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

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

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Hendrick Stoops

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?

Adrian. T.
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… Read more »
Scott Lobdell

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.

G W Elderkin
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… Read more »
william klapper
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… Read more »
Jason Wallace

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

Jason Wallace
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… Read more »

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.

Jason Wallace

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!! 😀 and looking forward to another year of Great LTA Adventure’s and News!! From both the Past the Present and Especially the FUTURE!! 😀 I WISH YOU ALL A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

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… Read more »
Jason Wallace
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… Read more »
Francisco Carvallo

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!

Louis Gary

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


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

M L Hopp

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.

Milan Zivancevic

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.


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… Read more »
Jason Wallace
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
Jason Wallace

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!! 😀

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

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)… Read more »