find out more about what they’re up to. Thanks for the sentiments.

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Jason Wallace December 23, 2012 at 9:39 pm

No Probs Stu i understand all about Privacy and i respect that it’s been great Talking with you on such Awesome Areas of the LTA Industry! :) i Sincerely hope each and every one of my Fellow LTA Advocates have a merry Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year!! :D and looking forward to another year of Great LTA Adventure’s and News!! From both the Past the Present and Especially the FUTURE!! :D I WISH YOU ALL A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

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Stu December 16, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Very good documentary Dan. Enjoyed it very much. What would have been nice to show was the flight track of the Hindenberg on it’s final approach to LAS. (Source: HIndenberg – an illustrated history – Rick Archbold, pp. 202 illustration of landing approach):
1900 hrs: Altitude 650 ft. LZ129 approaches from SW for field inspection.
1908 hrs: LZ129 just made full speed turn to port to start circling landing field.
1911 hrs: Altitude 590 ft. LZ129 turns at full speed back to landing area, valves gas 15 seconds (first of several gas releases to reduce altitude) (RECENT DOCUMENTARY STATES THIS WAS TO TRIM THE SHIP)
1912 hrs: LZ129 engines idle ahead, ship slows forward momentum.
1914 hrs: Altitude 394 ft. Aft engines full astern.
1918 hrs: In quick sucession; 300kg, 300kg, and 500 kg water ballast released aft to correct slight heaviness.
1921 hrs: Altitude 295 feet, first mooring line dropped from bow.
1925 hrs: First flame appears.

I believe Capt. Pruss was incorrect to do that full speed turn at 1908 hrs. Remember, he was scheduled to land at LAS earlier that day, but was delayed due to stormy weather in the area. Once LAS cleared the LZ-129 to land, Pruss brought her in mindful of the fact that he was on a schedule altered by the storm delay, and any further delays were unacceptable. There is an account where Dr. Eckener scolded Pruss for his short cuts in handling airships. There may have been some disagreement between the two on how the airship was supposed to be flown, Eckener being very conservative and cautious with his airships. One thing’s quite probable; Eckener had a longer flight record of safety in many more difficult conditions, and in hydrogen filled passenger airships than Pruss did.

The documentary research was fascinating with the test models of the LZ129. The final and third model supports the theory of a gas leak and spontaneous combustion from static discharge most probably when the circuit was closed with the mooring lines making contact with the wet ground.

A captain of a tugboat in NY has a blog in which he described a USCG helo rescue. The cardinal rule when a helo is over you and lowering a basket is don’t touch the basket until the basket touches the ground or the vessel first. Otherwise, you’ll be in for a nasty shock from the static electricity generated by the helocopters blades through the air. The total swept area of a helo’s blades is less that the total swept area of the LZ129′s four huge wooden propellors which were running full speed through the approaches to the landing – generating lots of static electricity. A huge hull of an airship not properly bonded would probably have possessed quite a similar charge, that when mixed with a rich, oxygen-laden mixture of hydrogen, recently liberated from the LZ129′s aft cells, set up the accident.

Thanks Dan and congrats on your work.

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Jason Wallace December 22, 2012 at 4:40 am

Stu;

It really is great discussing such matter’s with the likes of my fellow LTA Advocates not many people around me are positive on such matters they laugh and joke every time i mention Zeppelin/Airships but when i explain about the Crafts themselves and they low and behold are in Aww at such a spectacle of Grace and majesty in the sky’s!! they may not be interested as i am but it’s a start when they dop there jaw and start asking me questions. HOW BIG?? how fast?? and OMG how Luxurious?? haha i love it but anyway i was wondering if you may have Facebook?? so we could chat on a easier source and if you or i like post our thought’s up here for all the LTA Advocates to see and agree or disagree with. haha looking forward to talking with you soon.

Regards: Jason Wallace

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Francisco Carvallo December 16, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Dear Dan,
I just finished watching the documentary on Discovery HD. It was wonderful!! The last theory really blew my mind! There were others who’d seen the “blue charge” on front of the fin, but not on top like the gentleman and hsi father did due to their great vantage point. Wonderful labor of love! I commend you and the crew for your “sleuth work” and model building work!
PS: My Mom thinks that you’re very handsome!

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Louis Gary December 16, 2012 at 9:22 pm

You are full of surprises Dan. Thanks for sharing your works. -Louis

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Dan December 17, 2012 at 7:06 am

Thanks, Louis! :-)

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MattBlais December 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm

I was one of the Scientists from SwRI on this project. We had a ball working on it. Dan was a great resource on the history. My crew and I would like to thank him and the Blink Entertainment team for the wonderful opportunity to showcase our laboratories and capabilities.
There is a lot of interest in Aerostats as surveillance systems in the military and for border security. Hydrogen is a much cheaper gas and is easily generated on location.
Dr. Matthew S. Blais, Director of Fire Technology, Southwest research Institute

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Dan December 17, 2012 at 7:13 am

Thank you Matt. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with you!

For my readers, Dr. Blais is a brilliant scientist and I learned a lot from him, for which I am very grateful. And he is a true gentleman as well.

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M L Hopp December 10, 2012 at 9:40 pm

What an amazing opportunity! Thanks much for sharing the information and informing us all about the documentary. My only real regret is that I don’t have cable or satellite TV to see it.

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Milan Zivancevic December 9, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Thanks for the news about the new documentary! 16th of december, one day before my birthday… lovely month – new documentary, a postcard from Dan the man, birthday… ha. The second photo in the article where the model is burning looks EXACTLY like one of the old photos (also on this website) of the Hindenburg burning. Cool photos, thanks for sharing them.

Cheers.

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Stu December 8, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Given the shortage and high cost of helium, I wonder if hydrogen will be considered again?

Take the scientific approach to the issue, and it is plausible as well as economical. What makes hydrogen burn is heat and air. The heat and air can be controlled to a limited extent, however, if we can maintain a very high purity of hydrogen in an airship, it’s safe to use.

Long ago, gas cells were made of linen lined with gold beater’s skins (cattle intestine linings) glued to the linen. The Hindenberg had latex – impregnated linen cells, a new technology from Goodyear I believe. The gold beater skinned cells had an effective life span of about 18 months before the perm rate would grow to unsafe levels and the hydrogen would become volatile as air would mix with the gas inside the cell through the cell lining and sewn seams.

With today’s polymers and reinforced films, a lightweight, durable and stable gas cell could indeed hold hydrogen for a longer period of time safely. The only issue would be if in an accident, one of the cells would rupture or leak, there would be an explosive mix of hydrogen and air. Consider this; jet aircraft when they get into “accidents” are basically flying gas cans. Think of the Air France Concorde that went down in flames from a scrap of metal on a runway, or flight 800 from JFK across the Atlantic that exploded when a spark ignited fuel vapors in a recently emptied main fuel tank.

I know, the these disasters are not the same as a craft filled with hydrogen with a zero mile-per-hour stall speed. The accidents were hydrogen burned in airships were caused by physical contact with the ground creating a tear in the gas cells. The Roma, and the R101 all met their ends after hitting the ground. The ZRS-2 suffered heavy structural damage aloft and caught fire when it crashed into a river.

And there’s the rub; If a new technology airship were to be lifted with hydrogen, it could be perfectly safe in all circumstances except for heavy structural failure. But then again, the same could be said for a jet liner filled with aviation kerosene hurtling through the sky that lands badly, hits something that tears a wing filled with fuel?

Consider as well, hydrogen as a fuel for the airship’s motors – eliminating the need to vent the gas from loss of liquid fuel consumed to maintain static equilibrium without heavy condensers like the Akron and Macon had. Also, the airship would be a zero-emission aircraft, a very rare thing for any device that flies under its own power. And finally, hydrogen may be the fuel for our cars and homes in a generation. I think as we improve our knowledge and technology of the Universe’s most basic of all elements, we can grow to appreciate further its many splendid benefits.

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Jason Wallace December 9, 2012 at 4:18 am

i really do agree with your point’s Stu i mean if Helium is non Renewable and becoming Increasingly Expensive and the world is becoming Increasingly Concerned about Green house Gas Emition’s Airships will maybe become a very viable option to my mind they are but im talking about Governing Bodies all over the world. Hydrogen as you say with todays Technological Advances can become quite a safe Alternative for the use in Lifting and perhaps Powering Airships?. not to mention the fact that with Todays Technology we can make Airships Faster and Stronger than ever before never to the speed standard of a Modern Jet Airliner but the Airship with it’s Graceful lines and gentle humming of the motors and spacious Promenades. Exquisite Dining and reading and Relaxing Facilities and bars and clubs and Excellent Views and not to Mention the Private Cabins with hot and cold running water and Excellent Bathroom Facilities at the passengers Disposal i would take the Latter rather than the former anyday of the year!! now some May Call this a bunch of hot air and Fantasy but look at this site they DID IT!!! for 40 years in Germany with a 100% Saftey record from 1910 until 1937 which is soley the Bulk of the Passenger Liner Formation and the peak of Design the LZ-129 Hindenburg which was the Last Registerd Fare Paying Passenger Zeppelin. so if they had that then The Possibilities are endless now and for the Future!! it is an Irresistebale Dream then as it is now!! Lady’s and Gentlemen the Pages on this Amasing site put together by Dan Grossman speak for themselves!! :)

P.S Dan and STU or anyone else who cares to comment and discuss this Important Topic what do you think?? looking forward to hearing from you.

Regards Jason Wallace

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Stu December 16, 2012 at 10:46 pm

Jason;

It’s entirely possible to resurrect large, rigid LTA passenger service. The world is ready for such a type of travel and it would bring both young and old, rich and not-so-rich people to enjoy flying again, versus just “catching a flight”. The challenge is the financial aspects;
1. Where to build the ship – the supply of enclosed hangers to build a ship are limited and those still around are not readily accessible. The best way is to build a new hanger and air base to start over with, probalby overseas or in more year round temperate climates like Florida. It’s costly, but gives you the most options unless the Navy or historical society would lease an old hanger in NJ, Oregon or Sunnyvale to start off with. Either way, you’ll need your own hanger and airfield. You can get the historical “retro” feel off the older hangers, however the next airship adventure will be something totally new in commercial flight and ought to reflect that new look. The Sunnyvale hangers are closed in with buildings where the mooring fields used to be. Getting a completed ship out of those hangers would be difficult if not impossible.
2. Financing – Airship Ventures out of Sunnyvale recently closed their operations because their chief sponser (Farmer’s Insurance) didn’t renew their sponsorship, and they couldn’t find another investor. I always thought the cruise line industry would be interested in airships as an extension of their business model. Perhaps even the entertainment kings like Disney, who has a fleet of cruiseships, would explore LTA travel as an adjunct to their expanding international entertainment and leisure enterprises. If the Hindenburg had a swastika from her financial benefactors, would the next ship have a pair of mouse ears?
3. FAA approval – easier now that there are so many smaller LTA craft already certified and a growing list of younger pilots who earned their LTA “wings”. Goodyear’s a good source for those pilots, as was Airship Ventures who had the first female certified pilot I believe.
4. International investment – The next LTA rigid will have to be a joint venture with the Zeppelin corporation in Germany who is reportedly building a larger version of the successful NT ship. She’ll be another day tripper, but it’s a step in a positive direction. They have the experience in flight systems and materials to make the design happen as well as the construction.
5. Homeland Security – would the rules be the same for LTA travel? I mean you can’t destroy a building or landmark with a vessel that weighs nothing and has a stall speed of zero.

There are possibilities. All it takes is a visionary, and a dream to base communication on that will lead to interest and investment.

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Jason Wallace December 19, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Number 4 what is there new Airship in process?? i’ve seen one that is designed to carry 40-50 people through out Europe connecting ten Major Cities i havent heard anymore on it since?? is that plan if so i’d love to know more about it??? :)

thanks STU if im ever rich i’ll be the dreamer and visionary that’ll bring the Airship Concept Justice hahaha i would’nt even think twice about it!! :D

P.S have you got facebook i would like to discuss this in further detail if thats ok?? thanks stu cya around man!! :)

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Stu December 20, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Jason;
The only thing I’ve heard coming from Germany is the development of a larger version of the venerable Zeppelin NT, with this one basically carrying the same number of passengers as the old Bodensee did which is ironic when you consider that the Bodensee was the first “modern” airship of her time and launched the DELAG enterprise into far greater endeavours such as the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. Sorry for the long run on sentence there, my English teacher would have had a fit. Don’t worry about being rich – just have the vision and infect others (preferrably investors) with that vision of an enterprise that is both profitable and noteworthy.

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