Photographic Evidence the Hindenburg was not “Painted with Rocket Fuel”

by Dan Grossman on August 25, 2009

The internet is filled with claims that the Hindenburg’s “flammable covering” was the main reason the ship was destroyed by fire in less than a minute.  In fact, the Hindenburg was only the last in a long line of hydrogen airships destroyed by fire as a result of their highly flammable lifting gas, and scientific studies show that the Hindenburg’s covering might not have been flammable at all.

For a detailed historical and technical analysis, visit Rocket Fuel, Thermite, and Hydrogen: Myths about the Hindenburg Crash.  But perhaps the most obvious and compelling evidence is found in the films and photographs of the disaster.

As you can see in the film, even as the hydrogen flames roared around the covering, the covering itself did not burn right away:

Hydrogen fire roars around sections of covering which have not yet ignited

(click to enlarge)

The films shows that even with flames right behind the covering, the fabric itself did not not immediately ignite.  Instead, the fabric burned from behind, where the hydrogen fire was roaring:

Hydrogen fire roars fore, aft, and a behind a section of covering which has not yet ignited.

(click to enlarge)

And even as the zeppelin crashed to the ground, with flames erupting from its nose like a blow torch, the covering had not yet burned:  Flames fueled by hydrogen reached the airship’s nose, killing the crewmen stationed in the bow [see diagram], long before the covering on the hull caught on fire.

Flames emerhving

(click to enlarge)

The following photograph demonstrates that the fire was fueled by the Hindenburg’s hydrogen gas cells and not by its fabric covering.  As you can see, the fire progressed from gas cell to gas cell; if it had been the covering which was burning, rather than the gas cells, the fire would have spread evenly from one end of the ship to the other without the momentary pause between gas cells that we see in this photo:

Gas cells 9 and 10; forward engine car highlighted to show alignment of images. (click to enlarge)

Gas Cells 9 and 10.  (The light circle in each image highlights the forward engine car to show the alignment of the two images, and the line separating Cell 9 from Cell 10.)

Airship historian Patrick Russell has suggested that readers pay especially close attention to the following two portions of the film.

From the 12-second mark to the 16-second mark, you can see a tear in the outer covering kicked open by crew members trying to escape the burning ship. Through the tear, you see light from the fire which was blazing in the hydrogen gas cells long before the outer covering finally ignited:

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

And between the 23-second mark and the 32-second mark, you can see the fabric covering below the passenger compartment, which had still not ignited, even as the rest of the ship was consumed by fire:

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

The Final Proof

The final proof may be this:  Even after a fire so intense that it took less than a minute to destroy an airship the size of almost three football fields, some sections of the covering never burned at all.

Covering unburned

Some sections of the Hindenburg’s covering never burned at all.  (click to enlarge)

Summary

Whether the Hindeburg’s covering was sufficiently flammable to have been the initial source of ignition may be open to reasonable debate.  It is possible (although not likely, given the rainy and wet conditions) that the covering was the cause of the initial ignition, but if the Hindenburg had been inflated with helium instead of hydrogen, even a small fire on the outer covering would not have resulted in a major catastrophe.

Hydrogen is a highly volatile, flammable gas under all conditions, and when mixed in certain ratios with air it is even explosive.  Claims by hydrogen fuel cell advocates that hydrogen was not responsible for the Hindenburg’s ultimate destruction are nothing less than silly.

For a detailed analysis of Hindenburg’s covering, visit: Rocket Fuel, Thermite, and Hydrogen: Myths about the Hindenburg Crash.  And for detailed background about the accident in general, visit: The Hindenburg Disaster.

But for a basic understanding of the “rocket fuel” argument (sometimes called the Incendiary Paint Theory), you just need to look at the films of the crash:  If the Hindenburg had been painted with anything as flammable as rocket fuel, its covering would have burned rapidly during the fire, but that simply did not happen.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

MDG March 3, 2014 at 1:45 am

The Hindenburg WAS painted with a flammable component of rocket fuel.

This article is unbalanced in trying to place the blame entirely on the gas filled envelopes/bags. There is a slight attempt at rebalancing the argument in the summary, indicating that the covering MAY have been the original site of combustion (static discharges have a habit of doing unexpected things, like making wet stuff catch fire unexpectedly.

The Pro-Hydrogen lobby may be unbalanced in their take, that the Hydrogen was NOT a problem AT ALL.. However both sides taking extreme stances helps no one.

This article showed things like a small patch of fabric on the UNDERSIDE of the envelope non combusted, and some sections that weren’t burning. The tail surface which had unburnt sections of fabric after the fire.

Does the author have any experience at all on combustion, thermodynamics or heat transfer? (Probably not) Note that it is exceedingly difficult to attain perfect combustion of any large piece of material, even if it is composed of fairly combustible products (see burning newspaper for a quick example, it will even extinguish before being fully burnt) also note that a large piece of combusting anything, is much more likely to burn from the outside in (around the periphery), rather than simultaneously bursting into flame uniformly. (the yes crowd obviously didn’t think their responses too carefully)

HAS the Author ever burned butyrate doped fabric, to note that while less combustible than Nitrate doped fabric, it does burn well with thick black rubber-like smoke. Now add powdered aluminium to that dope and see if it burns better or worse.

The real point the hydrogen lobby are trying to make (and partly fail due to hyperbole) is that the Hindenburg did not EXPLODE…. (as opponents of hydrogen claim that any significant conflagration of hydrogen will lead to an intense deflagration) rather the venting hydrogen flared off in a spectacular internal and external flare stack.

It is likely that the flammability of the covering (which DID contain powdered aluminium, which is flammable, self sustaining though it needs a relatively high initial energy input to begin combustion) did play a significant role in the disaster.

If the ship had been filled with helium, the inert gas MAY have extinguished, or partly attenuated the blaze, then again maybe not. Helium would NOT have added to the fire (as the hydrogen undoubtedly did, both within the envelope and externally to great visual effect). However a lot of the effects of the hydrogen on the fire was well away from the cabins and majority of the crew areas. (I Pity the few crew members trapped out at the end of a gangway when a wall of fire headed their way.)

Hydrogen opponents always want to make the hydrogen appear the single initiating and final cause of the disaster and don’t want to allow people to know that more crew and passengers were directly affected by burning diesel fuel than were affected by the fire caused by the combusting lift gas.

As Hydrogen is a common and readily available element, it is not out of order to study means to make it useful in whatever ways it can be used. Studies into effecting fast dumping of the lift gas, (turning the descending ship into a large parachute) or safe jettisoning passenger and crew pods, may be better than banning all uses of hydrogen in whatever future airships are used (manned and unmanned. Helium has much less lifting power than hydrogen and it is a severely non renewable resource (50% difference in lift may make a difference in some applications “you think” )

Postscript: We have learned a lot about better electrical connections of an aircraft components to a single ground plane over the last 80 years (composite craft are prone to suffering significant damage if not electrically connected/grounded and statically discharged)

With better electrostatic management this disaster need not happen to any modern craft using hydrogen as a lifting gas.

Take home Message: Don’t fly a kite in a thunderstorm with a conductor attached to the string. (Unless you are Benjamin)

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Dan March 9, 2014 at 8:41 am

The Hindenburg WAS painted with a flammable component of rocket fuel.

That’s like saying that modern automobiles are painted with a flammable component of rocket fuel. It’s literally true, but misleading and irrelevant.

Does the author have any experience at all on combustion, thermodynamics or heat transfer? (Probably not)

Actually, yes. While my own academic training is in history I have discussed these topics with numerous qualified chemists, physicists, and engineers (including at the Southwest Research Institute and elsewhere) and I have been an observer or participant in experiments by qualified scientists exploring the mechanics of the Hindenburg fire.

Note that it is exceedingly difficult to attain perfect combustion of any large piece of material, even if it is composed of fairly combustible products (see burning newspaper for a quick example, it will even extinguish before being fully burnt) also note that a large piece of combusting anything, is much more likely to burn from the outside in (around the periphery), rather than simultaneously bursting into flame uniformly.

And that is the whole point; without the presence of hydrogen the fabric would have burned more like the newsprint you describe in your example.

HAS the Author ever burned butyrate doped fabric,

Actually, yes.

If the ship had been filled with helium, the inert gas MAY have extinguished, or partly attenuated the blaze, then again maybe not

The relevant point isn’t that helium might have attenuated the blaze. The point is that if the ship had been inflated with helium there probably would not have been a blaze in the first place. But even if you won’t concede that fact and want to assume that the fabric independantly caught fire, if the ship had been inflated with helium it would not have crashed to the ground and been destroyed in half-a-minute with the consequent loss of life.

Hydrogen opponents …don’t want to allow people to know that more crew and passengers were directly affected by burning diesel fuel than were affected by the fire caused by the combusting lift gas.

Your comment that “more crew and passengers were directly affected by burning diesel fuel” is simply false.

As Hydrogen is a common and readily available element, it is not out of order to study means to make it useful in whatever ways it can be used. Studies into effecting fast dumping of the lift gas, (turning the descending ship into a large parachute) or safe jettisoning passenger and crew pods, may be better than banning all uses of hydrogen in whatever future airships are used

Your ideas about “turning the descending ship into a large parachute or safe jettisoning passenger and crew pods” are simply not feasible or consistent with the physics of LTA flight.

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Lester Rio DeGennaro October 15, 2013 at 12:12 am

I was born in 1921. There was no TV etc so I was listenig to a battery operated radio during the landing. I recall the announcer saying, Oh my god and crying and repeatedly saying how horable it was. I felt sorry for those killed.
I am also a veteran of WWII, Vietnam and Korea. I was also aboard a ship on my way to the Phillipines Islands in January 1941 but we were recalled to the US when Pearl Harbor was attacked. I left again and after 21 days aboard the ship we docked in Melborne, Australia. I survivrd 187 bombings, 4 years in the jungles of New Guniea and Morati Island. I do have proof of this. At 91+ years old, I am still active and have a strong mind. Respectfully, USAF M/Sgt Retired Lester Rio DeGennaro. I have GREAT resprect for those Men & Women in uniform protecting
our country.

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William Alexander June 9, 2013 at 4:25 pm

I worked at Goodyear aircraft(later aerospace) from 1952 to 1980 I was told by older engineers that sparks at large dia trim valve surfaces opening and closing started the hydrogen fire. Ballasting methods were tricky.

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Patrick Russell December 17, 2013 at 4:29 pm

That’s an interesting take on the spark theory that I hadn’t heard before.

The only problem with it is that no gas had been valved for at least five minutes before the fire broke out. Therefore, even if there was an issue with the valve covers rubbing against some part of the valve structure and generating sparks when opening and closing (and I’ve not heard that the Germans actually experienced such a problem) there is no way that those sparks could have started a fire several minutes after the fact.

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Smilisav May 31, 2013 at 9:14 pm

With all that Hydrogen in there only ignorants can claim that anything else was burning so quickly. But even with non-flammable Helium, the time of Zeppelins was at its end. Airplanes are much faster and smaller. Wind have to be much stronger to blow them away.

But there’s one thing that someone might find interesting: to browse the list of passengers and see what role in history (politics, economy…) some of them might have at the time. :)

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Schatzie February 24, 2013 at 5:21 pm

i think this is completely true although i think its a shame that the world totally wrote off any kind of airship after that, the helium ones are actually quite reliable athough slightly more expensive….

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Tom Mallinson July 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I was wondering what the two large objects were that appeared to fall from the Hindenburg during the initial stages of the fire. I am guessing that they were ballast tanks. Please let me know.

Tom M.

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Patrick Russell October 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Both were storage tanks that were positioned alongside the keel walkway. The forward-most one was a 2500 liter waste water tank (it’s clearly missing in the overhead photos of the wreckage from the next day.)

However, I’m not 100% sure if the one further aft is a water tank, or a fuel/lube oil tank, as the wreckage was so compacted at that spot that I can’t spot which tank is missing in the subsequent wreck photos. I honestly don’t think it was a fuel oil tank, though, because both tanks ruptured and spread their contents over quite a wide radius when they hit the ground. If either had been full of fuel oil there would probably have been fire on the ground outboard of the wreckage that burned for awhile after the ship came down, and I don’t believe that this occurred.

My guess is that both were probably water tanks.

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Mark May 24, 2012 at 3:30 pm

The claim that at least some of the fabric did NOT burn is absolutely correct! How do I know? My now deceased grandfather was ACTUALLY THERE and told me the exact same thing. When he arrived the fire was already under way.When I was a teenager I remember him telling me he examined a section of the silvery colored skin with no sign of combustion on it at all.

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Stu May 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I think the rationale of the hydrogen supporting the overall conflagration, as well as the source of the fire in the first place is valid. One can argue quite reasonably that the outer covering, as well as the cells themselves, also supported combustion which is amply shown in the bright flames and smoke. Hydrogen burns cleanly, and without smoke or odor. What caused the hydrogen to explode is really the mystery. Was it that last “S” turn in response to a wind shift?

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nate evans May 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm

thanks so much for this information. have you seen the mythbuster episode where they figured out what made it crash.

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hyperblimp September 1, 2010 at 3:27 am

wow! this is an information overload. very informative indeed. thanks for sharing

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George Wilson April 28, 2010 at 9:57 pm

On a slightly unrelated note, how did the stern landing wheel end up where it did, to the right of the wreck in pretty good shape? I’ve noticed that in several photos & it makes me curious.
George Wilson

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Patrick Russell October 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I’ve wondered about that too. Given the fact that the lower fin ended up on the ground with its starboard side up, with the detached landing wheel laying there slightly further to starboard of the fin, my guess is that the stern of the ship was perhaps moving slightly to port when it hit the ground, and the landing wheel was dragged off of the fin.

Or, it’s also possible that the wheel was physically moved away from the fin by somebody after the crash. I am fairly certain that I’ve seen photos of the lower fin wreck with the outer cover still surrounding the hatch through which Kollmer, Lau, Freund and Sauter escaped. Most of the time, though, the photos show the fabric stripped almost completely away from the hatch area. I have to wonder if somebody was stripping the fabric away from the lower fin and hauled the landing wheel out of the way in the process.

This is all just speculation on my part, of course.

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Shawn January 27, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Before reading this, I had no idea that there existed “myths” about how the Hindenburg went down. I guess general high school chemistry has taught me that hydrogen is extremely flammable, and when you’re not trying to look for reasons that aren’t there, you often put 2 and 2 together.

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Wm Reinhardt February 23, 2012 at 9:02 am

Shawn
Events like this are seldom as easy as 2+2 but you are correct about the ‘known dangers’ of Hydrogen…. please consider that these hydrogen airshipd had a stellar record for safety / speed/air miles/ etc. etc. , that was unmatched in the world (…maybe still!) and that with just a little of the technology we have today (..lighter , stronger airframes, much better engine technology , readily available He instead of H, …and the possibilities of “surrounding the dangerous but much more efficient lifter (hydrogen) within a “bag ” of the inert gas (helium) so as to insulate the danger from any ‘triggers….’ What a fabulous lift and transport technology we are NOT using today… or perhaps we could even develop a “tugboat-Zep capacity where the lifting “barges” of huge Zeppelins are kept separated from the “towing technology” that moves them (much like the trucking industry which has trailers moved by detachable ‘cabs’ ….and once in favaorable air currents our Zep-barges could ‘glide’ to locations (…like using a river to move barges downstream, with the ‘tugs’ merely guiding the course but the river doing the most work…

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Rubens Martins Borges Filho October 28, 2009 at 11:38 pm

Dear Dan,

I would like to know more about the Colonel Fritz Erdmann.
What he really doing in the ship.

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Patrick Russell October 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I have actually wondered the same thing over the years, as there is a persistent claim that Erdmann and the other two Luftwaffe officers were aboard as counterespionage agents looking for saboteurs.

I have seen a number of sources (including an article written by Gertrud Adelt, one of the passenger survivors) that indicate that Erdmann, Witt and Hinkelbein were merely aboard as military observers, which is consistent with what we know was the case on numerous flights in 1936. During its first year of operation, the Hindenburg carried not only Luftwaffe observers, but also observers from the US Navy. The Hindenburg was not only a state-of-the-art airship, but it also employed cutting-edge techniques in areas such as aerial navigation. There was plenty of value for military officers to learn during a voyage that had nothing to do with espionage.

I have, however, found not one single source that indicates that Erdmann and the others were aboard to prevent a sabotage attempt EXCEPT for Michael M. Mooney’s heavily fictionalized book “The Hindenburg”, published in 1972. As near as I can tell (and I’ve researched this as extensively as I can) this is the source of every subsequent claim that Erdmann was looking for saboteurs and bombs aboard the last flight. Given the fact that most of Mooney’s identifiable facts in that book seem to come straight from existing printed sources, rather than from new interviews performed while he was doing his research, it seems that were there any basis in fact to the notion that Erdmann and the others were counterespionage, it would have surfaced elsewhere by now.

In my opinion, based on what I’ve learned about the matter, Colonel Erdmann was simply aboard to observe ship operations, particularly as they related to his role as Kommandant of the aviation section of the Military Signal Communications School in Halle an der Saale. I really don’t believe there’s any big mystery there.

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john October 15, 2009 at 12:10 pm

it is showing a bit of the fabric that is not burnt

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reinhardt October 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm

all the history is very very interesting, just as the idiotic legends and myths that surround (and try to justify) the destruction of incredible technology. Technology and industry that was providing safe, eco-friendly, economically superior, already existing and proven technology that could NOT be readily “Militarized”
Perhaps the MYTHS and Slanderous lies that destroyed the industry was NOT ACCIDENTAL , NOR merely IGNORANT….
Perhaps the Hindenburg was sabotaged to support the more militarially -promising heavy lift technologies by the Military industrial complex which now controls our populations worldwide ….addicted to oil, and supporting astounding military societies, rather than human beings…. this technology would be vastly superior to the successful peaceful endeavors of our past…. if only our brains could overcome our fear from the miltary industrial terrorists in control.. and their ignorant propaganda. Want to rebuild america with a new technology? …similar to what the internet has done… EASY!! Just develop rigid airship technology.
If the oil-military conglomerate doesn’t destroy you first.

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reinhardt October 10, 2009 at 12:19 pm

yes… it seems obvious that the skin was NOT any problem.. nor was the hydrogen (vast record of safe operations worldwide for years) My question is WHY would such nonsense even be published, and by whom…. who would benefit by sabotaging the entire industry… and what technology has been supported to replace the ‘proven-promise’ of the rigid airship. i would welcome even more than a ‘discussion’ ….i would love to see a suggestin along the lines of a company like Virgin Galactic… humans could actually bring back this wondrouse and safe technology…. if we can just get started

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glen and melody January 19, 2012 at 11:20 am

we think that the engines propeller caught on the skin and the friction ignited the hydrogen and it caught fire and the fire spread.

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Wm Reinhardt February 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm

very interesting discussion…. but it in insufficient to discuss the facts about the fire, it’s causes and possible ‘problems’ with designs and materials without looking at the obvious “circumstances” that existed surrounding this event….. meaning the facts that the ship was being used as a propaganda tool by Nazi Germany and there were great military /industrial empires that could easily sabotage each other and hide any crime evidence… so an ‘accident’ could be arranged so no one could ‘prove’ it wasn’t just coincidence…. f’rinstance; the US controlled the Helium and refused to sell any to the Germans, so they made due (for years) with the more dangerous Hydrogen (yet it was also 20% more efficient in lifting…) Include all the industrial espionage and plans for war that were already taking place worldwide… One should recall that the Edison Direct Current Advocates would stop at nothing to make the Alternate Current Tesla Advocates look like a killer technology…. the direct current people even ‘designed’ the first ‘electric chair’ to use AC (…to show that it is the best killer of humans) …of course the AC was the technology that finally won out but “sabotage was the name of the game” …and probably was a major factor in the Hindenburg Disaster…. a tad too much unexplained and unlikely scenarios all happening in a very unfriendly location…. remember what ‘animals’ theGermans were for using buzz-bombs and V-2 rockets…. but as soon as we got their technology it all became “genius space technology” and cruise missiles were hailed as enforcers of peace against terrorists (suspected?)…. The accident itself did not justify loosing the incredible technology and ecological efficiencies of Zeppelins . But that is what happened….

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Warbirder September 5, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Has anyone on this site done experiments with nitrate doped linen? WWI aircraft were wood and covered with nitrate doped linen. That is why they used incendiery ammo to shoot them down. The FAA long ago required Butyrate dopes to cover over the nitrate dope to postpone flammability. The silver dopes applied for UV protection can certainly promote flammability. Remember that this aircraft was moving vertically down and as gas bags were burning as well as the aerodynamic covering the airflow would force the flames upward.
I stopped using nitrate and silver processes long ago to prevent the potential for covering fires in my restorations.

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Dan (Airships.net) September 5, 2009 at 6:04 pm

@ warbirder:
Nitrate dopes (like nitrate film stocks) are known to be highly flammable, which is why they were not used by the designers of the Hindenburg; the designers chose an acetate butyrate solution instead of a nitrate solution for that very reason.

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warbirder September 7, 2009 at 1:47 pm

The linen and butyrate would still burn as evidenced in Ray Stits videos from the 50’s-60’s demonstrating his aircraft covering process.

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Dan (Airships.net) September 7, 2009 at 8:50 pm

No-one has suggested that the ship’s covering was not combustible (in other words, that it would not burn).

I am a little confused by your comments: I cannot figure out whether or not you are trying to make a specific point. If you would like to make a specific suggestion about the Hindenburg disaster, it would be very welcome, but please make your point a little more explicit so it will be easier for people to respond (whether in agreement or opposition).

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Patrick Russell August 27, 2009 at 11:24 am

For further proof that the fire was burning inside the ship long before it ignited the cover surrounding it, look for the sudden bright spot between the bow and the bottom of the screen that appears in the newsreel at about the 12 second mark on the video embedded at the end of this article.

What you’re seeing there is a seam in the outer cover just aft of Ring 233 being kicked open by one of the crew members who were unfortunate enough to have been ordered to the bow to help trim the ship several minutes prior to the fire.

Even though the external fire consuming the ship’s bow fabric hasn’t yet spread that far aft, you can clearly see the fire burning inside the hull through this torn seam.

This, of course, corresponds with the Board of Inquiry testimonies of crew survivors Alfred Groezinger and Kurt Bauer, both of whom were stationed a short distance forward of Ring 218, and both of whom stated that they felt the ship shake, looked up, and already saw fire above them either just prior to (Bauer) or simultaneous with (Groezinger) the moment the stern began to drop.

Also, watch the embedded video from the 23-second mark to the 30-second mark. Pay particular attention to the fabric along the bottom of the hull, especially below the passenger observation windows. Most of it stays intact even as the hull collapses to the ground, and the fabric under the passenger windows remains practically untouched until the shot cuts away at the 33-second mark.

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Tael Neilan August 25, 2009 at 2:05 pm

It seems the evidence Dan gave here is more than common sense, if there’s still pieces of the skin left on the charred skeleton of the ship after a blaze that intense, one would think that the skin isn’t as flammable as rocket fuel… But some people still believe it.
Now on the second to last picture in the article, what is the highlighted circle on the airship highlighting? Is it just showing one of the engine nacelles?

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Dan (Airships.net) August 25, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Thanks for your comment. :-)

And yes, you are correct; the highlighted circle in the next-to-last picture shows the forward engine car, as a way to align the drawing with the photograph.

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Tael Neilan August 25, 2009 at 2:25 pm

I actually didn’t notice the highlight on the drawing, that makes a lot of sense now…

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