The Hindenburg Disaster

hindenburg-bow-torch

The Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937 brought an abrupt end to the age of the rigid airship.

After more than 30 years of passenger travel on German commercial zeppelins – during which tens of thousands of passengers flew over a million miles on more than 2,000 flights without a single injury – the era of the passenger zeppelin came to an end in a few fiery minutes.

It seems clear that the disaster was caused by an electrostatic discharge (in simple terms, a spark) that ignited hydrogen that had leaked from a gas cell.

The exact cause of the discharge is open to discussion; the source of ignition could have been a coronal discharge (“St. Elmo’s Fire), but was most likely caused by a difference in electrical potential between the airship and the surrounding air.  The airship was 60 meters (approximately 200 feet) above the airfield in an electrically charged atmosphere, but was grounded by its landing lines; the difference in charge between the airship and the surrounding air likely caused electrical discharges.

The cause of the hydrogen leak is more of a mystery, but we know the ship experienced a significant leakage of hydrogen before the disaster.

One thing is clear; the disaster was caused by the ship’s hydrogen had nothing to do with the zeppelin’s fabric covering.  In fact, Hindenburg was just one of a long line of hydrogen airships destroyed by fire as a result of their highly flammable lifting gas.

The Last Flight of the Hindenburg

Hindenburg began its last flight on May 3, 1937 [see complete Hindenburg Flight Schedule], carrying 36 passengers [see Hindenburg Passenger List] and 61 officers, crew members, and trainees [see Hindenburg Crew List].

The ship left the Frankfurt airfield at 7:16 PM and flew over Cologne, and then crossed the Netherlands before following the English Channel past the chalky cliffs of Beachy Head in southern England, and then heading out over the Atlantic shortly after 2:00 AM the next day.

Hindenburg at the Frankfurt airfield

Hindenburg at the Frankfurt airfield in 1936

Hindenburg followed a northern track across the ocean [view chart], passing the southern tip of Greenland and crossing the North American coast at Newfoundland.  Headwinds delayed the airship’s passage across the Atlantic, and the Lakehurst arrival, which had been scheduled for 6:00 AM on May 6th, was postponed to 6:00 PM.

By noon on May 6th the ship had reached Boston, and by 3:00 PM Hindenburg was over the skyscrapers of Manhattan in New York City (view photograph).

New York City beneath Hindenburg (photo from engine car)

New York City beneath Hindenburg (photo from engine car)

The ship flew south from New York and arrived at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey at around 4:15 PM, but the poor weather conditions at the field concerned the Hindenburg’s commander, Captain Max Pruss, and also Lakehurst’s commanding officer, Charles Rosendahl, who sent a message to the ship recommending a delay in landing until conditions improved.  Captain Pruss departed the Lakehurst area and took his ship over the beaches and coast of New Jersey to wait out the storm.  By 6:00 PM conditions had improved; at 6:12 Rosendahl sent Pruss a message relaying temperature, pressure, visibility, and winds which Rosendahl considered “suitable for landing.”  At 6:22 Rosendahl radioed Pruss “Recommend landing now,” and at 7:08 Rosendahl sent a message to the ship strongly recommending the “earliest possible landing.”

Hindenburg flying over Princeton University on May 6, 1937, in a photograph taken by Princeton student Thornton Gerrish '37 from his dorm room in Pyne Hall.  (Photo reprinted with kind permission of Haden and Campbell Gerrish, who retain all rights.)

Hindenburg flying over Princeton University on May 6, 1937, in a photograph taken by Princeton student Thornton Gerrish ’37 from his dorm room in Pyne Hall. (Photo reprinted with kind permission of Haden and Campbell Gerrish, who retain all rights.)

The Landing Approach

Hindenburg approached the field at Lakehurst from the southwest shortly after 7:00 PM at an altitude of approximately 600 feet.  Since the wind was from the east, after passing over the field to observe conditions on the ground, Captain Pruss initiated a wide left turn to fly a descending oval pattern around the north and west of the field, to line up for a landing into the wind to the east.

Hindenburg landing approach (from U.S. Commerce Department report)

Hindenburg landing approach (from U.S. Commerce Department report)

While Captain Pruss (who was directing the ship’s heading and engine power settings) brought Hindenburg around the field, First Officer Albert Sammt (who was responsible for the ship’s trim and altitude, assisted by Watch Officer Walter Ziegler at the gas board and Second Officer Heinrich Bauer at the ballast board), valved 15 seconds of hydrogen along the length of the ship to reduce Hindenburg’s buoyancy in preparation for landing.

The gas board used to valve hydrogen to keep the ship in trim.

The gas board used to valve hydrogen to keep the ship in trim.

As Pruss continued the slow left turn of the oval landing pattern, reducing, and then reversing, the power from the engines, Sammt noticed that the ship was heavy in the tail and valved hydrogen from cells 11-16 (in the bow) for a total of 30 seconds, to reduce the buoyancy of the bow and keep the ship in level trim.  When this failed to level the ship, Sammt ordered three drops of water ballast, totaling 1,100 kg (2,420lbs), from Ring 77 in the tail, and then valved an additional 5 seconds of hydrogen from the forward gas cells.  When even these measures could not keep the ship in level trim, six crewmen were ordered to go forward to add their weight to the bow.

(That Captain Pruss personally directed the ship’s heading and power settings during the landing evolution was an exception to the usual German operating procedure. Typically, during the landing of Hindenburg or Graf Zeppelin, the rudder and power were under the direction of one senior watch officer, while the elevators, ballast, and gas were under the direction of another senior watch officer; the ship’s captain observed all operations, but only intervened in the case of difficulty or disagreement with the actions of his officers. The German procedure was noted frequently by American naval observers, perhaps because it differed so greatly from the practice followed by the United States Navy. During Hindenburg’s final landing maneuver, however, Captain Pruss personally directed the rudder and power, while Albert Sammt directed the elevators, ballast, and gas. Perhaps Pruss was simply used to this arrangement from his time as a watch officer, or perhaps a re-ordering of roles occurred because of the presence of senior captain and DZR flight director Ernst Lehmann on the bridge, but as far as this author knows, Captain Pruss never commented on the matter publicly, nor did Pruss ever try to evade his responsibility as commander by suggesting that Captain Lehmann was in actual operational control at the time of the accident.)

Captain Albert Sammt

Captain Albert Sammt

While Sammt was working to keep the ship in trim, the wind shifted direction from the east to the southwest.  Captain Pruss now needed to land into the wind on a southwestly heading, rather than the easterly heading he had originally intended when he planned his oval landing pattern.  Hindenburg was now close to the landing area, however, and did not have a lot of room to maneuver before reaching the mooring mast.  Anxious to land quickly, before weather conditions could deteriorate, Captain Pruss decided to execute a tight S-turn to change the direction of the ship’s landing; Pruss ordered a turn to port to swing out, and then a sharp tight turn to starboard to line up for landing into the wind.  (Some experts would later theorize that this sharp turn overstressed the ship, causing a bracing wire to snap and slash a gas cell, allowing hydrogen to mix with air to form a highly explosive combination.)

After the S-turn to change the direction of landing, Pruss continued his approach to the mooring mast, adjusting power from the two forward and two rear engines, and at 7:21, with the ship about 180 feet above the ground, the forward landing ropes were dropped.

The Fire

A few minutes after the landing lines were dropped, R.H. Ward, in charge of the port bow landing party, noticed what he described as a wave-like fluttering of the outer cover on the port side, between frames 62 and 77, which contained gas cell number 5 .  He testified at the Commerce Department inquiry that it appeared to him as if gas were pushing against the cover, having escaped from a gas cell.  Ground crew member R.W. Antrim, who was at the top of the mooring mast, also testified that he saw that the covering behind the rear port engine fluttering.

At 7:25 PM, the first visible external flames appeared. Reports vary, but most witnesses saw the first flames either at the top of the hull just forward of the vertical fin (near the ventilation shaft between cells 4 and 5) or between the rear port engine and the port fin (in the area of gas cells 4 and 5, where Ward and Antrim had seen the fluttering).

cells-4-51

(click to enlarge)

For example, Lakehurst commander Rosendahl described a “mushroom shaped flower” of flame bursting into bloom in front of the upper fin.  Navy Lt. Benjamin May, the assistant mooring officer, who was atop the mooring mast, testified that an area just behind the rear port engine (where Ward and Antrim reported the fluttering) “seemed to collapse,” after which he saw streaks of flame followed by a muffled explosion, and then the entire tail was engulfed by flame.  Navy ground crew member William Bishop described seeing flames “inside” the ship a little above and aft of the rear port engine car.

Location of Helmut Lau, Sauter, Kollmer, and Freund at time of explosion.

Location of helmsmen Helmut Lau at the time of the explosion.

Several witnesses inside the ship also saw the beginning of the fire.  Helmsman Helmut Lau, who was stationed at the auxiliary control stand in the lower fin, heard “a muffled detonation and looked up and saw from the starboard side down inside the gas cell a bright reflection on the front bulkhead of cell No. 4.”

Lau described the flames he saw at cell 4 at the inquiry:  “The bright reflection in the cell was inside. I saw it through the cell. It was at first red and yellow and there was smoke in it. The cell did not burst on the lower side. The cell suddenly disappeared by the heat…. The fire proceeded further down and then it got air. The flame became very bright and the fire rose up to the side, more to the starboard side, as I remember seeing it, and I saw that with the flame aluminum parts and fabric parts were thrown up. In that same moment the forward cell and the back cell of cell 4 also caught fire [cell 3 and cell 5]. At that time parts of girders, molten aluminum and fabric parts started to tumble down from the top. The whole thing only lasted a fraction of a second.”

burning-with-mast

The fire quickly spread and soon engulfed the tail of the ship, but the ship remained level for a few more seconds before the tail began to sink and the nose pointed upward to the sky, with a blowtorch of flame erupting from the bow where twelve crew members were stationed, including the six who were sent forward to keep ship in trim.

In the port and starboard promenades on the passenger decks, where many of the passengers and some of the crew had gathered to watch the landing, the rapidly increasing angle of the ship caused passengers and crew to tumble against the walls, the furniture, and each other; passenger Margaret Mather recalled being hurled 15-20 feet against the rear wall of the dining room and being pinned against a bench by several other people.

Tragedy at Lakehurst

Survival and Death

The fire spread so quickly — consuming the ship in less than a minute — that survival was largely a matter of where one happened to be located when the fire broke out.

Passengers and crew members began jumping out the promenade windows to escape the burning ship, and most of the passengers and all of the crew who were in the public rooms on A Deck at the time of the fire — close to the promenade windows — did survive.  Those who were deeper inside the ship, in the passenger cabins at the center of the decks or the crew spaces along the keel, generally died in the fire.

One passenger, John Pannes (the New York manager for the Hamburg-America Line, which handled passenger reservations for the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei), was in the dining room when the fire broke out; encouraged to jump by ship’s photographer Karl Otto Clemens, who escaped through one of the windows and survived, Pannes instead left the dining room to find his wife Emma, who had returned to their cabin for her coat.  Both died in the fire.

Mr and Mrs Hermann Doehner and their three children (Irene, 16; Walter 10; and Werner, 8 ) were also in the dining room watching the landing, but Mr Doehner left before the fire broke out.  Mrs Doehner and her two young sons jumped to safety, but Irene left the dining room in search of her father, and both died as a result of the crash.

Given the speed with which Hindenburg burned, survival for the crew was also largely a matter of luck.  As the diagram below illustrates, those who were close to a means of exit at the time of the fire generally survived, including 9 of the 11 men in the engine cars, and 10 of the 12 men in the control car.  Those who were deep inside the ship, such as the electricians in the power room along the keel, or Max Schulze in the smoking room bar on B Deck, or those on the starboard side (since the flaming ship rolled slightly to starboard as it hit the ground) were generally trapped in the wreck.  And the men stationed in the bow — who were exposed to the column of flame that rose through the ship as the bow pointed skyward — had the least chance; the 9 men who were closest to the front of the ship at the time of the fire all died.

Location of officers and crew at time of fire; those killed are in red, those who survived are in green.  (click to enlarge)

Location of officers and crew at time of fire; those killed are in red, those who survived are in green. (click to enlarge)

As the ship settled to the ground, less than 30 seconds after the first flames were observed, those who had jumped from the burning craft scrambled for safety, as did members of the ground crew who had been positioned on the field below the ship.

bow-burningNatural instinct caused those on the ground to run from the burning wreck as fast as they could, but Chief Petty Officer Frederick J. “Bull” Tobin, a longtime airship veteran and an enlisted airship pilot who was in charge of the Navy landing party, cried out to his sailors: “Navy men, Stand fast!!” Bull Tobin had survived the crash of USS Shenandoah, and he was not about to abandon those in peril on an airship, even if it meant his own life.  And his sailors agreed.  Films of the disaster (see below) clearly show sailors turning and running back toward the burning ship to rescue survivors; those films are a permanent tribute to the courage of the sailors at Lakehurst that day.

The Final Toll

Hindenburg left Frankfurt with 97 souls onboard; 62 survived the crash at Lakehurst, although many suffered serious injuries.  Thirteen of the 36 passengers, and twenty-two of the 61 crew, died as a result of the crash, along with one member of the civilian landing party (Allen Hagaman).

burning-on-ground

The End of the Airship Era

The public seemed remarkably forgiving of the accident-prone zeppelin prior to the Hindenburg disaster, and the glamorous and speedy Hindenburg was greeted with public enthusiasm despite a long list of previous airship accidents.

But while airships like USS Akron (on which 73 died) crashed at sea, and the British R-101 (on which 48 were killed) crashed in the darkness of night — both far from witnesses or cameras — the crash of the Hindenburg was captured on film. Millions of people around the world saw the dramatic inferno which consumed the ship and its passengers. Oh, the Humanity!

At least, that’s the conventional wisdom about why the age of the zeppelin died that rainy day at Lakehurst.

But perhaps after 35 years of accidents and disasters — the crashes of LZ-4, LZ-5, Deutschland, Deutschland II, Schwaben, R-38, R-101, Shenandoah, Akron, Macon, and the list goes on — perhaps the public had just had enough.

And more importantly, despite its romance and grandeur, Hindenburg was obsolete before it ever flew.

On November 22, 1935 — three months before Hindenburg first took to the air — Pan American Airways’ M-130 China Clipper made the first scheduled flight across the Pacific. The M-130 could have crossed the Atlantic with ease; its 2,400-mile route San Francisco to Honolulu was longer than distance required to cross the North Atlantic.  In fact, Pan Am’s M-130 was designed for the Atlantic, and it was only political (not technological) considerations that prevented Pan Am from inaugurating transatlantic airline service in 1935; the British refused to grant Pan Am landing rights until Britain had a plane that could make the same flight, but Britain was far behind America in the development of a long-distance airliner.

Between the cost of its infrastructure and crew, inherent safety issues, and the development of better technology, the rigid passenger airship was doomed long before Hindenburg landed at Lakehurst that fateful day in May.

More information about the Disaster:

burning-level

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{ 110 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexander Lau May 9, 2014 at 3:58 pm

Helmut Lau, comes from my Dad’s extended side, but I had no idea until recently. There were two big Lau families, one that lived in Sulzberg, Austria (my side) and the other on the border in Deutschland, exactly in Friedrichshafen, Germany. The Lau’s in Deutschland were originally from Sulzberg, but moved there for work. At least, that’s the family story. Has to be the same Bavarian blood.

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Neil Hemstad April 20, 2014 at 9:22 am

If Albert Sammt had noticed on the gas board that gas cell four was low in pressure after the landing ropes had been dropped and that the electrical discharge was happening was there anything at all that could have been done to prevent the fire at that point?

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Sharon April 3, 2014 at 3:44 pm

My husband’s father gave us a brick from the landing area. The brick was given to him by an airman.

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nathan February 3, 2014 at 8:34 pm

the video does not work

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Dan March 9, 2014 at 8:53 am

Thank you for letting me know! (It was a YouTube video that was made private and I removed the dead link from this page. Thanks again for the information!)

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william Klapper September 20, 2013 at 7:27 am

it is not a theory or speculation that when hydrogen and air are mixed in an enclosure a bomb is formed. Each time hydrogen was released from the Hindenburg’s gas bags into a gas exit shaft a mixture of hydrogen and air was made in this enclosure, and a bomb resulted. Because the airship captains were able to release hydrogen successfully 99.9% of the time, it was assumed by the captains that this method of reducing lift could be done safely 100% of the time. On that unlucky evening in 1937 a hydrogen – air explosion occurred in a gas exit shaft. The air – hydrogen bomb in a gas exit shaft was detonated by a flame from vented hydrogen. This flame was visible to some observers who called it St Elmo’s fire. The explosion in the gas exit shaft tore apart the gas bags full of hydrogen causing the catastrophe.
Dr Eckener tried to get helium from the United States which was the only source at the time even though the Hindenburg was designed for helium. Since time was of the essence because a larger commercial service was anticipated hydrogen was merely substituted. It was felt that the captains because of their skill and experience could handle hydrogen safely.
Venting hydrogen through a gas exit shaft made a bomb that was waiting to explode.

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Ed Jones January 19, 2014 at 5:02 am

It’s been my understanding that gas wasn’t allowed to simply vent (pass from cells through shafts/tubes, to exit into atmosphere), but that the venting occurred through engineered flame/ignition arrestor devices designed and installed to prevent any ignitions from back flowing hazard. In fact, it has been my understanding that even the vented gas flow and dispersion from the vent-ports had been studied for proper gas dispersion/atmospheric dilution. But my input here can be no better than my (general info) books on airships which don’t go into much of the engineering details on every functioning component of the ships..

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Ed Jones January 19, 2014 at 5:19 am

I’ve read that the late Harold Dick, a Goodyear airship engineer assigned on a semi-permanent basis with the LZ-129, has left most of his airship logs, journals and paperwork, with the University of Kansas at Lawrence. He would’ve had knowledge of the operating safety issues relating to gas venting.. (??)
So sad to hear that he’d passed. I didn’t even know he was still around the area there…I used to fly into KC frequently up until the mid-90′s.

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william Klapper January 30, 2014 at 4:28 pm

I feel that any effective flame arrestor would have been too heavy for use on the Hindenburg. Besides the primary concern was to get the North Atlantic airship service going. Since it was assumed that Helium would be used the problem of hydrogen exploding would be “solved” by using experienced Zeppelin captains.
Hydrogen burning at the outlet makes an almost invisible flame which was only noticed by a husband and his wife who exclaimed “This airship is on fire” or something like that. There were many Captains present at the time of the explosion who instantly knew what that meant. The only question is where was the explosion. Nobody wanted to get into trouble with the Nazis so they came up with fantastic cover ups. Let me know if you agree.
Bill Klapper

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Stu April 2, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Read Harold Dick’s book on the two airships – Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin. No mention of any hydrogen being burned off. They simply vented the hydrogen out into the shafts and up it went to the vent hoods located on top of the ship. Trouble may have been with the Hindenburg is that she was not moving fast when she vented hydrogen and there may have been a collection of the explosive mixture congregating near the aft vent hood just before the upper tail fin where the fire started.
The Graf Zeppelin was even more dangerous than the Hindenburg as one third of her inner hull was comprised of a separate set of gas bags containing “Blau Gas” a type of propane at normal air pressure. They burned the Blau gas in the engines as a lightweight fuel that didn’t change the airship’s static condition when burned off. The Graf flew tens of thousands of miles and never had any fires or mishaps. Truly a good reason for the Zeppelin Company to feel safe in the Hindenburg that was filled with hydrogen as well.

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william Klapper April 9, 2014 at 9:23 am

Hydrogen and air mixture when confined will detonate with violence and this mixture is extremely easy to detonate, however hydrogen and air when not confined will burn with an almost invisible flame. Hydrogen was never “burned off” intensionally, but a “plume” of gas could be ignited by static in the air.
Blau gas has a much narrower explosive range but within this range can be very dangerous. Blaugas should be kept separate from air until it is within the engine. Not having to vent hydrogen into an airshaft was one reason that the Graf Zeppelin did not explode.

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MaxxMurxx August 23, 2013 at 9:23 pm

In 1948 a CIA recruiter interviewed the former Chief of the Gestapo, Heinrich Mueller. In the transcript of the interview a passage of the Hindenburg disaster is contained.
Q is the CIA Questioner
M is Mueller

Full interview at: http://is.gd/Gf6mNS

M I do not consider myself to be an explosives expert in any sense, but over the years I got quite an
education on the subject, believe me.
Q The July 20 business, for example?
M Yes, that too, but there were others. I was heavily involved in the “Hindenburg” business in 1937.
Q I thought that was an accident. Static electricity.
M No, it was a bomb. Oddly enough, both your government and ours tacitly agreed that an accident was
the best official solution. Actually, that was before Crystal Night and we did cooperate with your
investigators on the scene, or rather they allowed our people to go over and assist them. Very discreet at the
time.
Q I have traveled on a Zeppelin before and I genuinely loved it.
M I too, although I found it very hard to adjust to. I was used to a different kind of flying, but I agree that
the experience was one not forgotten. Too bad the airship is a dead issue. Of course, if your government
had given us helium, the disaster would never have happened.
Q How do you know it was a bomb, and who was responsible?
M To the first question: Because that was the official but private conclusion, and as to the second, I admit
no one knew. There are educated guesses, for sure, but nothing conclusive. From the beginning, Hitler did
not want it to be sabotage and we had to conduct our investigation accordingly. There had been bomb
threats before, you know, and the Gestapo was responsible for searching the luggage of all passengers
boarding the craft in Germany. For this reason, I had some initial interest and once the tragedy happened,
we had to go over our information to see what we might have known about passengers and crew. There are
some interesting factors involved in the business. How much do you know about it?
Q Nothing other than the ship caught fire just as it was landing.
M Then I should educate you. The Hindenburg had been threatened before and we instituted a rigorous
search of luggage in Germany. The ship, on the trip in question, ran into some very heavy weather with
stiff headwinds that slowed her down by almost twelve hours. She was supposed to arrive in America and
dock at about six in the morning, but instead was delayed to the point where she was only able to put down
at six in the evening. The twelve hours I mentioned. Now we were able to interrogate the German nationals
who had been on board, including the passengers and crew. And all of the evidence from the officers in the
control car and from the crew, inasmuch as they had specific evidence, was that there was a small
explosion inside the ship, down inside by one of the huge gas cells. Not an explosion on the top of the ship.
I mean, you saw the fire break out above, but the fire started down inside the ship. There were three men in
the tail and two were absolutely positive about the source of the initial explosion. The officers confirmed
also that there was no loss of gas registered on the control boards and that the landing was perfectly normal
Your people and ours went through the wreckage and could find nothing significant in the way of
bomb parts or timing devices, but many people had carried off souvenirs, and the fire was very hot, so a
small timing device could easily be overlooked, stolen or destroyed. After all, a destructive device on such
an airship did not need to be large or very powerful—only powerful enough to rip the gas cell, which was
made of treated cloth, and start a fire. A few ounces of powder, a battery and a detonator were sufficient. I
could put such a device in my coat pocket and you probably wouldn’t see it, and of course, we didn’t strip
the passengers who were boarding. No, I went through all the evidence and even talked with the ship’s
designers, so I am satisfied that a bomb destroyed the Hindenburg. Of course for political reasons, it was
better to call it an accident.
This I can say: I firmly believe that the bomb was planted in the ship before she left Germany.
Hindenburg was not full on the way over, but she was sold out on the return trip. That is where I had the
best clues as to what happened. Now, follow along with me: She was twelve hours late, as I have said. I am
sure that a crew member or a passenger could have gotten up inside the ship and put the bomb where it
would go off, but I cannot believe that anyone would be insane enough to want to stay on board when the
airship blew up. If someone embarking in Germany had planted the bomb before the delay occurred, I am
positive they would have had time to go back and retrieve it before it went off. I don’t think anyone would
want to be burned alive that way.
So, if we take that as a starting point, let us go on to the next point: If the bomb was planted in
Germany, the planter would not know in advance that the ship would be twelve hours late. These airships
were very reliable and quite on time, give or take an hour or so. But she was twelve hours late after all.
Now if all had gone as expected, the Hindenburg would have landed around 6 A.M., disembarked her
passengers, refueled and reprovisioned, and made ready for the return flight—no more than a few hours for
this, and off she would have gone. Only this time, she would have had a full complement of passengers—
mostly wealthy Americans bound for the Coronation in London. I said I was able to interview all the
German passengers on the fatal flight that survived, but I could not get at the American survivors, so that
leaves a gap. But still, the timing is what is really important.
In theory, had she not run into unexpected headwinds going to America, the Hindenburg would be
back out over the Atlantic with a full house when she blew up—probably no survivors and absolutely no
evidence. After all, when she burned, it only took a minute or so before she was gone, so over the ocean
with no ship traffic in sight, and possibly no time to send out a distress message, it could have gone down
as one of the mysteries of the sea.
If this were the plan, why put the bomb on board in Germany, hoping to destroy the ship when
coming from America? Why make it look like the sabotage came from your side, not ours? That might
indicate some plot in Germany aimed at your country, but there was no reason for this at that time in
history. Many of your citizens did not like Hitler, especially the Jews, but the real problems between thetwo countries had not yet heated up. And a plot by the Jews would not want to blow up Americans, but the
evil Nazi passengers.
I did get and examined very carefully, a list of those who were slated to take the return passage
and most were wealthy Americans, as I have said. We had enough cooperation with your law enforcement
agencies to indicate to me at least three possible subjects whose death might be of value to someone else. It
would have to be someone who had connections in Germany and who could have a bomb put on board with
a clockwork device set to go off when the Hindenburg was on her way back.
Q A question here: You said a clockwork device. Are there such things that could be set for two or three
days?
M Of course. We had just such a device called the J-Feder 504 that could work up to 21 days. We used that
to blow up the Naples post office in 1944. A small device that I could easily hold in one hand and still have
room for a good cigar. It could be set to, let us say, sixteen days, five hours and three minutes. Isn’t science
wonderful?
Q Who were the suspects?
M Not important at this point. Personal gain was the main motive, as I believe it, not political objections to
the swastika. The insurance policies would, in some cases, have a caveat about acts of terrorism negating
payment. It might have been instructive to compare the passenger list with such policies, and of course,
consider relatives or spouses who could benefit by such a sudden tragedy. Lost at sea and never found.
Q In America, there often is a period of waiting. Seven years.
M I’m sure there would be something found to prove the ship had blown up. Some wreckage on the water,
a few bodies or pieces of bodies. I’m sure enough to convince anyone that the passengers were all well
done and either at the bottom of the sea or in some shark’s belly. It was all speculative anyway. And, of
course, I could be wrong in my opinions. Here, we are dealing with opinions and observations and not
forensic facts. The Burgerbräu blast was another matter. But initially I still was in error.
Q Now this I would be interested in. The one in 1939?

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Patrick Russell December 17, 2013 at 12:15 pm

While I don’t believe the sabotage theories for a whole host of reasons, there is one key factor that this former Gestapo chief is missing (and which, IMHO, tanks the credibility of his “investigation”.)

The Hindenburg was scheduled to depart Lakehurst for its return flight at midnight, May 7th, 1937. The passengers for the return flight wouldn’t have even arrived from New York until several hours after the ship was destroyed.

That Mueller didn’t know this basic fact tells me that he either possessed investigation skills on par with a character out of a Mack Sennett film, or else he was just b.s.ing his way through this interview.

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shannon July 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm

My Great-Uncle was working the airbase the day the Hindenburg exploded. He is still alive and tells us stories all the time. I am thankful he is still alive

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Andrew Martin April 15, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Does anyone know where I could find pictures of Herbert Morrison later on in life?

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John Doe May 2, 2013 at 1:15 pm

duh, the internet

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sonny March 3, 2013 at 9:29 am

I was watching a newsreel of this on Pathe and just at what would be the point of ignition there are two frames of the Zeplin during it’s flight earlier and then it jumps back to the flaming zeplin…Does anyone know why it was spliced as such?

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John Doe April 4, 2013 at 9:26 am

the stupid producers tought that this would add a dramatic effect

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william klapper January 11, 2013 at 9:27 am

You can see what destroyed the Hindenburg by making a large tube simulating the gas exit shaft and filling it with a mixture of hydrogen and air. if ignited it will be very impressive.

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david helms January 1, 2013 at 10:34 pm

do you devoted researchers know of anyone who may have authentic pictures of the hindenburg that they would be willing to share? thanks for a reply. i have been an avid researcher of the hindenburg for over 20 years.

david

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Rammy Jammy November 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm

I’m doing a grade 6 air flight project on the Hindenburg and this really helped!!!! Thank you so much!!! Another website is http://www.history.com ! try it out it really helps!!!!!

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Mackenzie September 13, 2012 at 8:04 pm

I feel bad for the people who died in that airship. it must have been very scary

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Lusby August 16, 2012 at 3:34 am

I’m really not sure why airships would have already been on the way out just because of airplanes. It seems like the two serve different purposes. Airplanes are for quick travel to simply get from one place to the next. While airships are basically like cruise ships in the sky. How could that have just been a “fad”? It sounds awesome! Obviously the whole blowing up part would turn me off, but seems like engineers could figure a way around that!

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Patrick Russell October 1, 2012 at 10:13 am

Lusby, that’s a good question and one that I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years (as I know Dan also has done.)

One thing to bear in mind is that one of the biggest selling points for transoceanic Zeppelin travel was the fact that, as of 1937 anyway, it was by far the fastest way to cross the ocean. The “cruise ship” aspect of it was important, of course, as was the novelty of luxury air travel. But one of the largest demographics among the Hindenburg’s passengers was businessmen, for whom a speedy passage between Europe and the States was worth the premium ticket prices.

Within a few years, the speed advantage would have been eliminated as airplanes developed the capability of non-stop transatlantic flight. With the advent of the jet airliner, of course, the passenger Zeppelin would have been a quaint relic of a past age as far as business travelers were concerned.

A passenger airship would still have been a pleasant way to cruise across the ocean, but that appeal wouldn’t have been enough to keep them in business.

Plus, of course, the war would almost certainly have shut down airship travel long enough to probably kill off the industry from sheer lack of cash flow.

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"Tede" Thelma Day Johnson June 16, 2012 at 5:12 pm

I was nine years old, and saw the Hindenberg burn….My father, Alfred Day, was fascinated with anything to do with flight, so we were there to watch the landing. When the disaster happened, my father made my sister, mother and me get into our car and he drove quickly away…he was devastated, as we all were.

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Kathy Hardtke June 18, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Tede, after reading all the information on the Hindenberg here and watching the video, I can only imagine how devastated you, your family was to see the Hindenburg burn. My heart goes out to all who died, survived and saw the explosion. Thank you for sharing, Kathy.

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Carol Sutton Willadsen June 23, 2012 at 6:14 pm

What a vivid memory that must be for you, cousin Tede. I had no idea you were there to see that tragic and historical disaster. It has always fascinated me and this story and photos are incredible.

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Stu May 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm

A fascinating analysis Dan, thank you!
It would be interesting to compare the fuel usage of the Pan Am Clipper across the Atlantic versus the Hindenburg. That is another factor where airships can really shine.

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Wendy Gyug May 7, 2012 at 9:48 am

My Grandfather was part of the clean-up and recovery crew for this disaster. He actually had a piece of the ship. He passed many years ago and I do not know whatever happened to it.

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tony suarez May 6, 2013 at 3:21 pm

that sucks .

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Brenda October 4, 2013 at 8:45 pm

I am looking for info on my grandfather and apparently he was also part of the clean up and recovery crew. Was it a specific group or do you have any other info that may help me?

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Kaitlin April 11, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Can anyone tell me the original name of the hindenburg before they decided to name it that?

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Dan (Airships.net) May 2, 2012 at 3:51 pm

The ship was never named anything else.

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jacob jhonson October 21, 2012 at 6:53 pm

my grandfather and grandmother were both on the hidenburg but they did not make it out.

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Dan December 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

Thanks for posting your comment. Who were your grandparents?

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david helms January 1, 2013 at 10:25 pm

can you get in touch with me. would love to hear your comments regarding hindenburg disaster and your grandparents names. sorry for your loss. hope to hear from you as i am an avid student of the hindenburg.thanks.

david

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Kirk C, November 24, 2012 at 10:37 am

Hi Kaitlin,
Yea as far as I know?
and im a nut on aviation history.
it was called just the model Number which was LZ 129 from the company that built it ,
and the Graff Zepplin before it.

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High School Student March 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I have been doing a case study on the Hindenburg explosion for my High School Engineering class. My teacher seems to beleave that the catastrophe of the Hindenburg was caused by the fabric covering the ridged structure. His evedience supporting this is that the fire seen does not have the same color, or even sound of burning Hydrogen. If people’s main evidence for disputing that the disaster was caused by Hydrogen is the way the fire burned, have they taken into acount that the fabric was burning as well? The fabric, and the Aluminum and Iron powders applied to the fabric, would have provided all the required elements to create an effect closer to that of an oxygen fire. (not to mention the oxygen in the air itself) The simple fact is that the burn rate to the fabric was much slower, and if the Hindenburg fire relied on this alone, it would have taked hours rather than seconds to burn. Then again, these are simply the observations of an average High School student.

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Dan (Airships.net) May 2, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Excellent and very apt observation. :-)

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CLAUDE COVINGTON February 10, 2013 at 1:01 pm

AVERAGE ?? DOESN’T SOUND THAT WAY TO THIS 85 YEAR OLD MAN… WAY ABOVE AVERAGE, IT SOUNDS TO ME.. I REMEMBER MY FATHER AND I LISTENING TO THE BREOADCAST OF THIS LANDING IN 1937… I WAS 10 1/2 YEARS OLD.. I WILL NEVER FORGET THE NEWSMAN’S CRYING AS HE DID HIS BROADCAST.. THANK YOU FOR YOUR “OBSERVAtions” !!!!

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ethan smith February 17, 2012 at 8:17 pm

thanks ,this rilly gave me a lot of information for school :)
from this my grades went up a lot ! c- to an great a+
age 12 `,ethan smith thanks

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Geek Infection February 2, 2012 at 2:44 am

Wow. That is something you don’t forget. I remember sitting in 4th grade, in the cafeteria, watching on a bunch of TV’s as the space shuttle Columbia lifted off for the first time. It was amazing. And I also remember in high school, when someone ran into the auditorium screaming that Challenger had exploded. These things stick with you.

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Maryann February 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm

My mother used to tell us that when she was 17 years old, living in Elizabeth, NJ (less than 20 miles southwest of Manhattan), she saw the Hindenberg flying low over her backyard. She said it was so low, it appeared to be right above the treetops of the oaks in her yard. The passengers were easily visible waving down to her and those neighbors who were lucky enough to have caught this amazing sight. From there, it headed south to Lakehurst, NJ. Later that evening, she and her family were shocked to hear of the disaster. They had just been waving to those people! Ironically, years later, my father, who she didn’t know at the time, enlisted in the Navy and was trained at Lakehurst Naval Base. We have many memories of that place.

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Mike Ogden January 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

How do I get permission to download the video of the Hindenburg crash for use in an illustrated talk about airships?

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marty January 29, 2012 at 8:50 am

If you find content on a public website, it is already freely available.

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Dan (Airships.net) February 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm

That is not even close to being true.

For example, most of Airships.net is subject to copyright: http://www.airships.net/copyright

Suggesting that information on a website is in the public domain is like saying that songs played on a radio station are public domain. :-)

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Kyle Tekaucic December 15, 2011 at 9:07 am

An excellent page, very informative. Although, to be honest, I thought you would also cover the proposed causes of the initial ignition point (like static electricity, sabotage, structural damage, etc.), debunking or providing support for them. Still, great page.

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Hendrick Stoops November 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm

First, Really Great Page:) Second, I think one of the greatest misconceptions about airships is that the Hindenburg Disaster ended that era. The simple (if sad) truth is that airships were already on the way out, and though the crashes of the R101, Akron, Macon, and Hindenburg certainly didn’t help the Airship cause, and it is possible that they would have lasted a bit longer if the widely publicized Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst had not occurred, or even if (as I heard someone say) had it occurred on a flight to Rio or over the Atlantic with no camera’s or radio reports, The farthest it might have gotten was the D-LZ 131 considering WW2 was only two and 1/4th years off. Interestingly, Dr Hugo Eckener himself said later in his life that “The airship has passed and the airplane has come. A good thing has been replaced by a better one.” That being said, I would still leap at the chance to see one of the big rigids “appear and melt away into the clouds as if returning to a dream it had come from” (again Dr. Eckener). Incidentally Dan,
Do you know where I could find designs for the LZ-128, 131 and also, would you happen to know what the name was to be for the D-LZ 131? Also, I think I remember something being said about the LZ134 and 135 in a book called “When giants roamed the skies” Apparently, hypothetically, they would have carried one hundred and fifty passengers.

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George F. Hope August 30, 2011 at 3:23 pm

The painted skin did play one role in the disaster. It gave the inferno it’s spectacular orange colour while hydrogen burns with an invisible flame. A tv series called Seconds from disaster has an episode explaining the cause of the crash.

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Elizabeth Bentele Lowe August 24, 2011 at 1:15 pm

I am a cousin to Eugen Bentele. In 1972 I started researching my family genealoy.My Father had told me we had a family member on the Hindenburg. His parents emigrated from Germany in 1893.He served in WW1 in France. In the 30′s they had no contact with family after his Father’s death. I was at a model airplane craft store with my young son and I saw a list of the Hindenburg disaster. Eugen Bentele was listed so I wrote the author of the Hindenburg book,received a prompt answer and obtained Eugen address in Friedrichshafen. He was so helpful, we have a lot of pictures and he and his wife visited the US. My family visited him at the Hindenburg museum. He sent me a lot of family history, a clanbook, trees, etc. I found so many cousins of my paternal grandfather. I miss him. He wrote very interesting letters about his years with the crew, he was a mountain climber and a “trekker”. He spent many hours at the Museum there.

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Matt August 23, 2011 at 3:33 am

You don’t mention the name of the news reporter who was made famous by his commentary and “Oh, the humanity”. Who was he?

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Dan (Airships.net) August 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Herbert Morrison

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Hendrick Stoops November 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm

More widely known as Herb Morisson. Interestingly, the reason his voice is so high (he was known for his deep voice) was because the recorder ran fast that day.

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gamalier May 21, 2012 at 1:05 pm

i never seen it before

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nate evans May 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm

thanks i did my whole la project on this great facts and pictures

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Dezi Micallef April 25, 2011 at 9:16 pm

May i just say, thank you for posting up so much information about the Hindenburg. I needed some useful information for a social studies project, and thanks to you I have everything I need.(:

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richard p.boyle April 10, 2011 at 4:29 pm

I have 3 pictures of the Hindenburg that my father took when it flew over boston’s south bay if anyone is interested.

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JOE July 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm

SURE

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david helms January 1, 2013 at 10:27 pm

can you please share those pictures? i would be indebted and extremely grateful.
i am an avid hindenburg researcher. please respond and thanks.

david

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Judith Schenck January 15, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Where did you post the photos? I don’t see them.

Thanks,
Judith

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Richy January 26, 2011 at 1:23 am

What a nice looking pictures. Just stunning!

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Lawrence S. Williams November 15, 2010 at 8:30 pm

My first job out of high school, I was a WIREPHOTO operator at the Baltimore,Md
Sun Paper. The N.Y. editor got on the network and told all of us that we would
work all night receiving photos of the Hindenburg crash. He was right. At 7:am the
next day the relief operator came on duty and was surprised to see me still at
work. I am now 93 yrs. old. I still give talks of my experiences as a photographer
and would like to get several GOOD photographs of the Hindenburg as it burned,
so I can include them in my talks. Please advise how this could be possible ? Larrry

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John S. Gray October 21, 2010 at 10:31 am

I always found Archbold’s comments telling, about the German surviving crew of LZ129. Many of them ended up in the German forces on the Eastern Front killing grounds, Stalingrad et al. But those who survived, decades later, still most distinctly remembered 6 May 1937.

JG
Toronto

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Tom S October 11, 2010 at 3:41 pm

On that day when the Hindenburg went down my father who was 12 at the time was at home with his Parents in North Arlington N J less than 100 miles away. My father said to me in later years that the smoke and flames could be seen

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Kim October 3, 2010 at 11:46 am

This is simply one of the most unforgettable disasters in history, it haunts people’s thoughts but at the same time it fascinates the curious mind, when such a huge airship gets blown up in just a few seconds… Awesome!

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william klapper September 8, 2010 at 5:20 am

Pure hydrogen will not explode or burn. But if any air is mixed with hydrogen it will explode. The design for releasing hydrogen from Hindenburg was to release hydrogen into an air shaft. When the forward speed was great, the duct was sucked clean and there was no problem. But when the airship was coming in for a landing the speed was greatly reduced. The hydrogen-air mixture was retained in the exhaust duct for a considerable time during which if ignited could doom the airship. The sound of an explosion was heard by many people on the airship before the fire. This explosion ripped apart the gas bags adjoining the air duct destroying the integrity of the gas bags. The resulting fire quickly consumed the airship. This design was an accident waiting to happen.

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Ken Kozelski August 3, 2010 at 1:10 am

Just trying to follow up on a family mystery. My great uncle, Joe Rusin (wife Mary) bought a bar in Seaside Heights, NJ from a German national named Max back in 1935 or so. Max somehow knew that war was coming and wanted to get back to the “homeland”. In any case, Max left behind a number of things, including a framed portrait of the crew of the Hindenburg, standing in front of the ship, probably sometime in 1936 or so. It was hand autographed by most of the crew (who came the 15 miles or so from Lakehurst to eat and drink with Max in Seaside Heights). My uncle Joe was quite proud of this icon and kept in in his safe — I saw it one time, about 1963 when I had just turned twelve. The mystery is that when he died a few years later the family found nothing in the safe but a couple of hundred bucks of IOU’s. My guess is that it’s a priceless icon. Where did it go? No one looking for monetary gain — just closing the story. BTW — my dad (who passed in 2009) and my grandad were driving past Lakehurst to visit my uncle Joe that day of the disaster. My grandad gave up driving soon after. Any clues would be appreciated.

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Patrick Russell September 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Ken, it’s a shame that that crew photo went missing. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a group photo of the entire Hindenburg crew standing in front of the ship like that. Hell of a cool memento from the old bar too, I imagine. I know the German crew made a lot of friends in the Lakehurst area, particularly German immigrants. I can definitely see where a bar like Max’s would have been a favorite of theirs.

If I ever see anything like the photo you describe, I’ll absolutely let you know. I assume it’s probably safely hidden from public view in a private collection somewhere by now, but you never know.

Patrick

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April June 25, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Thank you so much for compiling this information! It gives an indepth look into who the victims and survivors were and loved the visuals!

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CA Beaty June 21, 2010 at 8:10 pm

According to my mother, the Akron flew over our Florida strawberry field in the 1930s. It looked like an enormous silver cloud.

The strawberry pickers all commenced to run, shouting: “Yonder come Jesus.” My grandmother, who had no idea of what it was either, said; “Get back to work, when He comes, He won’t be riding on no contraption like that.”

The era of commercial airships would have ended with or without the Hindenburg disaster. A lighter than air structure that’s as big as a modern skyscraper, has a payload of 35 passengers, requires a crew of 40 and 2 days to cross the North Atlantic with favorable tailwinds wouldn’t stand a chance against modern airliners or even against the airliners of the 1940s; DC-4s and Constellations.

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Mike the Spike September 28, 2012 at 3:36 am

The people who designed and built the great airships regarded them as a competitor to the steamship, not the airplane.

But… if I could time-warp back to 1929, I’d buy a ticket to fly around the world on the Graf Zeppelin in a heartbeat (although I wouldn’t fly on the Hindenburg in ’36 because of the Nazi connection). The airshipmen went to great lengths to take care of their passengers and and make sure they had a wonderful travel experience – quite the opposite of airlines nowadays, who, conversely, seem to go to great lengths to belittle, discombobulate, and harass their passengers.

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Holt Cutler April 18, 2010 at 11:41 pm

Your account of the Hindenburg is thorough and gripping. I really appreciated the pictures and links / resources that were included.

I began reading about dirigibles because I am curious whether we will see them reemerge as cruise ships. The idea of taking a multi-day journey in a cruise airship excites me, as an engineer and as one who appreciates new adventures. I can only imagine how awesome an airship tour of the grand canyon or any of the natural wonders could be. If anyone is knowledgeable about the state of airship travel and its future, please share your information.

My curiosity extends to the technology in these airships too. I read a few articles printed in Popular Science in the 20s and 30s and was surprised to find how prevalent Zeppelins were until the Hindenburg disaster. I imagine that the technology available for airships today is much safer than it was then, but I can’t find much information about it. Do you have any good resources that explain how airships or blimps are constructed and flown? Do you know if anyone is involved in homemade dirigibles or if this is even feasible?

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Dan (Airships.net) April 19, 2010 at 7:49 am

I have a ton of information about airship construction, but I am no sure the best way to share it.

For a “homemade” dirigible (although, one built by a serious student of LTA flight and not an amateur) visit http://personalblimp.com/

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Angelo Somma April 8, 2010 at 6:07 pm

this was amazing i am notifiying Plain Dealer maybe a review

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jdog February 22, 2010 at 11:41 am

it was a tragerdy it was horrable my grandpa was in that crash or at least near it wene it happend… :-C

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Jessie C. February 2, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Es tan triste. Cuando me enteré de que yo no lo creía, pero lo que realmente pasó. A veces es difícil recordar que las personas que eran de verdad con la vida real y los sueños y esperanzas y no sólo en las estadísticas de nuestros libros de historia.

~Jessie
España~

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fernando hernandez January 24, 2011 at 3:03 pm

ya se es muy triste me abuelo estaba alli y dice ke estaba horrible

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drew holguin December 17, 2009 at 3:18 pm

last night i was waching goast hunnters and there envestation they showed this disaster on the show i said to my mom i will go to libary to surch but got on the internet i love this it is sad about what happened to all of the peole.R.I.P all of you guys how died on the disaster.

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Jared T. September 8, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Dear Drew Holguin,
I highly suggest you learn how to spell. Reading your comment was the most painful part of my day today. I sincerely hope that now, a year later, that it has improved. May i suggest actually going to the library like you said rather than surf the web where there is so much false information.
(I bet you abbreviate every word in your text messages as well. DON’T the human race is being dumbed down enough as it is without people not knowing how to spell.)

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Dezi Micallef April 25, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Okay, if I was you, I would not be putting negative comments to someone who seems to be trying there best to spell. That’s just being rude, and shallow. If you want to pick on someone, just go look in a mirror and pick on yourself. No one wants to deal with the drama and anger you bring around. So please, keep all negative comments to yourself,Okay?

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Joenade October 3, 2010 at 9:13 am

The images really bring the tragedy of the event back home – otherwise it is just news and statistics, but those photographs of the airship engulfed in flames are really powerful and make you think.

There is also a program showing on some of the Science and Discovery channels about the Hindenburg disaster which features quite a detailed investigation into the happenings of that day.

@Jared T,

You need to go easy on Drew, maybe English is not his first language and I was able to understand his sympathising sentiment for the victims of that event. If reading his comment with a few spelling errors was the most painful part of your day, you should consider yourself really fortunate and be grateful that you don’t have any serious problems or difficulties in your life. Peace.

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Hartmut Rast December 6, 2009 at 4:46 am

Recently, I watched the documentary by Ditteke Mensik about the Graf Zeppelin LZ 127, the first airship to circumnavigate the world in 1929 and got so interested in the life of Lady Grace Hay Drummond-Hay and her companion Karl Henry von Wiegand that I am now being very happy to have found your website with all those amazing information. I would never have thought before that the story about the Zeppelin’s keep my attention that long. Seeing the documentary about the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst gives me always goose-pimples and it makes me sad that it can be seen as an audition to the then following catastrophic events of WW II. You are doing a great job at airships and I am thanking you for your committments and so creating possibilities for younger generations to dwell on history.

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Kristie Grossman November 11, 2009 at 12:03 pm

My grandmother was there and witnessed this event happen when she was a young girl. She is dead now but what she did say she was standing and watching it come in and saw it exploded. I wish she would have said more but I was very young when she told me so I think she kept the gorry details out of it since I was little. Her name was Emma and I think she was around 12-15 years old at this time.

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Jeff October 13, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Sir,
I have a pocket knife that was picked up in the trash after the crash. It was sold to me when I was young by a man who worked with my dad, he said his brother who was in the Navy and stationed there found it when picking up trash in has Hindenburg stamoed in the blade ans what looks like a name. I have some good pics of it and am looking to find out more about it. could you help or point me in the right direction. I think it is real and the story is true the man who found it would be named Kelly his brother that I got it from is dead now but his name was Earl Kelly of Topeka Kansas.
Thanks

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laura October 5, 2009 at 12:36 pm

i think that the hindenburg dosent make sence, a fire just randomly started and inglofed the whole ship, a fire doesnt start because of rain there must be an other reson.

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LELe December 18, 2009 at 1:22 am

it was because of the hydrogen and the coating of the paint; there was a gas leak and it caught on fire -.- it was NOT sabotaged. i just get annoyed w/ all the miths

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JOHN SMITH April 29, 2010 at 1:26 am

WHAT YOU FEEL INSULTED?

YOU ARE TOO SENSITIVE

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Kyle April 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I’m sure you can prove that! Your hypothesis is also just a myth. (learn to spell)

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Kyle April 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm

By the way LELe, that was sarcasm. You really seem to know what you’re talking about after copying and pasting that first sentence then abbriviating ‘with’ and mispelling myth. All evidence is circumstancial, sabotage and scientific alike. Dumb troll is dumb.

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Bob Mullay May 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Misspelling.

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Hendrick Stoops November 12, 2011 at 5:57 pm

It will likely never be known 100 percent what caused the Hindenburg fire. The theory I personally agree with is described in Seconds from Disaster by NatGeo. However, unless (miraculously) evidence does come up to confirm it, I can’t say that it IS what happened.

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Michael MacDonald March 22, 2012 at 11:30 am

The rocket fuel coating theory has already been debunked.

A previous commenter already suggested the most plausible cause even though it’s still circumstantial like any other theory seeing as we’ll never know.

here was his comment:

william klapper September 8, 2010 at 5:20 am

“Pure hydrogen will not explode or burn. But if any air is mixed with hydrogen it will explode. The design for releasing hydrogen from Hindenburg was to release hydrogen into an air shaft. When the forward speed was great, the duct was sucked clean and there was no problem. But when the airship was coming in for a landing the speed was greatly reduced. The hydrogen-air mixture was retained in the exhaust duct for a considerable time during which if ignited could doom the airship. The sound of an explosion was heard by many people on the airship before the fire. This explosion ripped apart the gas bags adjoining the air duct destroying the integrity of the gas bags. The resulting fire quickly consumed the airship. This design was an accident waiting to happen.”

This is extremely apt and well researched.
This is most likely the cause.
Kudos to Mr. Klapper for his analysis.

Unfortunately though,
we’ll never truly know the cause.

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Jerry Davis March 3, 2010 at 5:02 pm

It was kicked up by a static spark.

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Kyle April 13, 2011 at 11:51 pm

That evidence is circumstancial, just like all of the other theories evidence.

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Don Bohringer July 8, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Excellent presentation of this event. Being born in 1937, I was looking for a detailed explaination of the Hindenburg fire, and this article did well in describing this disaster.
Regards,
Don Bohringer

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Bobby Perry June 28, 2009 at 9:22 pm

First of all, like everyone, I am impressed by the quality and quantity of photographs here. You have a great collection and you tell the story of these great behemoths of the sky with much gusto. I have one question.

Coming from a news television back ground I think that you put forth a very interesting point in the second paragraph of this article. Could the Hindenburg be the first example of, a “moving image” type news-media (at the time, news reels)creating a situation where, due to viewing a filmed event, a large population form one coherent (no matter the validity) assumption and kill an entire industry?

This is something that I find very interesting; in news we show violent and graphic images all the time. Let’s examine most recently the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River (to use an aeronautical example for comparison). Compared to the multiple crashes and thousands of deaths that occurred on the morning of September 11th, 2001, the crash landing of Flight 1549 seemed to neither deter airplane passenger or encourage them, by stark contrast several airlines (at least here in the United States) almost went under after “9/11.” Does bad news really affect us in the manner that we believe that it does?

On “9/11″ those planes were flown into, though no design flaws of their own, buildings and the Pennsylvania countryside by people. In the case of Flight 1549, the plane was rendered inoperable by an act of nature (a flock of geese if you haven’t heard the story). Sure everyone survived Flight 1549 and this was not so in the “9/11″ attacks. Still why does this accident not scare the public more than the events of “9/11″ (on the fundamental basis of trust in the technology)?

Now we have all probably heard the “Oh the Humanity” broadcast (or recording- I’m not sure if that was heard by radio listeners live or not) but did that actually have an effect? Do the media truly drive these things or do the images simply “speak for themselves.” Obviously we cannot compare the Flight 1549 and the 9/11 events with the destruction of an airship in the 1930′s simply because we were not there, but where can there be made a comparison?

So was the destruction of the Hindenburg the first example of the media showing an image that proved a response from the public that was so negative that it killed the “lighter than air” travel industry? Perhaps if those cameras had not been there we might have a modern air ship travel industry. Would it be liken to the luxury vacation cruise ship replacing the great ocean liners of the Hindenburg’s time in this modern era. Any thoughts?

-Bobby

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Kevin C. October 15, 2009 at 5:55 pm

In response to the reply of Bobby Perry. I find it fascinating (as I’m sure you do) to think of the psychological impact of news and especially visual news (via still or moving images). You mention the Hudson River airline “disaster.” That was no disaster. That was a miracle. No one died, they simply exited to the plane’s wings and walked off into boats that were nearby (it was NYC, lots of ready boats, etc.). It was a made-for-TV event, as they say. And people saw a dramatic rescue without loss of life. This must have been a big win for the airline industry and “Sully” was hailed as a Natonal Hero (he is, not any doubt of that). Airlines do as much as possible to keep disasters with loss of life/violent crashes out of the news, especially out of the visible news. In this day and age. Imagine the impact of those photographs of the Hindenburg disaster in its day. Utter horror. They are still very dramatic today.

I can imagine the Space Shuttle disaster as an equivalent in modern times but even that didn’t have the impact of the Hindenburg news coverage. I am an amateur photographer and would like to become paid for what I do. I am in awe of the photos of the Hindenburg disaster. I’m sure someone was paid a fortune for those photos. They are incredibly horrible. In that day and age, with visible (and even audible) news coverage of that disaster, I am sure that very very few people would ever have boarded a Zeppelin again. Those photos are one in a million. For a photographer, it was the right time, right place. Dramatic loss of life imminence is excellent material for a news photographer.

The Titanic was also a major disaster. It did not kill an industry. There was basically no news coverage at all photographically or in video. And little news at all until days later. And ship travel is not thought of as inherently dangerous as air travel. (Even today it isn’t despite the presence of rogue waves and pirates!). Imagine the value of a set of news photos of that disaster. Or a film. Incredible.

I am sorry there is no airship industry. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to fly on a modernized airship. I wish I had connections and could hitch a ride sometime on the Goodyear Blimp. It would be wonderful!

At any rate, I do believe the photos/news coverage made all too real the horrors of the airship industry for millions of people. Perhaps not solely, but in concert with other airship incidents it did kill off an industry overnight.

Just my thoughts. I’m drawn to the Hindenburg and Titanic events more than others of the 20th from time to time. Major events of the day, and these two stand out above others.

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Francisco Carvallo December 4, 2010 at 1:16 am

Dear Kevin,

You don’t have to have connections in order to fly a blimp. Inside Moffett Field where I volunteer, there’s an outfit named “Airship Ventures” on which you could ride the Zeppelin NT Eureka. You do have to pay between $199 to $495 depending on what you want it to do, so it’s definitely not cheap. You could even go to a nearby beach restaurant (Kula Ranch Steak-House) and have the Zeppelin pick you up in their vacant lot after dinner!! Again, only consideration is the $$$.
Cheers!
Francisco
PS: You do have to say: “Up Ship!” when you go up, it’s the law!

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Ted Millich November 14, 2009 at 5:00 pm

From what I’ve read, what happened to the Hindenburg caused the public to support the zeppelin cause even more and the newspapers called for the U.S. to change it’s 1927 Helium act banning the selling of helium to foreign countries so that Germany could receive helium. Dr. Eckener makes the argument in his book that it was the nazis and the war that brought the zeppelin enterprise to an end. There certainly are plenty of examples of people saying, after May 7th, 1937 that they’d gladly fly on a zeppelin again – even one inflated with hydrogen. Two examples that I know I’ve recently read are Lady Hay-Drummond Hay and Werner Franz, the cabin boy.

I think it’s a bit inaccurate to say that the Hindenburg fire caused the end of the zeppelin, but it’s been repeated so many times that it’s accepted as gospel.

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Rick Presley June 3, 2011 at 6:03 pm

It’s my understanding, from what I’ve read, that the airship era was brought to a close not by the Hindenburg accident, but rather by the rise of the airplane. Airplane technology increased by leaps and bounds during World War 2, and none of the other mass transportation technologies could keep up. A journey that took two days on an airship (and required almost as many crew members as there were passengers) only took a matter of hours by airplane. It’s the same reason why cruise ships and trains are niche modes of travel these days.

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Hendrick Stoops November 12, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Personally, I think the industry was destroyed, One because of the publicized disasters (today, people are afraid to fly in jets because disasters are publicized, not the millions of passengers safely transported daily) more importantly, the airplane was quickly becoming the larger transport (figuratively)

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Frank May 22, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Very well written Dan,

As you work on the section “Why Did The Hindenburg Crash?” I have a few points to say about that, several misconceptions of the tragedy.

1. The first left turn was not sharp enough to do any damage to the structure, the final right turn was rather sharp, but not fast enough.

2. Pruss and several others including Knut Eckener believed the stern heaviness was normal. As the Hindenburg flew over rain during the flight, it accumulated water on its tail fins. As it flew this was not noticable but as it stopped the water sank back causing the stern heaviness. A gas leak is not enough to cause such stern heaviness, though it cannot be ruled out. The ship was brought back into trim before the fire.

3. In my opinion the fluttering noticed by R.H. Ward and R.W. Antrim could not have been caused by leaking gas. The cells weren’t pressurized; it could have been the intial blast wave causing the fabric to flutter.

4. Quite a few witnesses on the FBI report said that the fire began on the port fin, and only followed by fire from the upper tail fin.

5. Also take note to the way the structure imploded between cells 9 and 10 and cell 11 collapsing in, causing another blast as the ship fell to the ground. Both cracks appeared during the first few seconds of the fire.

6. There are also two tanks falling from the hull as the initial fire burned; I think one was ballast tank the other was fuel tank but not sure.

You might also want to talk to Andreas Horn at the AirshipModeler forum he knows much more about these points I said. He made some models for the Zeppelin Museum. He also knows much about the truth and the misconceptions widely reported in documentaries about the disaster, such as the hydrogen-helium embargo, the truth about Eckener’s political views etc.

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Dan (Airships.net) May 22, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

Yes, there is an amazing amount of nonsense out there, especially in some of the documentaries; I remember one documentary where a member of the ground crew said that he “heard a gas valve open” and that he “could hear the hissing sound as gas was valved.” I found it pretty hard to imagine that anyone hundreds of feet away (and maybe more) could have heard the “opening” of a valve located at the very center of the ship; that “sound” would have had to pass through almost 70 feet of gas cell and the ship’s thick outer covering, and then have traveled — over the sound of the wind, no less — to the man’s ears hundreds of feet away. Anyway, my point isn’t about whether gas was valved (we know from officer testimony that it was) but about how unreliable documentary producers can be; they were perfectly happy to include a sound bite that “sounded shocking,” no matter how patently absurd it was.

And if I hear anyone else mention “rocket fuel” you’ll need to hold me down! Without an oxidizer, even the Space Shuttle would still be fizzling slowly on the launch pad in Florida.

But anyway, thanks again for your comments, and I will of course very seriously consider your points. For example, there have always been contradictions about the tail heaviness; people who blame the crash on the final turns (and claim the tail heaviness resulted from the snapping of a wire at some point in the S-turn) seem to ignore that they began valving hydrogen from cells 11-16 before the ship even made that final turn.

As to the question of whether either of the turns — to port, and then to starboard– were fast enough or tight enough to cause structural damage; that question is far beyond my personal knowledge of stress analysis or the Hindenburg’s construction, so I will have to defer to the opinions of the expert witnesses of the time.

Finally, I have exchanged a few messages with Andreas Horn on the AirshipModeler forum (although I am a brand new member there, having delayed joining for various reasons), but I have never had the pleasure of meeting or talking to Andreas myself; I would love to do that some day.

Anyway, thanks again!!

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Patrick Russell June 29, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Frank, in regard to point number 2, I actually just spent some time poring over Albert Sammt’s autobiography, doing research for my own web page. Unlike his Board of Inquiry testimony, where he tended to blow the whole tail-heaviness issue off as having been normal and caused mainly by several crew members taking landing stations aft, he focused quite a bit on his repeated efforts to trim the ship via gas valved from the forward cells and ballast dropped from the aft portion of the ship.

In addition, when discussing possible causes for the crash, he seemed to be pretty thoroughly convinced by the time he wrote his memoirs that there had been a fairly large rip in gas cell #4 during the landing approach, and this was why they would valve gas, briefly get the ship level, then feel it getting heavy aft again, valve more gas, level it out, then feel it getting heavy aft again, and so forth until they finally sent six men forward just before they dropped the bow lines.

In other words, the tail kept getting heavier as they made their landing approach.

They brought the ship level and kept it that way for several minutes by finally sending six men to the bow, but I don’t necessarily think that this brought the ship into actual trim. What it did, I believe, is to shift a great deal of weight all the way forward, and to overcompensate somewhat for the increasing tail-heaviness. Since the ship leveled off and became tail heavy again several times during the landing approach, I think it’s entirely possible that had the fire not broken out, the ship would have gone tail heavy yet again within a couple minutes, and the rest of the kitchen staff would perhaps have been ordered forward. We’ll never know for sure.

And actually, there was already an extra man up in the bow for most of the landing approach, as Captain Sammt had replaced apprentice elevatorman Ludwig Felber with the more experienced Eduard Boetius just after Boetius sounded the landing station signal at about 7:10 PM. Felber was sent to the mooring shelf to assist with the landing lines at that time. So actually, there were SEVEN extra men in the bow of the ship by the time the yaw lines were dropped.

A large enough gas leak could absolutely have caused the stern-heaviness, especially as the ship reduced speed, thus reducing the ability of the elevators to keep the ship level. That the ship was tail heavy, and then the tail also happened to catch fire a few minutes later is, in my opinion, pretty strong evidence (circumstantial though it may be) that there was a gas leak, and a fairly good sized one too.

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Andreas Horn July 23, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Hi Patrick, Hi Dan

After Frank pointed out most of my thoughts on the “Hindenburg” fire I mentioned on the AirshipModeler website (thanks Frank!) I think I can add some comments here.

In my opinion, neither of the turns could be the reason for a bracing wire to brake and to rupture a gasbag. In addition, the tail heaviness was observed long before these turns took place.
In fact, Sammt states that the airship was trimmed for the first time, before they approached the landing site. Interestingly, in his book he does not mention the six men ordered into the bow, only the 1.1 tons of ballast released. But he also mentions that there were 8 to 10 tons of water placed at ring 40.
During full flight it is impossible to trim the ship and so the static trim had been established just before the landing. During flight there is not much control on how the burning of fuel influences the trim.
In fact, Sammt mentions that the airship was rather light before the landing and then tends to be bow-heavy. Therefore it was normal to keep more ballast in the tail of the ship.
As the airship was light already, he chose to release gas instead of dropping water ballast. The fact, that finally six men had to change the position indicates that the airship was floating and that the tail-heaviness did not make the entire airship heavier.
Therefore, I would rather rule out a leak or a stuck-open valve and I strongly believe that it had to do with the water accumulated on the hull.

Then it is almost impossible that the observed fluttering of the outer cover was due to a leak. As the gasbags had no space between them, unlike the 2 meter gap shown in some documentaries, so the gas could not reach a speed which could have caused a fluttering. Such a fluttering of the outer cover was also possible when the engines were reversed or sped up (vibrations). It is known that in very humid conditions the outer cover – especially on the top – became rather slack

Though I do not think that reports on the smell of gas inside the airship are of relevance, a leak might have occurred or a valve might have remained open. But to lose more than about 1.5 tons (gas release plus water ballast) of lifting gas what is equal to 1’500 cubic meters or more than 50’000 cu.ft. would take a considerable time – even with a rather big tear in a gasbag. But even if there had been a leak, what did the gas ignite?
Besides, in the gas shafts there was probably enough of an inflammable air/gas-mixture which could have been ignited. We do not need an extra leak.
In almost all “snapped wire” theories, the same wire did not only open the gasbag but it did also ignite it because a spark was generated when it snapped. In my opinion there are too many things happening at the same time…

And one last point, most of the hydrogen burnt outside the airship.
In the first explosion with the huge fire ball above the tail (probably the most famous picture) the volume of the rear gasbags (I to IV or V) is exploding outside the hull after it had mixed with enough air.
And as long as the airship still lies on an almost leveled keel, the fire above the hull reflects exactly the volume of the gasbags underneath it. At this moment the hull implodes, due to the under pressure caused by the escaping gas.

The talks about “rocket fuel” and “termite” also seem rather absurd to me. Just one question:
Rocket fuel needs an oxidizer in order to work in space where there is no air. So couldn’t the iron oxide (according to my information “lead oxide”, in German “Mennige”!) in connection with the acetate and the aluminum powder be sufficient to get a fast burning outer cover if there is the air as a natural oxidizer?

Andreas

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Dan (Airships.net) July 23, 2009 at 8:13 pm

I will try to respond to some of your other points later, but just a quick note about the “fluttering” cover, and about iron oxide.

I have a film of Hindenburg landing under normal conditions (not on the final flight), in which fabric is very visibly fluttering. The film clearly shows that fluttering could occur without a hydrogen leak. I would like to convert the video tape to a digital file so I can post it on this page, but I don’t have the equipment to convert the video.

There are also other references (by Rosendahl and others) to fluttering of the fabric in normal operations, so I don’t give much credit to the idea that fluttering of the fabric, by itself, necessarily meant there had to be a hydrogen leak.

As to the iron oxide being an oxidizer, everything I have read indicates that it could not have been an oxidizer, and certainly not in any significant way. But the evidence is in the films: There is no noticeable difference between the burning of the covering that included a layer of iron oxide, and the burning of the covering that did not have any iron oxide at all.

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Patrick Russell July 23, 2009 at 10:04 pm

Dan, you’re right on the money about the fluttering of the fabric.

While it COULD have been caused by an outrush of leaking hydrogen, there is no reason to assume that it is any sort of proof of a leak. As you say, there was plenty of precedent for cover flutter on the Hindenburg that had nothing to do with any hydrogen leak.

During the ship’s early flights, for one thing, Harold Dick noticed that the fabric aft of the engines tended to flutter during flight, and suggested that some additional tightening might be necessary.

It was also noted by a number of the command crew that the outer cover (particularly in the aft part of the ship) did tend to get slightly loose at the end of a long flight.

Plus, as you say Dan, you can see the cover fluttering in various places in a number of newsreel films of the Hindenburg on earlier flights and during earlier landings.

My feeling is, the cover was loose after a long flight through headwinds, and when the gust hit the ship’s port beam about a minute before the fire, that wind ended up creating the ripple in the fabric that some of the witnesses on the ground saw.

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Patrick Russell July 23, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Hi Andreas,

You make some excellent points. A few thoughts:

First of all, with regard to mention in Sammt’s book of the ship being light prior to landing, that was actually prior to Sammt going on duty at 4:00 PM. Sometime before then, Captain Ziegler (who had the noon-to-4:00 watch) had determined that the ship was light and ordered a large amount of water to be pumped aft to compensate.

Sometime around 3:30, Captain Sammt was making his customary inspection of the ship before he went on watch. This is when he discovered that the water had been pumped aft, and countermanded Ziegler’s earlier order and had Chief Rigger Knorr pump one ton of the water forward of Ring 62 (in his book Sammt wrote “Ring 60,” but since there was no Ring 60, my guess is that he meant Ring 62) and then also to pump enough to the bow to fill the forward ballast hoses.

So really, the ship was never determined to be light during the landing approach, and in fact Sammt’s book mentions that even though the ship had been light earlier in the afternoon, it was heavy by the time they made the landing approach. I recently watched an old BBC documentary from the mid-late 1970s in which Sammt was interviewed and there too he mentioned that the ship was heavy during the landing approach, and that in fact it kept getting heavier, despite efforts to trim the ship by valving gas and dropping ballast.

Sammt was of the opinion, based on this, that there was a substantial hydrogen leak in cell 4 or in one of the cells next to it. I don’t know if it was caused by a broken wire or a stuck hydrogen valve, but I see no reason to doubt the strong probability that Sammt was right about this. After all, he’s the one who was working throughout the landing approach to bring the ship into trim. I think his opinion on this matter holds a great deal of weight.

Six or seven men did go to the aft part of the ship to take their landing stations at 7:10 PM, though this was offset somewhat by there being four men who went to the bow mooring area at that same time (and then a fifth, Ludwig Felber, when Sammt had Boetius relieve him at the elevator wheel a couple minutes later.) So certainly this must be taken into account.

However, although the extra weight of the men aft might have caused some degree of tail-heaviness, it wouldn’t have explained why the ship was briefly level again after gas was valved forward and then went tail heavy again, and it especially wouldn’t explain why this would have happened repeatedly over the next ten minutes or so every time they dropped ballast or valved gas.

In my opinion, this also would not have happened this way due to rainwater on the hull. First of all, there is a great deal of question as to whether the Hindenburg even flew through rain prior to the landing approach where it could have gotten a significant load of water on the hull to begin with. It was flying through sunshine along the Jersey coast, and then when it was time to head for Lakehurst they flew the ship south, around the southern tip of the storm, and then circled around behind the storm, intending to follow it into Lakehurst so that by the time they got to the landing field the storm would have moved off to the east.

There wasn’t even agreement among the surviving command crew whether the ship had flown through rain. Bauer claimed (in his Board of Inquiry testimony) that the ship had passed through heavy rain prior to landing and that the water caused the tail-heaviness. Sammt, on the other hand, was very clear in his testimony that the only rain the ship passed through before landing was a light rain as they approached the field, which he said couldn’t have added more than about 500 kilos of weight to the airship.

But again, even if the stern had been weighed down by accumulated rain water, it wouldn’t have caused the ship to become heavier and heavier despite multiple gas valvings and ballast drops. Even with the reduced dynamic effect of the elevators as the ship’s engines were slowed over the landing field, you wouldn’t have had enough of an increase in tail heaviness for the ship’s first officer to be convinced that there was a gas leak.

Also remember, there was also static discharge observed atop the ship for a minute or more before the fire started. This suggests to me that once the landing ropes had been down for a few minutes the difference in electrical potential between the metal framework and the outer cover had increased to the point where there was a great deal of electrostatic discharge between the two – which would obviously have been sufficient to ignite any loose hydrogen in the vicinity.

Here’s something that Rick Zitarosa (vice president and historian for the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society) came up with recently, and I think it’s worth considering:

Since we know that the outer covering was isolated from the ship’s framework by wooden strips glued to the lateral girders, and since the outer cover was also significantly less conductive than the framework, the more the electrostatic charge of the framework dropped, the more you were likely to get discharge between the frame and the outer cover – especially given the electrostatic conditions through which the Hindenburg had been flying.

It occurred to Rick and I that the more the framework’s charge dropped, the stronger the static discharge between the frame and the cover would have been, and there were a few different factors that may very well have dropped the framework’s charge down further than is often assumed.

We know that the forward landing ropes grounded the ship somewhat, since a light rain began shortly after they were dropped, making the ropes more conductive over the course of the next several minutes.

It also occurred to Rick and me that the three aft ballast drops during the landing approach may very well have also dropped the framework’s electrical charge, as water vapor tends to help to disperse a charge. Captain Sammt, in his book, specifically mentioned suddenly leaning out of the control car window and anxiously watching the ballast dropping, as it had suddenly occurred to him that with weather conditions being what they were, the ballast stream might have created some sort of electrical discharge – and he also mentioned being relieved when nothing seemed to have gone wrong once the ballast was down.

However, as Rick and I thought about this we realized that while the ballast might not have created a sparking discharge aft as the ballast dropped, it may very well have dispersed some of the framework’s electrical charge into the atmosphere.

Finally, we noticed in an essay that Captain Hans von Schiller wrote in late 1936 that he mentioned how the engines would draw off the electrical charge of the framework through the water vapor in the exhaust from the ship’s engines.

There were several mentions from eyewitnesses to the Hindenburg fire that the aft portside engine had been missing or giving the impression of something like a backfire (though a diesel would not literally backfire) just prior to the fire. Herb Morrison, in a letter to the Board of Inquiry, mentioned that he had seen this, and that when he trailed off in his recording when saying that “the back motors of the ship are just… holding it… uh, just enough to keep it…” he was noticing that the rear port motor was sputtering and missing as though there were something wrong with the fuel mixture.

As Rick and I talked about this, it occurred to us that if engine #2 were sputtering and missing, it was very possible that it was also kicking out more exhaust than usual in the process. Since this evidently preceded the fire by only a matter of seconds, we got to thinking that perhaps this might have caused a sudden further drop in the framework’s electrical charge, particularly in the aft part of the ship, and therefore intensified the static discharge that had already been observed atop the ship.

In other words, between the ballast, the landing ropes, and the last-minute “missing” of the portside aft engine (quite possibly with accompanying bursts of vaporous exhaust) the static discharge between the framework and the outer cover got stronger until it was enough to ignite free hydrogen from the leak that Captain Sammt was pretty sure had been happening for 10-15 minutes somewhere in the stern of the ship.

Again, I think we come down to Dr. Eckener’s analogy that this confluence of events was like getting four aces in a hand of poker: it might never happen again, or it might happen again the very next hand (or anything in between).

That airship had a LOT of flight hours on its airframe for being only slightly more than a year old. And snapping bracing wires was not an uncommon thing at all, especially with ships that had some wear on them. I don’t see it as being unlikely at all that something gave way during the big wide swing the ship made to the northwest before it made its final landing approach.

I also don’t think it’s beyond the pale to suggest that a gas valve cover might not have closed completely after Ziegler valved “on the wheel” at about 7:10.

And conditions were certainly ideal for electrostatic discharge between the framework and the outer cover, as was seen by Dr. Mark Heald (who Doug Robinson interviewed back in the early 1960s.)

Honestly, I really think that Dr. Eckener pretty much had it right back in 1937. He was probably in error in attributing the gas leak to the sharp turn up to the mast, because clearly the increasing tail heaviness was in evidence many minutes before that turn. But overall, I believe that overall it happened much like Eckener theorized.

Those who took this theory and further assumed, for instance, that a broken wire provided the spark of ignition in addition to cutting open a gas cell are way off base, in my opinion. Not only had the ship been almost motionless in the air for several minutes (other than the gust that pushed the ship off to starboard just before the fire began) with no real likelihood of a wire snapping, but a wire also wouldn’t have had any way of generating a spark, especially at the point of the break. I agree, Andreas, that that part of the hydrogen leak theory is rather silly.

Take care,
Patrick

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Patrick Russell May 20, 2009 at 2:14 am

Excellent overview of the crash, Dan. You raise some very interesting points (the politics behind the slow pace of the establishment of transoceanic HTA flights, for example) and correct some information that has been consistently in error online for many years (ground crewman Allen Hagaman, for example, has been repeatedly referred to in various online and print sources as a “Navy linesman” – which is a straight lift from the script from the 1975 Robert Wise film – rather than as the civilian ground crewman that you correctly identify him to have been.)

A couple general points. One thing to bear in mind is that, in addition to the bow and the keel walkway being deathtraps for a lot of people, loss of life was also much heavier on the starboard side of the ship than on the port side. Three of the four crew members on the port side of B-deck (Maier, Stöffler, and Franz) all escaped virtually unharmed. Similarly, the vast majority of the passengers and all of the stewards on the port side of A-deck survived, many also with few or no injuries.

The starboard side of A-deck, however, proved a lot more difficult to escape from, for a few reasons:

First, the wind was blowing the fire and smoke to starboard.

Second, the ship’s hull rolled slightly to starboard when it settled to the ground for the second and final time, and a lot of the upper part of the hull collapsed out in front of the starboard observation windows, creating a maze of wreckage that trapped a lot of the passengers on that side (whereas the ground below the portside windows remained clear, with the portside B-deck windows actually serving as access for rescuers.)

Third and perhaps most unfortunately, survivor Hans-Hugo Witt later noted that the sliding door to the starboard lounge was jammed shut during the crash, and he saw a passenger trying unsuccessfully to open it just before he (Witt) jumped out of one of the windows. Rescuers were in the entry foyer on the other side of that door for some minutes after the crash, leading passengers out from the port side dining room and down the embarkation stairs. Had the door to the starboard side not jammed shut, it’s entirely possible that some of the passengers from that side of the ship might have made it into that foyer before the fire consumed the starboard lounge.

One other point that I think needs clearing up is the notion (not mentioned here, of course, but repeated on a number of Internet sites on the subject) that most of the people who died in the crash died because they jumped while the ship was too high above the ground. I’m not sure where this one got started, but it’s not accurate at all. The vast majority of those who died were killed because they were trapped in the wreckage and either never made it out or else were too badly burned to survive by the time they were rescued.

In fact, in examining the newsreels, the only people I can see who were killed because they jumped from too high up were five of the men in the bow section (and they were already basically being incinerated when they jumped.) Other than that, nobody began to actually jump from the ship until the forward landing wheel hit the ground for the first time (or, in the case of the surviving engine mechanics and the men in the lower fin, when their parts of the ship had hit the ground.)

The first men out of the control car and the first passenger out of the passenger decks jumped almost simultaneously, as the landing wheel initially touched the ground. The old stories about bodies falling from hundreds of feet in the air (other than the first two crewmen who jumped out of the bow) are nonsense.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things these are really hair-splitting little details, but then again that’s the fun part about being armchair historians, isn’t it? ;^)

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Dan (Airships.net) May 20, 2009 at 7:34 am

Thanks for posting such an informative comment, Patrick.

I should have pointed out the effect of the wind blowing to starboard, and the final roll of the ship, so thank you for correcting my omission.

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