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

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: 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)

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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34 Comments on "Photographic Evidence the Hindenburg was not “Painted with Rocket Fuel”"

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Pete Braun

Last hydrogen airship fire, the Hindenburg? What about the V-6 Osoaviakhim from the USSR, which crashed into an unmarked mountain and burned in 1938? Wasn’t that fire hydrogen-fueled? I only know about that one via the Airships book that had its own entry on here (great book, still enjoy reading it), and I only know what the book said about V-6 Osoaviakhim. But if that’s the case, then clearly the Hindenburg was NOT the last hydrogen airship disaster.

MDG
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… Read more »
Lester Rio DeGennaro
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… Read more »
William Alexander

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.

Patrick Russell

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.

Smilisav

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. 🙂

Schatzie

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….

Tom Mallinson

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.

Patrick Russell
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… Read more »
Mark

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.

Stu

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?

nate evans

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

hyperblimp

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

George Wilson

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

Patrick Russell
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… Read more »
Shawn

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.

Wm Reinhardt
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… Read more »
Rubens Martins Borges Filho
Rubens Martins Borges Filho

Dear Dan,

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

Patrick Russell
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… Read more »
john

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

reinhardt
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….… Read more »
reinhardt

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

glen and melody

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

Wm Reinhardt
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… Read more »
Warbirder
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… Read more »
Dan (Airships.net)

@ 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.

warbirder

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

Dan (Airships.net)

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).

Patrick Russell
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… Read more »
Tael Neilan

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?

Dan (Airships.net)

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.

Tael Neilan

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

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