The Hindenburg and Hydrogen: Nonsense from Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki

by Dan on August 26, 2009

Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki (CreativeCommons.org license, courtesy Enoch Lau)

Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki (CreativeCommons.org license, courtesy Enoch Lau)

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is an Australian TV scientist who wrote about the Hindenburg in his book Great Mythconceptions: The Science Behind the Myths.

Dr. Karl’s conclusion regarding the Hindenburg disaster is that the “hydrogen was totally innocent” and “would not have not contributed to the ensuing fire.”  According to Dr. Karl, the lesson of the Hindenburg tragedy is “the next time you build an airship, don’t paint the inflammable acetate skin with aluminium rocket fuel.”

Dr. Karl’s commentary about the cause of the Hindenburg disaster is frequently cited on the internet.

But just about every historical and scientific fact in Dr Karl’s commentary is wrong.

At the end of this post is a speculation about why Dr. Karl might publish such nonsense.

Dr. Karl’s Complete Hindenburg Article and Rebuttal

The following is the complete text of Dr. Karl’s article, which is also available here.

(Dr. Karl’s article is reprinted in its entirety in the interest of clarity and to be fair to Dr. Karl, to make clear that none of his words are being presented out of context.)

After each quotation from Dr. Karl (in plain text), the truth is in blue italics.

*****************************************

HINDENBURG AND HYDROGEN, by Karl S. Kruszelnicki

Back in the middle 1930s, if you were wealthy enough to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, there were two choices – noisy, small and cramped aeroplanes, or quiet and spacious airships that got their lift from huge bladders filled with hydrogen gas.

THE TRUTH:  Transatlantic airplanes and airships never operated at the same time; the first transatlantic airline service by airplane did not start until 1939, more than two years after airship service ended with the Hindenburg disaster, so passengers never had a choice between the two.

(And when airline service finally did begin with the Pan Am clippers, the planes were certainly not small and cramped.)

Back then, it was still an even bet as to which technology would win in the long run – the faster and noisy aeroplanes, or the slower and more relaxed Lighter-Than-Air airships.

The answer was settled in favour of the aeroplanes in 1937, when the enormous Nazi hydrogen-filled airship, the Hindenburg, slowly maneuvered in to dock at a 50-metre high mast at the Lakehurst Air Base, in New Jersey. This was its 21st crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

THE TRUTH: Hindenburg’s last flight was actually its 37th crossing of the Atlantic, rather than its 21st, and the Lakehurst mast was about half the height cited by Dr. Karl; very small mistakes, to be sure, but indicative of Dr. Karl’s reliance on untrustworthy source material, as explained in greater detail below.

Suddenly, there was a spark on the Hindenburg, and then flames. Newsreel film crews captured the sudden disaster as the Hindenburg burst into enormous plumes of red-yellow flames, and collapsed to the ground. Over thirty of the 97 people on board died. The disaster was blamed on the extreme flammability of the hydrogen lifting gas that filled most of the airship.  This bad reputation of hydrogen still bothers car manufacturers today, as they explore the use of hydrogen as a safe, non-polluting alternative to fossil fuels for powering cars.

But it turns out that the extreme flammability of hydrogen is a mythconception.

THE TRUTH: Regardless of what caused the Hindenburg disaster, hydrogen is a highly flammable gas, and OSHA requires warning placards when it is in use.

hydrogen-warning
Hydrogen Warning Placard

The Hindenburg was the largest aircraft ever to fly – longer than three football fields (about 250 metres long). It was powered by four enormous 1,200 HP V-16 Mercedes-Benz Diesel engines that spun 6-metre wooden propellers. It cruised at 125 kph (faster than ocean liners and trains), and when fully loaded with fuel, had a range of some 16,000 km.

It was opulently and almost decadently luxurious – each of the 50 cabins had both a shower and a bath, as well as electric lights and a telephone.

THE TRUTH: Hindenburg passenger cabins did not have individual showers and baths, or even telephones; the ship had only one shower which was shared by all passengers, since the weight of individual bathrooms (and the water they would have required) would have been well beyond the lifting ability of the lighter-than-air Hindenburg.

While obviously not related to the cause of the disaster, and a relatively trivial mistake, Dr. Karl’s exaggerations about the passenger cabins demonstrate his extreme carelessness (and possible political bias) in choosing source materials.  No reliable account of the Hindenburg, of which there are many, make these claims regarding the Hindenburg’s passenger accommodation; on the other hand, Dr. Karl’s article is virtually identical with the description of Hindenburg in the book The Philosopher Mechanic by Roy McAlister.  McAlister is not an aviation historian, however; he is a hydrogen advocate associated with the American Hydrogen Association, who has himself distorted the facts of the Hindenburg disaster to suit his agenda.

The clubroom had an aluminium piano. The public rooms were large and decorated in the style of luxury ship – and the windows could be opened. It might be a little slower than the aeroplanes of the day – but it was a lot more comfortable.

The Hindenburg was painted with silvery powdered aluminium, to better show off the giant Nazi swastikas on the tail section.

THE TRUTH: The Hindenburg was not painted silver “to better show of the Nazi swastikas,” and there is no reliable source from which Dr. Karl could have obtained that information.

In fact, the Hindenburg was silver-colored to reduce the heating effects of the sun, which can cause an airship’s gas cells to expand and release their gas; American and British dirigibles used the same technique, and German airships, including the famous Graf Zeppelin, had been coated with reflective aluminum powder for many years before the Nazis took power in Germany.  Painting airships silver had nothing to do with swastikas.

This incorrect information, which Dr. Karl chose to pass along to the readers who trust him, as well as the false information in the following sentences, can also be found, almost word-for-word, in the writings of hydrogen advocate Roy McAlister.

When it flew over cities, the on-board loudspeakers broadcast Nazi propaganda announcements, and the crew dropped thousands of small Nazi flags for the school children below.

THE TRUTH: The Hindenburg did not routinely broadcast propaganda announcements or drop small Nazi flags; those activities occurred during two or three specially-arranged propaganda flights, but were not routine (the ship made over 60 flights during its career) and certainly did not take place whenever the ship “flew over cities.”

This is not surprising, because the Nazi Minister of Propaganda funded the Hindenburg.

THE TRUTH: The German Air Ministry supplied the vast majority of the funding, nine million Reich Marks, to build the Hindenburg; the Nazi Propaganda Ministry provided just two million Reich Marks.

At that time, the US government controlled the only significant supplies of helium (a non-flammable lifting gas), and refused to supply it to the Nazi government. So the Hindenburg had to use flammable hydrogen.

THE TRUTH: The American restriction against selling helium to other countries was imposed under the Helium Control Act of 1927 which was enacted six years before Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, and was obviously unrelated to the Nazi regime.

As the Hindenburg came in to Lakehurst on May 6, 1937, there was a storm brewing, and so there was much static electricity in the air – which charged up the aircraft. When the crew dropped the mooring ropes down to the ground, the static electricity was earthed, which set off sparks on the Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg was covered with cotton fabric, that had to be waterproof.  So it had been swabbed with cellulose acetate (which happened to be very inflammable) that was then covered with aluminium powder (which is used as rocket fuel to propel the Space Shuttle into orbit).

THE TRUTH: Not only is Cellulose acetate not “very inflammable,” it is arguably not flammable at all.  Canvas doped with cellulose acetate butyrate (used on the Hindenburg) is combustible, but nonflammable; in other words, it will burn if held in a flame (and therefore “combustible”) but tends to self-extinguish when removed from heat (and therefore “nonflammable”).  In fact, Cellulose acetate was specifically chosen for Hindenburg’s doping solution precisely because of its low flammability.  (See Duggan, John; LZ-129 Hindenburg: The Complete Story. 2002.  p. 178 et. seq.)

THE TRUTH: Dr. Karl states that aluminum powder “is used as rocket fuel to propel the Space Shuttle into orbit.”  In fact, aluminum powder is just one component of the Space Shuttle’s rocket fuel, and makes up only 16% of the mixture.  Aluminum powder is not, by itself, any form of rocket fuel.  Dr. Karl’s frequent comparison of the Hindenburg’s covering to “rocket fuel” is not simply wrong, but probably intentionally disingenuous, since as a scientist Dr. Karl surely knows better.

Perhaps the best evidence that Hindenburg’s covering was not especially flammable are the photographs and films of the disaster, showing how slowly the covering burned; in fact, some sections of the Hindenburg’s covering never burned at all [see photo].

Indeed, the aluminium powder was in tiny flakes, which made them very susceptible to sparking. It was inevitable that a charged atmosphere would ignite the flammable skin.

THE TRUTH: The aluminum powder was suspended in the doping solution, and the flakes were not loose, but encapsulated by the dope. Many other airships, including the dirigibles of the United States Navy, used a similar doping solution (with aluminum powder flakes), and none had its covering ignited when operating in a charged atmosphere.  In fact, the Hindenburg itself passed through electrically-charged conditions many times during its previous 62 flights, and its covering did not catch fire, so ignition of the covering in a charged atmosphere was certainly not “inevitable.”

In all of this, the hydrogen was innocent. In the terrible disaster, the Hindenburg burnt with a red flame. But hydrogen burns with an almost invisible bluish flame.

THE TRUTH: Hydrogen does burn with an invisible bluish flame, as Dr. Karl states, but that is true only when hydrogen is the only substance burning.  In the crash of the Hindenburg, many substances burned along with the hydrogen, including miles of steel wire and aluminum girders, the fabric hull covering, remaining supplies of diesel fuel, and even tables and chairs.  Dr. Karl is sufficiently educated as a scientist to understand that these items themselves emitted light and color as they burned, and that they also acted as a mantle, glowing in the heat of the burning hydrogen.

Dr. Karl book excerpt
Illustration from Dr. Karl’s book, filled with erroneous or misleading information. The roof of the passenger compartment was not hermetically sealed; cellulose acetate is not very flammable; aluminum powder by itself is not used as rocket fuel; and hydrogen does not burn with an almost invisible bluish flame when it is consuming miles of steel wire and aluminum girders. (click to enlarge)

In the Hindenburg disaster, as soon as the hydrogen bladders were opened by the flames, the hydrogen inside would have escaped up and away from the burning airship – and it would not have not contributed to the ensuing fire.

THE TRUTH: The idea that millions of cubic feet of hydrogen could burn without “contributing to the ensuing fire” is just silly, and is contradicted by the photographs and films of the Hindenburg disaster.

The hydrogen was totally innocent.

THE TRUTH: The Hindenburg’s hydrogen was certainly not “innocent” with regard to the deaths and injuries suffered by the passengers, crew, and ground personnel.

In fact, in 1935, a helium-filled airship with an acetate-aluminium skin burned near Point Sur in California with equal ferocity.

THE TRUTH: Dr. Karl seems to be referring to the crash of the USS Macon, which did not “burn near Point Sur in California,” but rather crashed into the sea following structural failure.  Gasoline and other flammable materials caught fire after (and as a result of) the crash into the ocean, but the helium-inflated Macon did not “burn with equal ferocity” as the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg, and only two of the 83 men on the USS Macon died in the accident.

The Hindenberg disaster was not caused by the hydrogen.

The lesson is obvious – the next time you build an airship, don’t paint the inflammable acetate skin with aluminium rocket fuel.

THE TRUTH: Some of the covering of the Hindenburg (“painted with rocket fuel,” according to Dr. Karl) which never burned at all during the fire:

Some of the "rocket fuel" coated covering of the Hindenburg which never burned during the fire.
Covering of the Hindenburg which never burned during the fire.

Why would Dr. Karl Publish such Nonsense?  A Speculation:

It might be surprising that a scientist like Dr. Karl would publish such nonsense, especially since many of his books attempt to debunk scientific myths and misconceptions. But his motivation may become less mysterious when one learns that Dr. Karl is also an advocate for hydrogen-powered cars and hydrogen as an alternative source of energy.

Much of the text of Dr. Karl’s article is virtually identical with the description of Hindenburg disaster offered by Roy McAlister in his book The Philosopher Mechanic.  McAlister is not an aviation historian, however; he is a hydrogen advocate associated with the American Hydrogen Association.   Hydrogen advocates have been misleading the public about the Hindenburg disaster for years, in the bizarre belief that they must exonerate hydrogen from blame in the Hindenburg tragedy (whatever the facts) in order to sell hydrogen to the public as an alternative fuel. Of course, their logic is flawed: Theoretically, hydrogen could simultaneously be a wonderful alternative fuel and a terrible lifting gas for passenger airships; there is no necessary contradiction between the two. Many substances which are ideal for one application are hazardous in another, and hydrogen advocates who cannot grasp this obvious principle, and instead spread unscientific myths about the Hindenburg, just raise questions about their own credibility and analytic abilities. After all, many people support solar energy, but they don’t feel the need to claim that sunlight doesn’t cause skin cancer.

Dr. Karl claims that the lesson of the Hindenburg is not to paint zeppelins with rocket fuel, but perhaps the real lesson is not to mislead people who look to you for scientific information, in the interest of political advocacy… however noble the cause.

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    { 22 comments… read them below or add one }

    James Walker November 27, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Minor nitpick: where Dr Karl is referring to an ‘almost invisible blue flame’ you’re rebuttal doesn’t to include ‘almost’. While your meaning is clear, referring to an ‘invisible blue’ anything is making my brain bend :P

    Interesting article, looking forward to exploring further.

    Reply

    andrew husband April 3, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    I can understand the need to find a usable gas but looking into gases such as halon is not a good idea lol i think looking into proper reports and the video of the tragedy can show it was the gas that was the cause and not the skin as it was burning from the inside also it doesnt matter if its flamable comes at diffrent % the skin seems to be forced to burn with the high force of flams and temp is also shown in pictures and video of the incident flames coming out of the nouse of the ship before the skin was burned

    Reply

    bananabender March 2, 2011 at 8:10 am

    The internal report by the Zeppelin company determined that the skin caught fire first. NASA also came to the same conclusion independently.

    Reply

    Dan (Airships.net) March 3, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Both of those statements are simply false.

    Reply

    Tim Laidler January 26, 2010 at 8:43 am

    “At that time, the US government controlled the only significant supplies of helium (a non-flammable lifting gas), and refused to supply it to the Nazi government. So the Hindenburg had to use flammable hydrogen.

    THE TRUTH: The American restriction against selling helium to other countries was imposed under the Helium Control Act of 1927, which was enacted six years before Hitler took power in Germany and was obviously unrelated to the Nazi regime.”

    There is no mistake in Karl’s statement, he doesn’t state that the refusal was unique to Germany. If it was implied then that was because of his previous errors rather than this statement.

    Reply

    Dan (Airships.net) January 26, 2010 at 11:24 am

    I think the phrase “refused to supply it to the Nazi government” certainly implies that the refusal was due to opposition to the Nazi regime, and it is only on the most literal, lawyerly level that Dr. Karl’s statement can be viewed as accurate.

    Reply

    Tim Laidler January 26, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Well I have to say that when I first read the correction I was confused as they both said the same thing. In this case the most Karl is guilty of is an error of omision.

    In terms of the phrase “refused to supply it to the Nazi government” reaplace “Nazi” with British, French, or Canadian and the statement retains perfect sense. The implication is built through the other statements about the regime and the general public opinion.

    Reply

    stolennomenclature January 26, 2010 at 4:31 am

    From what I can understand about the disaster, this misconception about the role the hydrogen played in the disaster is because of the relative lengths of time the hydrogen fire burned (about 60 seconds) versus the protracted ground fire that burned for several hours, and was fueled by diesel fuel and other solid parts of the ship and its structure. It seems logical that many of those people who were badly burned but who were not in the interior of the ship during the short hydrogen fire, must have been burned by the on ground fire as they walked through the burning wreck to get away from the ship. I have always been under the impression that most of the burns that the passengers recieved was from burning diesel fuel on the ground rather than the burning hydrogen. Since the hydrogen burnt out in the first 60 seconds, and the passengers were in the passenger compartment, unless the fire was able to burn right through the passenger compartment in that time, then the hydroegn fire could not have been directly responsible for their injuries. Of course the hydrogen fire was the cause of the ship losing its lift and crashing to the ground, so the hydrogen fire is still the root cause of everything that subsequently happened.

    Reply

    stolennomenclature January 26, 2010 at 4:22 am

    I am not in the least surprised about the lengths to which the hydrogen fuel advocates will go to persuade people that hydrogen is a wonderful fuel. It is nothing of the kind. It is an appalingly hard to handle substance that makes a terrible fuel as it is extremely hard to store in any safe, economical or convenient way. There are fuels in use that are gaseous at room temperature, but these have a very moderate boiling point and can be stored relatively easily as a liquid at room temperature in containers of moderate strength and weight. This is not true of hydrogen, which must either be stored at very high pressure in strong heavye containers or liquified by cooling to extremely low temperatures. I still struggle to come to terms with the fervour and enthusiasm which people show towards hydrogen, which seems to be based on fantasy, not reality. If you want a useable convenient fuel for fuel cells then you should be looking at ethanol, methanol or perhaps even ammonia (at a stretch), but anything other than hydrogen. Unless there is a technical breakthrough in the technology for storing hydrogen as a hydride, then we really should not be seriously considering it.

    Reply

    P.Crowe November 8, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    I am in a Physical Science class and we watched a video in the beginning of the year about the Hindenburg disaster. This video stated that hydrogen and one other reasons why the Hindenburg disaster occured. I’ve read this webpage and some of it doesnt match with the information I already have. I have to disagree with Mr. Karl that the hydrogen was innocent in thsi disaster.

    Reply

    apscorp October 22, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    If your interested check out the myth busters episode that deals with the accident they built large replicas and burnt them. The skin was very flammable and it burnt the same with or with out hydrogen. It was the way that they mixed the chemicals that coated the skin making the Hinesburg a giant firework.

    Reply

    stolennomenclature January 26, 2010 at 4:53 am

    I suggest you look at the film footage of the Hindenburg disaster captured at the time, and it is obvious from the way the fire progresses that the hydrogen is burning behind the skin and then burns through the skin from inside, and not the skin itself that is burning. take note of how as the ship rises at the nose the fire burning INSIDE the ship burns through the nose section and pours out like the flame from a blowtorch, even though the skin of the forward part of the ship is not alight. Then the fabric panels burn through very rapidly and almost simultaneously as the fire buring behind them eats them away. I find it difficult to see how anyone reconcile the rocket-fuel-fabric theory with the visual record of the incident. It simply does not fit.

    Reply

    reinhardt October 10, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    using the already developed technologies for non permeable membranes any engineer could design a “safe” way to use BOTH hydrogen (for it’s superior lifting abilities,) and yet ‘encase’ or surround the hydrogen gas cells with the cells of inert helium gases… problem solved/advantages retained (…a safe ‘venting system’ if needed could vent the hydrogen which is easilly replaced. Even the designers of the hindenburg were already solving the release of hydrogen safety problem in a most ingeneous way …use it in the diesel engines as fuel (today we can use solar power to generate electricity to ‘create’ hydrogen fuel from water… easy to see that our ‘safe’ zepellins could run on self generated hydrogen (therefore water for human beings as well as all liquid fuel spaces could always be ‘recycled’ for a multitude of purposes….. where are the dreamers when we need them! Just keep the military away from trying to make it into a weapon and we all benefit

    Reply

    Rip Tragle September 21, 2009 at 8:42 am

    I usually try to stay away from personal attacks…. but Dr. Karl looks
    as nutty as his theories.

    Reply

    stolennomenclature January 26, 2010 at 4:44 am

    I don’t think he is nuts, but it seems his attachment to the hydrogen fuel movement has caused him to lose his sense of perspective, as often happens when people have a hidden agenda. The desire to win results in people cutting corners and pushing the boundaries in order to press home their point of view. I am sure that when he is properly opened minded and un-biased as a scientist is supposed to be, he is no longer “nuts”.

    Reply

    Henry Fort September 11, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    “”Using hydrogen as a lifting gas presents a risk. Whether or not it is a tollerable and manageable risk is a subject of debate.”"

    I could not agree with you more Tony. This kind of “research” that Dr. Karl have made is falcehood.

    It would be better to speculate and reseach is there any means to use hydrogen as lifting gas in a safe way is safety issues are taken care of in modern way (non flammable fabrics, fire extinquishers, hydrogen isolatin etc.). Hydrogen IS flammable such as gasoline, BUT it does not mean it could’nt be used if everyting is done for safety usage.

    Reply

    stolennomenclature January 26, 2010 at 4:57 am

    I have often wondered about the possibility of using a helium/hydogen mix, based on the idea that if you mix enough helium with hydrogen, you would dampen down the flammability of the hydrogen. I assume this would happen, but I do not know for sure. If it worked, it might be possible to improve the economics of this hybrid lifting gas over that of pure helium, coming up with a gas that was almost as safe as helium but cheaper and with a higher lifting capability. Of course, the mixture would prbably need to have at least 30% hydrogen for the gains to be worth the bother. I wonder if this have ever been considered?

    Reply

    TonyHolroyd September 7, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Using hydrogen as a lifting gas presents a risk. Whether or not it is a tollerable and manageable risk is a subject of debate.

    The actual cause of the Hindenburg fire is difficult to pin down. But trying to claim that the hydrogen did not burn and that it is that it is not a significant fire risk, is just plain silly. Hydrogen is a flamable gas. Claims that it is no more flamable than other gases are also false, it has an unusually low activation energy when mixed in flamable proportions. A small compression of the air, slightest of static discharges will set it off.

    This does not in itself imply that it should not be used in future rigid airships. Shortage of helium as US natural gas resrves deplete, may force us to revert to this lifting gas. Just as we accept the risk of crashes with aeroplanes, so we would need to accept the risk of hydrogen fires on passenger airships. Good safety engineering, the use of polymer rather than cotton gas bags and good ventilation of the envelope and earthing of static, all contribute to reduced risk of flamability.

    Reply

    Timppa January 26, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Greeting,

    Are there any other gasses that are lighter than air and non flammable?

    I found

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halon_gas
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bromochloromethane
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inert_gas
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_gas
    http://blimpsballoons.suite101.com/article.cfm/lighterthanair_transportation

    I mean that the hydrogen flammability should be reduced with some other gas.

    Reply

    The Doctor March 29, 2010 at 10:25 am

    You aren’t serious about using Halon are you… please tell me no.

    Reply

    John Borrego August 27, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Another minor point–Dr. Karl states: “the Nazi Minister of Propaganda funded the Hindenburg.” I believe funding for the Hindenburg, as well as the Graf Zeppelin II, came partly from the Zeppelin Luftschiffbau corporation and largely from the Air Ministry, not the Propaganda Ministry.

    Reply

    Dan (Airships.net) August 27, 2009 at 10:21 am

    You are correct, John: The Air Ministry provided nine million RM; the Propaganda Ministry provided just two million.

    I just decided to cut Karl some slack. :-)

    But what the heck, I amended the page to add that correction, too. Thanks. Good catch! :-)

    Reply

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