Myths about the Hindenburg Crash

A fairly typical hydrogen advocate blog, this one by Greg Blencoe

A fairly typical hydrogen blog, this one by Greg Blencoe

Many hydrogen fuel advocates falsely claim that hydrogen was not responsible for the Hindenburg disaster.

In fact, the Hindenburg was just one of dozens of hydrogen airships destroyed by fire as a result of their highly flammable lifting gas.

This page explores and debunks some of the more common myths about the Hindenburg disaster spread by hydrogen fuel advocates, including:

For a shorter discussion of this subject, visit: Photographic Evidence that the Hindenburg was not “Painted with Rocket Fuel”

Hindenburg Myth 1: “The Hindenburg was painted with rocket fuel”

This idea originated with Addison Bain, and comes from the fact that Hindenburg’s fabric covering was doped with a solution that included aluminum powder, and in certain sections iron oxide, which are sometimes used as components in solid rocket fuel.

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

Hydrogen fire burning around sections of Hindenburg’s covering, which were not sufficiently flammable to have yet ignited

The Facts

Hindenburg’s cotton-canvas covering was doped to keep it taut for aerodynamic reasons and to protect it from damage from water, wind, and small objects hitting the surface.  The dope was a solution of cellulose acetate butyrate to which aluminum powder had been added.  At the top of the hull, a layer of iron oxide was applied to the inside surface of the covering to protect the fabric from the UV radiation in direct sunlight (see color photo below).

The aluminum powder gave the ship its silvery coloring, but its practical purpose was to reduce the heating effects of the sun, which can cause an airship’s gas cells to expand and release their gas.

While certain rocket fuels contain aluminum powder, that does not mean that everything containing aluminum powder is a rocket fuel.  Aluminum powder has many uses other than rocket fuel, including the manufacture of photovoltaic solar energy panels and metallic paints for cars, boats, furniture, and other items.  And none of these tend to explode.

(As an analogy, butyl rubber [polyisobutylene] is used in both C-4 plastic explosives and basketballs but that doesn’t make your basketball a bomb.)

The chief ingredient in rocket fuel is not aluminum powder but an oxidizer (a substance which creates its own oxygen supply to support combustion) and without an oxidizer, in sufficient quantity, you don’t have rocket fuel.

As explained by the website of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center:

A solid propellant always contains its own oxygen supply. The oxidizer in the Shuttle solids is ammonium perchlorate, which forms 69.93 percent of the mixture. The fuel is a form of powdered aluminum (16 percent), with an iron oxidizer powder (0.07) as a catalyst. The binder that holds the mixture together is polybutadiene acrylic acid acrylonitrile (12.04 percent). In addition, the mixture contains an epoxy-curing agent (1.96 percent). The binder and epoxy also burn as fuel, adding thrust.

The oxidizer is by far the largest component of rocket fuel; approximately 70% in the case of the Space Shuttle, compared to 16% aluminum powder.

Interior of hull of Hindenburg sister ship LZ-130, showing iron oxide (red) applied to inside surface of upper hull, but not to inside of lower hull.  The structure in the center of the photo is the axial corridor, at the center of the ship.

Interior of hull of Hindenburg sister ship LZ-130, showing the iron oxide (red) applied to inside surface of the upper half of the hull, but not the lower half.  Hindenburg was doped the same way, but there are no color photos of its interior.  The structure in the middle of the photo is the axial corridor, at the center of the ship.  (click photo to enlarge)

The only substance in Hindenburg’s doping compound which could conceivably act as an oxidizer was the iron oxide added to one section of the covering, but it was in too small a quantity (one of six layers of dope, or approximately 17%) and was too separated from the aluminum powder to act as an effective oxidizer in this application.  At no point in the doping process were the aluminum powder and iron oxide mixed together, and most of the iron oxide was applied to the inside surface of the fabric of the upper hull (as seen in the photo at right), while the aluminum powder was applied to the outside of the hull.

[For additional technical details regarding the Hindenburg's covering and "rocket fuel," see: The Hindenburg Hydrogen Fire: Fatal Flaws in the Addison Bain Incendiary-Paint Theory, A. J. Dessler "Dressler" - download pdf]

Without an oxidizer, even the Space Shuttle would still be fizzling slowly at its launch pad in Florida… just like this theory.

Perhaps the best evidence that the Hindenburg was not painted with “rocket fuel” are the films and photographs of the disaster.  If the Hindenburg had been painted with anything remotely as flammable as rocket fuel, its covering would have burned quickly, and would have been totally devoured by the fire, but that did not happen as you can see from films and photos of the tragedy.

Hindenburg Myth 2: “The Hindenburg was painted with thermite”

Basically a variation on the rocket fuel myth, many people seem to think the Hindenburg was “painted with thermite.”  That’s a dramatic image, and it makes for a great sound bite, so it is easy to see why this myth spread so rapidly.  And since thermite can be made by mixing aluminum powder and iron oxide, and since both substances were used on sections of the Hindenburg’s covering, this myth “seems” to make sense

Unfortunately the truth is a little more boring, and a lot more technical.  While it is true that a thermite reaction can be created by mixing aluminum and iron oxide, it requires a ratio of about 1 part aluminum to 3 parts iron oxide [download pdf]. The dope used on Hindenburg’s silver-colored hull contained 5 parts aluminum to 1 part iron oxide.  In other words, Hindenburg’s dope contained less than 1/10 the amount of iron oxide needed to create a thermite reaction.

In addition, a thermite reaction requires the components to be well blended, and if they separate, the mixture is useless. The aluminum powder and iron oxide on Hindenburg were applied separately, in different layers, and were not mixed together as would be required to create thermite.

But here’s the real clincher:  Since thermite requires 3 parts of heavy iron oxide for every 1 part of light aluminum powder, the designers of a lighter-than-air vehicle would never paint the ship with thermite, not because it can burn, but because it would be too heavy.  If the Hindenburg had really been painted with thermite, it could never have left the ground in the first place.  :-)

In defense of the “thermite theory” Addison Bain refers to what he calls “thermite hot spots” — a few very small small points where he found iron oxide in one layer of dope to have bled through to the layers of aluminum powder — but Bain does not offer any evidence of how widespread this might have been, or any evidence that a significant thermite reaction occurred during the burning of the Hindenburg.

The best evidence that no significant thermite reaction took place are the photographs and films of the fire.  As mentioned above, iron oxide was applied only to the upper portion of the Hindenburg, to protect the covering from the sun’s UV rays.   (The lower part of Hindenburg’s hull was doped only with aluminum, since there was no point in applying the additional weight of iron oxide to a part of the ship not exposed to the sun.) Films of the Hindenburg fire show no difference in the speed at which the upper hull burned as compared to the lower hull.  If the aluminum powder and iron oxide on the upper hull had really created a thermite reaction, the upper hull would have burned much faster than the lower hull, but it didn’t.

In fact, the only lines of demarcation seen in the photographs of the fire are between gas cells, because it was primarily the hydrogen — and not the covering — which was burning.

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

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

Hindenburg Myth 3: “The Hindenburg’s outer cover was highly flammable”

This is the generalized version of the “rocket fuel” and “thermite” myths. Certain hydrogen advocates have tried to argue that the Hindenburg’s covering was so highly flammable that it was the covering — and not the hydrogen — which was the primary factor in the ship’s rapid destruction.

In fact, the Hindenburg’s covering, while certainly combustible, was not especially flammable and actually burned quite slowly.  Many sections of the covering burned only when exposed to the direct heat of burning hydrogen (as seen in the films and photographs of the disaster) and large areas of the covering never burned at all, indicating that the covering could not have been highly flammable.

hindenburg-bow-torch

Hydrogen flames shoot through the bow, while the surrounding covering has not yet ignited.

As discussed above, Hindenburg’s covering was made of cotton canvas doped with a solution of cellulose acetate butyrate, to which aluminum powder (and in some places iron oxide) had been added.  Canvas doped with cellulose acetate butyrate is combustible but nonflammable; in other words, it will burn if held in a flame, but tends to self-extinguish when removed from heat.  [See, The Hindenburg Fire: Hydrogen or Incendiary Paint?, A. J. Dessler, D. E. Overs, and W. H. Appleby, "Dessler/Overs/Appleby," pdf available here.)]

Some discussions of the Hindenburg incorrectly claim that the dope contained cellulose nitrate, rather than cellulose acetate. In fact, the designers of Hindenburg deliberately avoided cellulose nitrate precisely because it was known to be flammable, and they chose the safer cellulose acetate instead. The dangers of cellulose nitrate were well understood at the time, since it was used in the first photographic films which were known to be highly flammable. Cellulose acetate filmstock was introduced as an alternative in the 1920s, and was known as “safety film.”

In discussing the flammability of the covering, however, it is important to differentiate between two questions:

  • (A) Whether the covering was sufficiently flammable that it could have been the initial source of ignition.   (i.e., whether the covering could have been ignited by an electrical discharge, and then ignited the hydrogen)

or

  • (B) Whether the covering was so highly flammable that it was the main cause of the destruction of the ship.  (Some hydrogen advocates argue that Hindenburg’s covering was so flammable that the ship would have been destroyed even if it had been inflated with helium, a position repudiated by Addison Bain himself.)

There is some evidence that Hindenburg’s fabric might have been sufficiently flammable to be the initial source of ignition (although that is not likely in the wet and rainy conditions at the time of the crash).  But the covering was not so highly flammable that it was a major factor in the destruction of the airship.

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

Hydrogen burning around a section of the covering which has not yet ignited.

Various scientific tests performed on doped canvas replicating the covering of the Hindenburg show that the covering itself actually burned quite slowly.  In fact, without the presence of hydrogen, the covering would have taken almost 40 hours to burn completely: The upper covering, containing iron oxide plus aluminum, would have taken about 30.9 hours, and the lower covering, containing aluminum alone, would have taken 37.9 hours. (See, Dessler/Overs/Appleby, cited above.)

In fact, Addison Bain’s own experiment with a 2-1/2″ piece of the actual covering of the Hindenburg, shown on the British television program Secrets of the Dead, What Happened to the Hindenburg, shows that it would have taken approximately 40 hours for the Hindenburg’s covering to burn. (Cited in Dessler/Overs/Appleby.)

Even the television show Mythbusters declared this myth as busted.

And you can see for yourself that the Hindenburg’s covering was anything but highly flammable. Photographs of the wreckage show that even after a fire so intense that it destroyed an 800-foot airship in about 34 seconds, sections of the covering still remained unburned.

covering-unburned

Wreckage of the Hindenburg. (click to enlarge)

If the Hindenburg had been inflated with helium rather than hydrogen, even if the fabric ignited as the result of an electrical discharge, the small resulting fire would not have been a major catastrophe, and there would have been many hours available for a safe and orderly evacuation.

Hindenburg Myth 4: “Hydrogen burns without color so the flames could not have been hydrogen burning”

This myth contends that since hydrogen burns with a mostly invisible flame, and since the Hindenburg’s flames were red or orange, it could not have been the hydrogen that was burning.

Many proponents of the “inflammable paint” myth try to illustrate their argument by showing color photograph of the Hindenburg on fire with a bright orange flame:

Digitally colorized photograph of Hindenburg from website of the National Hydrogen Association

Photograph from website of the National Hydrogen Association

But in fact these are all colorized photographs, since no color photographs were taken of the Hindenburg disaster.  And whoever added the color could just as easily have made the flames pink, purple, or green:

Or...

The same photograph colorized green.

(The only legitimate color photographs of the Hindenburg disaster were Kodachrome photos taken after the crash, which show the wreckage on the ground after all the hydrogen had burned off.)

So if anyone shows you a “color photo” of the Hindenburg disaster to support a theory about the cause or progress of the fire, just chuckle at them sympathetically.

But the original black & white photographs do show flames that are clearly visible, and it is true that hydrogen burns with a mostly invisible flame, so how can that be?

Here’s the simple explanation: Hydrogen does burn invisibly… but only when hydrogen is the only thing burning.

As the Hindenburg was consumed by flame, it was not only the hydrogen which burned; it was also the canvas covering, the aluminum alloy framework, the steel bracing cables, the gelatine-cotton gas cells, the tanks of diesel fuel, and even the tables and chairs. And no-one has ever claimed that canvas, aluminum, steel, or diesel fuel burns with an invisible flame.

In addition, not only did the rest of the Hindenburg’s components emit color and light as they burned, but they also acted as a mantle. A “mantle” is the part of a gas lamp that glows to emit light. Most flammable gases burn without color, which is why gas lanterns always use a mantle; the gas burns and creates heat, but it is the mantle which glows and emits light.  The aluminum girders and steel bracing wires of the Hindenburg were the largest mantle in gas lamp history.

The Ultimate Reality Check:

Dozens of hydrogen-inflated airships other than the Hindenburg also exploded or burned, including German zeppelins which were shot down over England during WWI, and all burned with brightly visible flames — just like the Hindenburg.

Hindenburg Myth 5: “People on the Hindenburg were not injured by the hydrogen”

This is probably the most absurd myth about the Hindenburg disaster, yet it is frequently promoted by hydrogen fuel advocates.

Whatever caused the initial ignition of the Hindenburg fire, the airship was incinerated in less than a minute — and came crashing to the ground as smoldering wreckage — because virtually the entire space of the ship’s 800-foot hull was filled with highly flammable hydrogen.  Yet many hydrogen fuel advocates insist that the millions of cubic feet of hydrogen in Hindenburg’s gas cells (representing, according to Addison Bain’s own estimate, over a billion BTUs of energy) somehow had no effect on the ship’s passengers and crew when it burned.

Hindenburg_burning-web

The Claims of the Hydrogen Advocates

The newsletter of the American Hydrogen Association informed its readers: “No deaths were due to the hydrogen fire that was ultimately ignited by the burning skin of the Hindenburg.” [Hydrogen Today, vol. 10, no. 2, 1999, p.8 - download pdf]

According to the Association’s website:

Hydrogen is about fifteen-times lighter than air. After ignition by the violently burning surface varnish, flames from hydrogen combustion traveled upward, far away from the crew and passengers in the cabins below. What fell to the ground with the passengers were burning shrouds from the exterior fabric, a large inventory of diesel fuel, and combustible materials that were in the cabins…

Sixty-two persons from the Hindenburg lived through the disaster by being fortunate enough to ride the Hindenburg down and escape the flames and wreckage that fell to the ground. Many of these survivors were relatively unharmed.

Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, an Australian hydrogen advocate who is a popular television science expert known as “Dr. Karl,” has gone so far as to claim that the Hindenburg’s hydrogen was not only “totally innocent,” but did not even contribute to the ensuing fire:

In all of this, the hydrogen was innocent. In the terrible disaster, the Hindenburg burnt with a red flame. But hydrogen burns with an almost invisible bluish flame. In the Hindenburg disaster, as soon as the hydrogen bladders were opened by the flames, the hydrogen inside would have escaped up and away from the burning airship – and it would not have not contributed to the ensuing fire. The hydrogen was totally innocent.

[Dr. Karl's complete article is rebutted here.]

Hydrogen advocate Greg Blencoe from the company Hydrogen Discoveries claims:

The clean hydrogen flames [emphasis added] swirled above the occupants of the passenger compartment, and all those who rode the airship down to the ground survived. Thirty-five of the thirty-seven casualties perished from jumping to the ground, and most other injuries resulted from diesel burns.

blencoe-blog

[Contrary to Blencoe's inaccurate statement, "all those who rode the airship down to the ground" most certainly did not survive, including Captain Ernst Lehmann, who stumbled away from the control car after it touched ground, Engineer Wilhelm Dimmler, who was trapped in the electrical room, steward Max Schulze, who was caught in the bar, stewardess Emilie Imhoff, who was on B-Deck, 14-year old passenger Irene Doehner, who was in the dining room when the ship settled to the ground and died of her burns, and dozens of others.]

Silverwood Energy makes the same recycled claim, including the reference to “clean hydrogen flames.”

The American Hydrogen Association newsletter states “The sixty-two surviving persons that rode the gently falling Hindenburg (emphasis added) to the ground had only slight injuries” [Hydrogen Today, vol. 10, no. 2, 1999, p.9 - download pdf]. And another website similarly claims that “those who remained aboard the ship during its relatively gentle descent to the ground escaped with minor injuries.”

[The concept of a "gently falling Hindenburg" is certainly not borne out by films of the disaster, which show the airship crashing violently to the ground in less than half a minute.]

One hydrogen cell retailer offers a “Brief History of Hydrogen” in which they discuss the Hindenburg and state: “the hydrogen burned safely above the passengers and didn’t cause a single death.”

And there is a hydrogen advocate who argues that “Hydrogen was used very successfully as a lifting gas until the Hindenburg disaster gave it an unwarranted bad reputation.”

[Dozens of hydrogen-inflated airships had exploded or burned prior to the Hindenburg disaster.]

This same hydrogen advocate claims “it is even possible that the hydrogen contained within the Hindenburg when the skin caught fire actually mitigated the disaster somewhat if anything.”

The Truth

How does one even begin to address the claim that over 5 million cubic feet of hydrogen can burn in about 34 seconds, and completely destroy an 800-foot airship, and yet not injure any of the passengers or crew?

Would a fire of the covering alone have caused sufficient heat for the duralumin framework to melt and collapse on the passengers an crew?

Burning hydrogen caused the duralumin framework to collapse on passengers and crew still trapped within the wreckage.

  • One could review the scientific evidence (above) demonstrating that the covering alone would have taken up to 40 hours to burn, so if the Hindenburg had been inflated with helium, the passengers and crew would have had ample time to exit to safety.
  • One could list the fatalities of the Hindenburg disaster and describe how each one died.

Hindenburg historian Patrick Russell has a brilliant blog which describes the fate of each person on Hindenburg’s final flight. Patrick’s research conclusively refutes the oft-cited claim that “35 of the 37 casualties perished from jumping to the ground” rather than from the fire itself, although even if that claim were true these victims would not have needed to jump from a burning airship in the first place if the Hindenburg had been inflated with helium rather than hydrogen.

Location of 9 crew members killed in the bow

Location of 9 crew members killed in the bow (click to enlarge)

  • One could refer to a diagram [click to view] showing the locations of the crew (survivors in green, casualties in red). Crew members and passengers who were in a position to exit quickly generally lived, while those who were trapped in the ship as it settled to the ground died in the fire.
  • One could point to the respected scientists and airship experts (both at the time of the crash, and today) who agree that the presence of hydrogen which was responsible for the severity of the catastrophe.
  • One could consider the lack of fire in the many incidents and accidents involving helium-inflated airships, including the crash of the USS Shenandoah and the USS Akron (which were both, by the way, doped with an aluminum powder solution).
  • Or one could simply watch the film of the disaster once again, watch the hydrogen furiously burning and consuming the ship in a matter of seconds, and approach the matter with basic common sense.

But perhaps the larger point is the absurdity of this debate itself. In their determination to exonerate hydrogen at all costs, hydrogen advocates like Greg Blencoe and others have made the macabre, autopsy-like argument that it was not the hydrogen itself which killed the victims of the Hindenburg, but other things (diesel fuel, burning material from the cabins, jumping from a great height… anything but hydrogen). But even if those arguments were true — which they are simply not — do the hydrogen advocates really think it matters what particular substance (hydrogen, diesel fuel, or burning bed linens) caused particular injuries, since the Hindenburg itself would not have crashed to the ground in less than a minute if had not been inflated with hydrogen?

These arguments are like claiming that the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 did not cause many casualties, since most of the deaths were actually caused by the ensuing fire, and not by the earthquake itself.

The Irony of the Hydrogen Advocates

Many of the myths about the Hindenburg disaster — from the nonsense about rocket fuel to the absurd claim that nobody was injured by the hydrogen fire — have been circulated and promoted by hydrogen advocates who seem determined to prove that anything but hydrogen was responsible for the destruction of the Hindenburg and the deaths of its victims.

twitter-rocket-fuel

Twitter stream of the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance (click to enlarge)

For example, the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance (whose board of directors seems to include people with a scientific background) uses its Twitter account to send frequent and repetitive tweets claiming that “NASA” found that the Hindenburg’s covering was “sealed w/ solid rocket fuel.”

The National Hydrogen Association website publishes an FAQ and distributes a “Fact Sheet” [pdf] which make a similar claim.

And in their zeal to exonerate hydrogen, the hydrogen advocates are not restrained by the normal rules of logic. For example, to support its claim that no-one was harmed by the hydrogen fire on the Hindenburg, the American Hydrogen Association states that the hydrogen fire “was over in less than a minute.”

They explain:

“In less than one minute after the hydrogen bags were interrupted and the hydrogen started to escape, the hydrogen was gone. You can count the seconds in the news reel film of the disaster.” [Hydrogen Today, vol. 10, no. 2, 1999, pp. 8,9 - download pdf]

They are correct. The hydrogen was gone in less than a minute… because the entire airship was gone in less than a minute.

How do the hydrogen advocates expect to be taken seriously on other matters relating to science and technology, when they are willing to put their names, websites, and reputations behind unscientific urban myths and absurdly illogical arguments?

The great irony is that the nonsensical claims about the Hindenburg disaster offered by these hydrogen advocates, which so badly undermine their own seriousness and credibility, are completely unnecessary to their cause. The fact that hydrogen was responsible for the Hindenburg disaster is completely irrelevant to whether or not hydrogen makes a good alternative to fossil fuels. In fact, hydrogen could (theoretically) be both a wonderful alternative fuel and a terrible lifting gas for passenger airships; there is no necessary contradiction between the two. Many substances which are ideal for one application are hazardous in another, and hydrogen advocates like those mentioned above, who can’t seem to understand or express this simple concept, just raise questions about their own analytical abilities. Many people support solar energy, but they don’t feel the need to claim that sunlight never causes skin cancer.

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    { 67 comments… read them below or add one }

    Sam April 17, 2014 at 2:32 am

    May I just say sir, well said. I recently did a presentation on general zeppelin history, and I had a very hard time capturing just how absurd the hydrogen advocate’s arguments are. I wish I had read this before hand. What I’d really like to know though, is why the crew switched from helium, which the ship was designed for, to hydrogen? The myth is that the Americans wouldn’t sell the Nazis the helium they needed, but you mention that isn’t true in another article. So why did they use helium all of a sudden?

    Reply

    Dan April 19, 2014 at 9:39 am

    The Germans never switched from helium; they never had helium in the first place.

    Reply

    MD October 4, 2012 at 10:06 am

    To the author if this article….
    I accept that it is an apologetics type article debating the myths propagated about the safety of using hydrogen as a lifting gas….

    Ad-hominem attacks against people who have differing views from yourself are not scientific or useful in assessing the information content provided….

    For research.. please build a replica, (made of the same materials…) fill it with hydrogen, and show us that it would take 40 minutes to come down on the Lakehurst Naval Air station…

    Do it, in an earthed condition in the lead-up to a thunder storm….. see if it doesn’t burn…
    Possibly the fire will not propagate, as the released helium (from the fire caused by the skin flaring up after a lightning strike) will actually flood the fire and extinguish it like a C02 Fire extinguisher…

    Reply

    Dee Bunker February 9, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    noble gasses do not form stable compounds
    I would not want to be anywhere near a fire that was producing helium, because whatever it is that is burning is some sort primary explosive.

    Reply

    Monte Matney September 19, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    The resolve of the unsafe flammability problem is not that hard to figure out, yet the difficulty involved is threefold: 1)experimentation to prove it, 2)orchestrating all the actual labor and technologies involved to feasibly build it, and 3)overcoming the bi-assed opinions formed from the cocky act of taking sides in a sick territorial game. Rather than be beguiled by the competitive instincts, one should explore relative facts and diligently compare different conclusions. The statements “it is the hydrogen,” or “the hydrogen is at fault” are not viable academic arguments and deviates from a number of factors that must be in occurrence before hydrogen can burn. I could misleadingly argue that hydrogen is routinely used to put out fires. All I have to mention is water–where hydrogen is combined with oxygen. From this standpoint any one can understand two things: 1)this is not a viable conclusion that proves hydrogen is safe for airship travel, and 2)it is a basic law of chemistry that the act of burning only occurs while a flammable chemical is being combined with oxygen. If their are exceptions to this law of nature, it is not so with hydrogen. Hydrogen is not an invisible demon flying around causing spontaneous combustion. Someone once used the hydrogen bomb as proof that hydrogen is too volatile to be used. An explosion of the hydrogen bomb requires precisely orchestrated technology involving an entirely different nature from that of chemicals burning. Inevitably, there has to be three factors before hydrogen can burn: 1)oxygen, 2)a spark, and 3)enough hydrogen present.
    Now one can consider the hydrogen floatation bag and relative factors both old and new. The Hindenburg used woven animal intestines for its hydrogen floatation bags. Can we not do better than that? Perhaps some type of hydro-carbon based fabric? One main problem we have with pure hydrogen gas is not–in a direct sense–its volatile manner, but its smallness. Yet, indirectly, this is what can make pure hydrogen too flammable as its smallness allows it to escape from the floatation bags, and once too much hydrogen gas is mixed with air, all it needs is a spark. Thus far we do not have any fabric that can completely contain pure hydrogen without any leakage. One should keep a certain factor(not a conclusion)in mind: as hydrogen can leak out, oxygen can not leak in, and so while contained within, the hydrogen will not burn. Here now, it is imperative to know the best fabric available and to then determine the rate of leakage because,in part, the resolve of the unsafe flammability problem requires a large enough volume of outside air being flushed in with the leaking hydrogen. You now might start to learn what I am getting at, but first look at a few notes. One cubic yard of air actually weighs around two pounds. Pure, uncompressed hydrogen gas weighs around one seventh the weight of air(or so I’ve read) and thus hydrogen is compelled upwards into the air like bubbles in water. If air is contained within the dirigible it will add weight to the dirigible. However, outside air flushed in, and not contained, will not add weight to the airship.
    I ask now, the reader of these words to look at these questions: 1)does the hydrogen floatation bags need to be compacted together? 2)Does the hydrogen floatation bags need to be in long rows from front to back, or from top to bottom? As long as there is enough floatation, and as long as the aerodynamics are not overly compromised, then the answer needs to be: no. The design of a dirigible I have in mind needs to be holey(full of holes) rather than hellacious, to where the leaking hydrogen can never gather in enough concentration to ever be a flammable threat. If this done successfully, then even if there was spark there still would not be a problem. It would be like trying to light a fart on a windy day. In order for this to work, there can not be lengthy rows of floatation bags from front to back, for as the leaking hydrogen flushed through it can gather in concentration. Likewise, as hydrogen floats upwards, too many bags from top to bottom would also render too much of a concentration. Moreover, the floatation bags would need to be spaced apart. To do this would require an entirely different shape from that of the fat bullet shape of old. This design would eliminate much of the fire hazards of old, yet one fire hazard remains: the fiery cataclysm that might occur after one hydrogen floatation bag somehow–though most unlikely–ruptures in flame. Seeking reasonable knowledge requires asking questions rather jumping to conclusions. And so I leave you guys with these questions: How far apart can the hydrogen floatation bags be from each other within an aerodynamic dirigible? If the floatation bags are far enough apart, and if coated with light weight, flame retardant material, can a fiery cataclysm be prevented? Can a computer be made with navigation skills, flight control skills, be remote controlled by an operator at a control station, and take the place of a much heavier pilot? If a dirigible that is pilotless, cargo only, very fuel efficient, and acts as flying crane that operates in unpopulated areas only, then how could anyone suffer from burns from the unlikely chance of it catching fire?

    Reply

    ethan smith February 17, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    by the way you suck if you think it was not hydrogen that made the disaster

    Reply

    gyrfalcon June 17, 2013 at 3:30 am

    “by the way you suck if you think it was not hydrogen that made the disaster”

    I think people made the disaster. Hydrogen was just an innocent bystander that did exactly what it always does.

    Reply

    Dan June 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Interesting perspective. You can’t blame a scorpion for stinging; it’s just what scorpions do. And you can’t “blame” H2 for burning, it’s just what H2 does. But as you suggest, you can blame the people who used it for a passenger airship (and who then disregarded some well-established safety procedures while operating with it).

    Reply

    Bloop Blop February 1, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    You seem to be missing the point: Yes, the hydrogen MAY have leaked, but the fact that the hydrogen escaped and combusted STILL puts it at fault for its massive flame it created. When something burns, it needs a fuel, and the hydrogen was its fuel.

    Reply

    Monte Matney September 25, 2011 at 6:09 am

    I have only just recently got a computer–never had one before. Many years ago I was turned on by the sparking-burning-paint theory, and in my reclusive, non-communicative life, I kept dreaming about hydrogen based dirigibles. I am saddened about the general thumbs down verdict yet I want the truth. Question: can hydrogen burn without oxygen? If pure hydrogen and pure oxygen are combined will they spontaneously combust or do they still need a sparking catalyst? If the hydrogen requires oxygen to burn, it seems that the fault lies not with the hydrogen, but with leaking floatation bags. If the myth-busters are laughing at the idea of a hydrogen airship, then they should know what they are laughing at if the flammability problem was resolved: a profoundly fuel-efficient airship capable of going anywhere upon the surface of the planet without the use of rails, runways, or roads. I have a design in mind of a computer driven dirigible with two swiveling, hydrogen-based engines on either side allowing for the four propellers to aim up, down, forward or backward for excellent maneuverability. If not too weighty, very thin, super light solar panels on the surface can facilitate electrolysis and turn the exhaust water back into hydrogen and oxygen for a self-fueling ship. I am hesitant to turn this dream into a mere fantasy. A number of things I know for sure. If the engines were to fail, a dirigible would not crash like a plane or a helicopter would as it would remain afloat never having to land. A dirigible could never bring down the World Trade Center. Dirigibles did not cause the huge amount of carnage from the fourth leading cause of death– automobiles. My mother died in a car wreck in which my femur bone was broken. Moreover, if a dirigible was computer driven without a pilot, and cargo only, no one could die if it happened to catch on fire. Well, I am quite curious about the questions I have asked. This cat still has some lives left.

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    JackW March 20, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    1. Yes, hydrogen gas burns, without oxygen, with a bluish flame.
    2. No, the mixture requires an ignition source.
    3. Your next question falls away.

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    MD October 4, 2012 at 10:04 am

    NO Hydrogen DOES NOT burn in the absence of oxygen….
    It does not need an oxygen bottle to have that oxygen available. air is suitable…
    Scientific misinformation is an intellectual Crime…

    Reply

    Kevin Curcuru January 9, 2011 at 1:23 am

    Hi,
    I just saw the episode of the Mythbusters dealing with the Hindenburg disaster.
    They just wanted to prove/disprove that the skin paint alone could cause the rate of burn seen on the real airship.

    These guys (The Mythbusters) definitely have many screws loose, which makes the show GREAT. But they really do a job on things and make it fun. While this disaster was not fun, the three tests done were very informative. The rate of burn of a scale (1/50) model with skin approximating that of the Hindenburg was set on fire with a torch. Thus, the method of initial ignition was not the issue. They wanted to know if the external skin alone could cause that rate of burn.

    That one took about 2 minutes to burn.

    They built one with the same skin (approximate formula of original) and then pumped in hydrogen after igniting the skin. The hydrogen was most definitely an accelerant. This model burned in less than one minute.

    But the third model with skin of thermite (whatever formula The Mythbusters have) with hydrogen being pumped in during burn was gone in 30 seconds. Thus, the hydrogen was definitely involved in the burn rate. But it was interesting that the skin that most closely approximated “rocket fuel” (with hydrogen pumped in) had the same burn rate as the original Hindenburg, twice as fast as the skin (with hydrogen pumped in) that approximated the original Hindenburg’s.

    The Mythbusters made a point that, if the original machine had been covered with their “rocket fuel” paint mixture it would have been too heavy to fly. But it sure burned at the same rate as the original.

    The photos of the burn with the skin that approximated the original plus hydrogen pumped in, once it got going, alongside the video of the original disaster were eerily similar. VERY CLOSE indeed. So it seems that the original may have been burning slowly somewhere before the actual “big burst” occurred.

    It seemed to me after seeing this episode that the skin paint had something to do with accelerating the fire, but the big burst coming out of the Hindenburg looks like a huge explosion (being caused by igniting gas). The ship just did not burn as a sole result of skin compound.

    This still does not explain how it began, why, etc. But The Mythbusters certainly had an interesting episode with some conclusive results (as ever). The episode in question is one from 2006. I’m sure it’s listed on imdb.com if you want to look for the details of 1st airing date, etc.

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    Col South May 22, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I thought this was now well known. The Hindenberg had just flown through a thunderstorm, when the first moring ropes contact, they earth any static from the airship. There was poor electrical bonding between one/some of the fabric panels, so when it was earthed there was a spark acros the gap, enough to ignite the fabric, thence the nearest gas envelope, and the rest , as they say, is history.
    Sorry, no conspiracy theory, I’m afraid.

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    James Yarger October 24, 2010 at 12:26 am

    The Achilles heel of LTA (Lighter than Air), and its best hope for the future hydrogen. While one might expect that a site set up supposedly to support airships and LTV’s (Lighter than air vehicles) would be doing it best to down play anything related the “oh the huge matinee” none sense surrounding hydrogen’s use as a lifting gas. You’ve chosen to make a stand against hydrogen as a lifting gas. Why?
    The couple (hundred) of times I’ve watch that video (on mute) the skin burns off before the cells pop. Considering that the ship was covered in rain water, how did that happen if the paint didn’t contribute to the fire?
    I don’t think anyone is going so far as to say that the hydrogen didn’t burn, to say so would be ludicrous, but to say the mixture of paint didn’t add to the blaze, and continue the fire after the hydrogen was gone would all so be silly.
    One of the best parts of the Addison Baine movie, is over looked by both sides of this debate. The model he build show that given the electrically charged atmosphere of the day where the the Hindenburg would have grounded out. On the starboard aft side of the vertical stabilizer. Repeatedly the models on computer and the physical one grounded out to the same point. I can’t recall off the top of my head, but an aircraft the size of Hindenburg would have built up a pretty large amount of electricity.
    Given the limited number of people who had that view, all that witnessed with a view of the starboard aft stated the fire started at that point. Even without hydrogen as a lifting gas, that vertical stabilizer was the failing point on the Macon, and the Shenandoah as well if I recall correctly, and several others.
    The grounding ropes are dropped and within seconds, Poof! The electric charge and spark most likely melted part of the frame around cell #2, and most likely the skin and hydrogen caught fire together.
    Much of your beliefs I’m guessing is founded on the belief of helium being the safest lifting gas and it is no debate there. I don’t think we shouldn’t go head long into using only hydrogen for a lifting gas again. In fact we should us the helium up while it is still around, and before 007 says “their finding it all the time in old oil wells” which I think is great btw, there is only a limited amount on our planet. That is one scientific fact that is not debatable. Helium is only created by the sun.
    I just finished reading “Why: Why has American no ridged airships?” and much of your pro helium, no way for hydrogen sentiment is echoed in its beautiful old pages. The authors were probably some of the first to make your argument in favor of helium, however even from the year 1945 the authors were asking the question; If we can over come the many engineering hurtles of heavier than air flight might we not someday find a way to safely manage hydrogen as a lifting gas? I’m paraphrasing here, and if you read the book I’m sure you will see their point.
    Today we have safety standard, and materials for construction that did not exist even forty years ago. I can also understand the importance of concerned parties in making it clear to potential investor that they are not investing in another Hindenburg.
    But to throw suck a big wet blanket hydrogen and people who support exploring its use as a lifting gas does not serve the interest of LTA pursuits either. Give the two gas helium and hydrogen, a wise choice in designing for a new lighter than aircraft would be to design it with the safety in mind of lift by hydrogen, but for helium to be its primary lifting gas until we can finally move past this silly debate.
    Cheers to all of my fellow helium head out there, and thank you for finally updating this site it looks great now!
    My name is James Yarger and you can find me on twitter as AirshipAdmiral

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    James Yarger October 25, 2010 at 3:17 am

    Apologies about the couple of spelling/grammar errors, in my previous long post.
    Thanks again for keeping up this great site, this article really does point out some of the good intentioned but equally damaging remarks and statements by proponents of hydrogen.
    While I do believe that the safe handling of hydrogen as a lifting gas can be achieved. In the short term and in order to move past this small aviation mishapnot a disaster by today’s standard and excepted life risk of flying commercial, helium must be used first to achieve and prove flight.
    I believe that the fates of Lighter than aircraft, and hydrogen are connected and work should be done that advances both.

    @AirshipAdmiral on twitter

    Reply

    james bond October 10, 2010 at 9:46 am

    The Hindenburg was sabotaged by the anti nazi german resistance. The Germans didnt help themselves by sticking massive swastikas on the tail fins. The Gestapo also arrested a women who had a boyfriend that was a rigger on that flight, who was killed, she was taken then tortured until she died. The FBI was also making enquiries in the USA and may have tipped off the Germans.

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    Dan (Airships.net) October 22, 2010 at 9:25 am

    This is from the movie The Hindenburg, not real life. :-)

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    jg September 25, 2010 at 10:40 am

    honestly i dont think that the Hindenburg caught flames because of some flammable paint or an outer cover of jet fuel. I truthfully think that the Hindenburg was sabotaged. To tel the truth i think that someone shot a rocket at it on purpose to make it burst out in flames. I think this is true because the Hindenburg was hovering around the airfield for more than 3 hours. if something went wrong with jet fuel or paint or any of the other theories it would have caught flames a lot quicker. That is my theory on how the Hindenburg blew up

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    william klapper September 7, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Pure hydrogen does not burn or explode. A small amount of air changes it into a very explosive mixture. Yet the hydrogen was mixed with air in the gas exit shaft going to the outside. It takes only a small amount of energy to ignite this plume of hydrogen-air. On the Hindenburg’s last flight the explosion of hydrogen and air was heard by many people before the fire. The design of having the hydrogen going through an exhaust shaft (with air) was poor. This was an accident waiting to happen.

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    Exact Bags August 30, 2010 at 4:42 am

    Hey this is a great story. I’m going to email this to my buddies. I stumbled on this while surfing for some lyrics, I’ll be sure to come back. thanks for sharing.

    Reply

    Kevin Olson July 4, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    Dan,

    Thanks for adding this section to your terrific site. Very well done.

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    Alec June 3, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    I am a highschool student, and i am proud to say that i used this website to do a research paper on why hydrogen had not actually caused the hindenburg to crash, and it was quite useful. I am posting this to thank the site managers, and the people that wrote it.

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    Paul March 18, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    This discussion and article has been very illuminating for me. One factor not much covered, though, is the various temperatures as it burned. Whether a partly flammable material burns depends greatly on the local temperature. Some of the hydrogen possibly did not burn until it had escaped and reached stochiometric concentrations in the open air. The images of the buckling structure suggests that what did visibly burn initially remained well above the fuel stores in the keel. I think it had to be the gelatined gas bags and the hydrogen within as those would have been much drier than the rain soaked coverings. It would take a bit of time to get the aluminium framework, and the aluminised covering to ignition temperature.
    As the ship was falling, air would come up from the bottom to create the stochiometric conditions for fire, but would help to keep the flames higher in the structure. Once it was on the ground those conditions began to cease and the now flaming upper structure could begin to easily feed on and fall on parts that were lower including the diesel tanks. Remnants of outer covering left unburned may have gotten wet enough to remain below ignition, but it also appears that it is the lower covering without the iron oxides.

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    christian February 22, 2010 at 11:28 am

    i have to say, a very interesting discussion. i agree that the ultimate cause of the explosive fire was indeed ultimately due to H gas. i would not say it cant be more safely used in the future. as for R101, well thats much safer for storage – you cant light it with a match in its liquid state. however, it has claimed far more lives in single air crashes by far – many times over. any jumbo jet you see crash, for example, huge explosion. there have also been planes that blew up in the air from diesel fuel vapors, in a nearly empty center fuel tank, also from electrical arcing. airliner slammed into the ground killing everyone on board.

    all fuels are dangerous when used to generate power. lithium-ion batterys – VERY explosive if you disrespect them, but you haven’t heard of anyones cell phone killing them. (having said that, ill probably here that one the news later today).

    anyway, interesting arugements from all of you. im pro hydrogen as a fuel within reason. would i use it to float something i was flying in? pffff, no way. i also like how it seems everyone here (myself included) filled bags or balloons up with hydrogen and lit them on fire. if we can all agree on one thing… YES YOU CAN SEE THE FLAMES! :P cheers!

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    stolennomenclature January 26, 2010 at 2:51 am

    The “hydrogen as a fuel” supporters who seek to bolster there cause by blaming the cause of the Hindenburg tragedy on something other than hydrogen, would do much better to offer up more convincing arguments as to why hydrogen would make a good fuel in the first place. Quite obviously it does not. Hydrogen is as close to being the worst substance to use as a fuel as there could be. A very low density gas that leaks through solid metal, is highly explosive, liquifies at a very low temperature, and embrittles metal containers. Just what about it is there to like? Obviously any sensible choice for a fuel would be a either a liquid at room temperature or close to it. No one with any sense would choose hydrogen. The only thing it hasa going for it is its ease of use in simple fuel cells, and that’s it. The sooner this idiotic idea goes away the better.

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    Jim January 10, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    A basic advantage of hydrogen as a fuel is………..no pollution. Burn it over-rich or lean, any thermal reaction between hydrogen and oxygen produces heat, and H2O. Compressing hydrogen to the point that it’s liquid at room temperature would need such a thick-walled container that its weight would have a very negative effect on the fuel efficiency of whatever it’s propelling. Where would the hydrogen come from? Power station boilers can’t be turned off for a couple of hours when the load drops, so why not use the excess electricity to break up H2O and collect the H? I’m asking these questions with absolute zero specialist knowledge; just a keen sense of curiosity.

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    LKA November 11, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    It’s still less flammable and explosive in comparison to gasoline, is renewable energy carrier that provides clean water as a by-product

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    another Zeppelin Enthusiast January 24, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I would like to make an observation: in my first year at the university our chemistry professor made a demonstration: a hydrogen-filled balloon was floated up some distance in the hall and a lit match on a long staff was touched to it. The balloon instantly disappeared with a bright reddish flash. It was distinctly reddish.
    I have seen Robert Wise’s “Hindenburg” film many times. It’s incredible how realistic the interiors were rendered (so much that I think they re-used the control car for the recent documentary about “USS Macon”) , but of course there is no proof that the “Hindenburg” was sabotaged, even though there were many who had a motive to do so. It makes a fascinating story nevertheless, and seeing LZ-129 inside as it most probably was certainly makes it worth the while. (but for a really hands-on experience the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen is very recommended, and if you happen to be there don’t also miss the smaller Zeppelin Museum located in the castle at Meersburg about 10 miles away.)
    And certainly the covering fabric would not have self-ignited. It was very much like the fabric used for a long time to cover the wings of many biplanes and the control surfaces of most aircraft until the jet age.
    A few years back another documentary described what was probably the cause: a sharp turning maneuver caused one of the bracing wires to break, which in turn slashed one of the gas cells. Escaping hydrogen gas was then ignited by static electricity. This is corroborated by Lehmannn remarking that the ship was heavy towards the stern, (and he also asked if a bracing wire could have ruptured a moment later when the fire had broken out) and that at least one witness on the ground saw the fabric fluttering immediately before fire broke out. (btw. when LZ-4 crashed near Echterdingen and caught on fire immediately this too happened during a thunderstorm, and when R-101 touched the ground near Beauvais in 1930 this happened quite slowly yet the fire that broke out almost immediately was equally violent and catastrophic; even though it was raining quite heavily. With such a large quantity of hydrogen it couldn’t be otherwise, and the smallest spark sufficed t set it off. A lightning strike would have passed through the aluminum frames which acted as a Faraday cage (at least one Zeppelin was struck by lightning during World War I, yet survived with only small burn marks), but if there was an hydrogen leak this was certainly fatal. During World War I at least two German airships were lost while flying in or near a thundertstorm.

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    frank January 21, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    A pure h2 and air or o2 flame will burn invisible.The addition of too much air can give a yellow flame.In a fire such as the hindenburg so much other material also was being burned it added to the visibility of the flame.I dont know what caused the disaster but I found your website very informative.I think you offered a well researched investigation into the probable cause with compelling evidence.
    Thermite does not spontaneously ignite and the components must be finely divided and intimatly mixed in the proper ratios.The temperature required to ignite it is high I used magnesium ribbon.
    I too like hydrogen as a fuel it burns clean and can produce electrical energy in a fuel cell.If we can solve the problems of producing it cheaply enough to compete with other fuels and storing it for use in usable amounts it would be viable as a motor fuel as your car engine needs very little in the way of modification to run off of it.You could burn air and hydrogen and run a steam engine directly without the use of a boiler or transmission.
    Thanks again for the website.

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    stolennomenclature January 26, 2010 at 3:02 am

    Hydrogen may burn cleanly and works well in a simple fuel cell, but everything else about it makes it quite unsuitable as a general purpose fuel. For one thing its very difficult to store – you either need to put it under very high pressure in a very strong, expensive and heavy container, or need to cool it down to cryogenic temperatures and store it a large, expensive, insulated container that can handle very low temperatures, and have a system which allows the fuel to vent off as it boils away, or a refigeration system to continually remove heat. Alternatively the fuel can be stored in a very large, heavy and very expensive metal hydride storage facility composed of rare earth metals. Frankly hydrogen makes more sense as the lift gas for airships than a fuel for automobiles and buses.

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    Spencer D. Chew November 30, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    i know what brought down the beloved Hindenburg: as Captain Pruss turned, a bracing wire snapped slicing a hole in gas cell 4 or 5 the whip-lash effect would be so violent that it slices the cell open and hydrogen leaked out, then the ship’s skeleton reached a dangerous voltage, then a spark jumps from the outer skin to the metal igniting the leaking hydrogen, what eyewitnesses were seeing burning was the fabric, the guys in the engine cars were the luckiest, they escaped without a single scratch on them,

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    Patrick Russell November 23, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    The fire started far aft of the passenger decks. Testimonial evidence (particularly that of crewman Helmut Lau, who was standing on a small catwalk about halfway down into the lower fin, and saw the fire moments after it began) places the initial point of ignition somewhere between gas cells 4 and 5. I have heard it both ways about the passengers’ lighters – that they had been returned already, and that they would be returned after landing – but either way, that would have had no bearing on the disaster, as no passenger was anywhere near the area in the tail of the ship where the fire began.

    The most likely theory as to the cause of the fire is that there was a hydrogen leak in one of those cells (supported by Captain Albert Sammt, who would later recall repeatedly dropping ballast from the tail of the ship as the tail kept getting heavier and heavier, which he believed indicated a significant hydrogen leak) and that hydrogen was ignited by static electricity atop the ship (supported by a witness, Professor Mark Heald, who saw static discharge flickering along the top of the ship’s hull for approximately a minute before the fire began.) Since crewman Helmut Lau saw the first signs of fire deep inside of the airship, near the gas release valves for cells 4 and 5, it’s probable that once the leaking hydrogen caught fire, the fire burned back down to the source of the leak (either a tear in one of the gas cells, or a gas release valve that hadn’t closed properly) and then further ignited the gas cell material and other combustible materials (rope, fabric from the gas vent shaft, et cetera) in that spot. The fire then spread from there.

    So yes, it is by far the most likely probability that hydrogen DID start the fire. This is more or less the conclusion Dr. Eckener and the Board of Inquiry arrived at back in 1937, and though there have been those through the years who have attempted to turn the cause of the fire into a big dramatic mystery (saboteurs, exploding paint, yadda yadda) a thorough analysis of available facts (testimonial and photographic) indicates that Eckener and the Board were pretty much right on the money.

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    Michael November 10, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I agree that the severity of the disaster was caused by the hydrogen. However hydrogen did not start the fire. fires require fuel ( lets assume hydrogen) oxygen and heat.
    Its hard to tell from the photos but it appears the fire started or burst through above the passenger cabins.
    Im curious at what point during operations would they have given back the passengers matches and lighters. They were about to disembark the ship I wonder if personal items were already being returned at that point.

    just a thought.

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    VC August 27, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    First of all thanks for the web site. I love finding sites like yours that are what the internet was supposed to be, instead of what it is. As to the claims of how colorful hydrogen does or doesn’t burn I offer this. In my younger days as a sailor for Uncle Sam, we had access to a decommissioned atmosphere analyzer. The system used bottled hydrogen as part of the process. One night we filled a light weight plastic bag with the gas, tied the opening closed with a string and let it go. This was kind of fun, so we then filled another one up and left a long tail on the string which we lit (on fire) prior to releasing. This was much more satisfying. The bag would drift up quite a ways before the flame would melt a hole in the bag. At this point the bag would disappear in a ball of fire. As the remains of the flaming bag and string fell back to earth, we would race madly to reach the landing area to ensure we didn’t catch something else on fire. We would launch one or two of our “Great Balls of Fire” every 4th night (duty) for about a month until our fuel supply was used up. Admittedly, we were doing this at night, but there is no doubt in my mind as to weather or not you can see hydrogen burn. I don’t recommend, nor do I encourage anyone to try this, but as they say “The truth is out there, if you just look around.” Just my 2 cents worth, from “a hands on” kind of guy.

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    Rip Tragle July 13, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    There is no question that the Germans were the most experienced in the use of
    hydrogen but they weren’t masters of the numerous failures possible in an 804′
    contraption. If this was so the 129 would not have burned and crashed.
    The Hindenburg was designed with an new and totally untested gas bag arrangement in which smaller hydrogen bags were contained inside the larger
    helium bags…. the valving was done deep within the hull which, indeed, may have led to the Lakehurst disaster.
    Eckener went begging for American helium and was refused due to The Helium
    Control Act of 1927. He went so far as to propose a joint German-American
    airship operating company …. all this to get HELIUM. The fact is the Zeppelin
    designers used what they had because it was all that they had.
    So, in a ship not designed for hydrogen, with innovations untested, they filled
    her up and flew her anyway. Shades of the R-101.

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    Patrick Russell July 27, 2009 at 12:13 am

    Actually, Dr, Eckener and the Germans never formally requested helium until after the Hindenburg disaster.

    It would certainly have been a difficult thing for Eckener to finagle even if he had tried to get helium. Not only was the idea going to be a hard sell where the US Congress was concerned, but even if they had agreed to sell helium to Germany it would have been unbelievably expensive for the Germans – not only due to the high price of the (at the time) rare gas, but also due to the huge amount of money that would have needed to be spent by the Zeppelin Company to build the facilities and infrastructure needed to store and purify helium in Germany.

    Even if the United States had come to Eckener and offered to sell him helium (which did not happen, regardless of what folks might read on Wikipedia) He probably would not have been in the financial position to accept. This is, in all likelihood, a big part of the reason why he was trying to get American business tycoons interested in forming a joint German-American transatlantic passenger airship service (as you mention, Rip.).

    One thing that Hugo Eckener was very good at was using other people’s money to finance his endeavors. And if he was going to get helium for his airships, he was going to need a helluva lot of money to make that happen. Getting the Americans into the passenger airship game as a partner company to the Zeppelin Company would have made that a lot easier.

    But it wasn’t just about helium either. By the time the Hindenburg was making her first flights in 1936, it was obvious to Eckener that he was going to need to find a new place in the United States to land his ships. International political tensions being what they were, German airships were not going to be allowed to use American military facilities for much longer, and I can’t see that Eckener would have had any illusions about this. A civilian airship port along the eastern US seaboard was going to be needed, and that was definitely going to take the involvement of American businessmen (and their money and influence, of course.)

    So while Eckener certainly would have liked to have filled the Hindenburg with helium if it had been financially feasible to do so, there was never any solid plan to do this. There was indeed a design drawn up that would have suspended small hydrogen cells inside larger helium cells, but this was never implemented during construction of the ship. The Hindenburg was designed to fly on either hydrogen or helium, anticipating an eventual German-American joint venture, but it was built with the expectation that the ship would probably be filled with hydrogen.

    Yes, the final gas valve arrangement was similar to what was shown in those drawings of the hydrogen/helium cells, but they were actually placed higher in the structure than the gas valves in the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin were (as you can see if you look at the “Graf Zeppelin Technology” page on this site.) For that matter, the LZ-126 Los Angeles was designed with her gas valves even closer to the bottom of the ship, but using the exact same gas vent shaft setup that was used on the first Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg. So nothing in connection with the Hindenburg’s gas cells was particularly different from what had been used before. It wasn’t a helium gas valve arrangement being used in a hydrogen airship – it was a pretty standard Luftschiffbau Zeppelin valve arrangement.

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    Rip Tragle August 4, 2009 at 11:35 am

    In engineering if you have changed one thing you may have changed everything.
    (if we had only changed those space shuttle o-rings or waited for a warmer day)
    The fact that similar devices or methods were used in previous designs does
    not mean they will work successfully in a completely new design. The Hindenburg
    was a prototype. The equivalent of Boeing designing a brand new airliner (based on
    known technology) and allowing the first prototype to carry passengers.
    There was nothing “standard” about the Hindenburg as such had not
    existed before in this form.
    Permission was granted to sell helium to Germany in the wake of the disaster
    but was later taken back…. refused.
    Anyway, I did not mean to get into a long discussion as to why the Hindenburg
    burst into flames, I know why: it was filled with hydrogen. cheers, Rip Tragle

    Reply

    Henry November 16, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    Awesome.I have loads of note cards now.But I believe
    that the lightning caused some effect.Do you think
    that’s true?

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    Rip Tragle November 28, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    What lightning?

    Rip Tragle July 12, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    I am in utter disbelief that anyone would argue that hydrogen airships were anything
    but disasters waiting to happen.
    According to the list of rigid airships in the back of Douglas H. Robinson’s “Giants In
    The Sky”:
    30 of the 120 Zeppelins built were positively lost to fire.
    5 of the 20 Shutte-Lanz ships burned.
    3 of the 16 British rigids burned.
    There are many that “disappeared” with later reports from people who saw a
    bright light in the night sky…. these are not counted.
    As yet I have never heard of a helium airship burning. Think of all those WWII
    blimps. And why were the LZ-129 and 130 designed for helium?
    Hey, hydrogen is cheap ….. fill your kid’s toy balloon with it, right?
    Lord, the next thing we’ll hear is the Hindenburg never crashed and the film was
    a Warner Bros. production. cheers, Rip

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    Tim C. July 13, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Yes, the volatility of hydrogen is well-documented. The thing to remember is by the time of the Hindenburg tragedy, the Germans had developed a mastery of its handling and care through experience, positive and negative. They respected its volatility and took greater pains to insure the safety of passengers and crew aboard LZ’s than a lot of contemporary airlines do.

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    stolennomenclature January 18, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Sometimes the inherently more dangerous situation can prove to be actually safer, owing to the human psyche. When something is inherently relatively safe, people tend to become complacent and so tend to become careless, whereas something that is very dangerous keeps them on there toes and maintains their vigilance. Since humans are often the weakest link in these types of cases, the more dangerous substance can end up being the safest. I’ll bet that people who smoke on a hydrogen filled airship will be much more careful with what they do with their cigarettes than those smoking on a helium filled airship. Whilst the helium itself will not burn, the rest of the ship can, and so it might be the case that in time more helium filled ships would be destroyed or damaged by fire in time than hydrogen filled ones (from cigarettes that is).

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    James Yarger October 24, 2010 at 12:48 am

    That still works out to a 75% success rate. That wascally wabbit had to have had something to do with.

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    John Sharp July 10, 2009 at 8:36 am

    That picture of the “blowtorch” coming out of the bow of the Hindenburg (clearly hydrogen fueled) while the whole skin surrounding the bow is intact ought to be enough in and of itself to get rid of the idea that the skin as opposed to the hydrogen caused the fire. Further, the Hindenburg was not the only hydrogen inflated airship to end in disaster. R101 and the many hydrogen inflated airships of WWI which were shot down come to mind. Some of the tethered observation balloons of WWI used by the German Army had only wicker or wooden baskets and were shot down with incendiary bullets fired by Allied fighter planes. Wasn’t hyrdrogen ignition responsible? Of course it was.

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    Eric Johnson July 6, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks for putting up this site it is one of the most complete and accurate sites I have seen on the web. I intend to spend a great deal of time looking through here. I have seen several tests performed in regard to the dope used on the Hindenburg and in every case it was well determined that the dope was not a factor in the crash. I also saw the mythbusters episode testing the Hindenburg and I thought they did a really good job with it (including the burning affect when hydrogen filled).

    Now I have a question do you think that the Hindenburg would have had a long and successful career if it had been filled with Helium?

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    Dan (Airships.net) July 6, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Thank you for your kind comments.

    With regard to your question… If the Hindenburg had been inflated with helium, it probably would have continued to provide passenger service (in concert with sister ships, such as LZ-130 and LZ-131) until the outbreak of World War II.

    Although heavier-than-air technology was quickly catching up to lighter-than-air technology by the mid-1930′s (for example, the clipper flying boats of Pan American Airways), the Hindenburg and its sisters would have continued to offer advantages over flying boats in terms of comfort, point-to-point speed, and schedule reliability (although with significantly higher operating expenses). Once war broke out, however, the service would clearly have been suspended, and by the end of the war heavier-than-air technology had advanced to such a point that I don’t believe zeppelins would have been able to compete.

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    jake July 3, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    By my crude (no pun intended) estimates, 4000 gallons of diesel fuel would be equivalent to the energy of 4 million cubic feet of hydrogen or 57% of the energy in the hydrogen gas carried by the Hindenburg.

    For the sake of argument, that is not an insignificant amount. Assuming my math is reasonable.

    Not to mention, the diesel will burn at ground level or on whatever it touches while the hydrogen will burn as it rises.

    Transportation is dangerous. People are going meet unfortunate ends from time to time moving from place to place. The point is to reduce, not eliminate the risk. If diesel fuel was a contributor to the death toll, that makes airships that burn gaseous fuels potentially more attractive. This is not an argument for hydrogen in particular, but rather against the use of diesel fuel in airships

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    Dan (Airships.net) July 7, 2009 at 5:17 am

    With all respect, there simply is no safety argument against the use of diesel fuel in airships, and diesel fuel has long been recognized as being much safer than the alternatives (gasoline/petrol, or propane-like gas) due to its lower volatility and considerably higher flash point.

    It was, in fact, gasoline/petrol engines that were viewed by airship designers as a potential safety hazard, since gasoline is explosive and is so much easier to ignite than diesel fuel. (The designers of R101, for example, insisted — ironically, perhaps — on using heavy diesel engines rather than lighter gasoline engines for this very reason.)

    And compared to a gaseous fuel such as Blau gas (propane), diesel fuel is much easier to store securely; well-designed diesel tanks are much more secure against leaks and damage than large fabric gas cells containing propane, and fueling operations are easier to manage and thus present less risk during the transfer of fuel to the airship.

    The only arguments against using diesel engines in modern airship relate to weight and performance, and not to safety, and it is only because of the inherent safety of helium as a lifting gas (as compared to the obvious dangers of hydrogen) that modern helium-inflated blimps and airships like the Zeppelin NT can take advantage of the weight and power advantages offered by gasoline engines.

    The presence of any flammable substance always presents some hazard, but among the various realistic alternative fuels which can be used to power the engines of an airship, diesel fuel is the least hazardous of all.

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    jake July 7, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I love your example; the R101, a model of safety!

    As you seem to know, it also crashed on its maiden voyage and its diesel fuel also caught fire and burned for about a day. The R101 was one of the worst designed airships I have ever heard of.

    Diesel creates a lake of fire rather than a cloud of fire when it burns. That has to trump issues of leaking and handling which you claim advantage diesel.

    Consider the case of a helium blimp with either natural gas or diesel sequestered inside the helium gas. Neither would be likely to burn, but if they did, only diesel would rain down fire and hot metal containers on the occupants and observers below.

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    Patrick Russell July 26, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Jake, with all due respect, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make by continuing to harp on the diesel fuel issue.

    First of all, if you have specific evidence that burning diesel fuel killed any specific passengers and crew aboard the Hindenburg, I’d very much like to see it. By my count there were nine people (all Hindenburg crewmen except for the one ground crewman who died) who were in a location where they might have been killed by burning fuel. If you have coroner’s reports on any of them showing this to have been the case, I will gladly add that information to the appropriate articles on my web page.

    However, the fact of the matter is that at the very most there could have been nine fatalities out of 36 connected to burning diesel fuel, and there were probably fewer than that. More people than this were killed in the passenger compartments by burning flooring, wall material, ceiling material, upholstery, etc. So again, I’m not really sure what your point is here.

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    Joe October 12, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Let’s also take into account the diesel, when it does finally burn is a slow burn, not the energetic explosive reaction of a flammable gas or of gasoline. I’ve personally watched a tractor trailer, which wrecked, burn. Oil on the engine caught fire, the antifreeze/water mix in the radiator system caught fire. the entire cab was engulfed in flame, catching a trailer full of chocolate. The packaged chocolate caught and burned..then the tires finally started to explode, 15 of the 18 tires exploded loudly and finally the 2 hundred gallon tanks were breached resulting in a loud hiss, significantly less notable than the tire failures. Yes diesel burns, but its flash point and energy release rate is significantly lower than most fuels and certainly insufficient to contribute significantly to an event of such a brief duration as the Hindenburg.

    Patrick Russell June 29, 2009 at 1:11 am

    Dan, I’m really glad you’ve started this section, and I imagine you’ll probably have cause to add to it as time goes on and more ill-informed claims such as these are made.

    Let me address one thing specifically, as I’ve seen variations on it posted ad nauseum all over the Internet, and it’s absolutely not true:

    “Thirty-five of the thirty-seven casualties perished from jumping to the ground, and most other injuries resulted from diesel burns.”

    No. In fact, by my count only five people died from jumping from too great a height (all of whom leaped from the bow, all of whom were already essentially burning to death at the time they jumped.) A careful viewing of the newsreels will show that other than those five, nobody else started jumping from the ship until they were 15-20 feet (or less) above the ground. Everyone else who died in the Hindenburg crash was either trapped in the wreckage and burned to death there, or else was pulled alive from the wreckage and died later.

    Tael, actually there were several passengers who were led out of the wreckage via the embarkation stairs, and I agree with you: they were all very lucky indeed. Marie Kleemann is generally the one who you read about as having walked down the stairs and out of the ship, but Margaret Mather, William Leuchtenberg, and Otto and Elsa Ernst all were brought out of the ship the same way. Somehow, the flames left the port side passenger decks largely intact for some minutes after the wreck hit the ground, and rescuers were able to actually enter the wreck and bring survivors out of the dining room. Unbelievable, and yet there it is.

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    Tael Neilan June 28, 2009 at 1:14 am

    In my book about the Hindenburg (a small children’s picture book) it has a color photograph of the crash with the captions “The only color photograph taken of the Hindenburg crash” or something similar, I’ll happily send a scan along if you’d like. I read it so long ago that I probably wouldn’t know that photographs could be colorized…

    This may seem strange and a bit macabre, but I always smile when I hear the story of the woman who walked out of the ship’s main entrance when it crashed to the ground and walked to safety!

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    Dan (Airships.net) June 29, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Photo manipulation occurred long before Photoshop. Photographs were hand-colored as early the 1860′s, and Stalin made former friends simply disappear.

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    Tael Neilan June 29, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Oh I know that! There was color photography as early as 1900, so I believed the book when it said the photograph was actually developed in color.
    I just didn’t know that until a few months ago when I fell in love with photochroms.

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    Rip Tragle October 25, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Jake,
    I wouldn’t mind seeing that color photo.
    I believe you mean “autochrome” above invented
    by the Lumiere brothers in 1903. But this was a slow positive emulsion spred on glass plates with RGB dyed starch grains with a lampblack filler. Not suitable for moving objects.
    It is entirely possible that a color Kodachrome was
    shot with a Contax or Leica by someone who had such on hand.
    I agree that Autochromes are lovely and I have
    tried to recreate the effect in Photoshop.
    There were several other early, turn of the century
    color processes as well and each had it’s own charm. But all required long exposure, special
    equipment and were well out of date by ’37.
    Hindenburg color movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSuR2IgnimA

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    jake June 24, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    Isn’t iron oxide an oxidizer?

    There is nothing in here about burning diesel fuel contributing to casualties. Why not?

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    Dan (Airships.net) June 24, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    I’ll be happy to defer to chemists for a more complete answer, but basically, no… the small quantity of iron oxide in Hindenburg’s covering did not act as an oxidizer (and certainly not as applied, in a layer separated from the aluminum powder, and on one part of the airship only).

    With regard to the relatively small reserve of diesel fuel remaining after the ship’s 7,150 kilometer, 77 hour transatlantic crossing, what is your specific suggestion with regard to its contribution to the casualties? (It certainly did not contribute to the deaths of the nine crewmen caught in the blow-torch at the front of the ship, who represented 25% of the casualties.)

    If you would like to explain your specific thoughts with regard to the role played by the diesel fuel, I will be happy to host a discussion of the matter on this forum.

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    jake July 1, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    I’m sorry, but just saying no is not very convincing. This wiki link below shows of an example of iron oxide oxidizing aluminum. This is a myth dispelling page so it kinda needs to be thorough.

    Many of the “myths” you talk about are not directly refuted. If people were trapped in the wreckage and burned to death, doesn’t that mean that diesel fuel could have fueled the fires that killed them?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermite

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    Dan (Airships.net) July 1, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Fair enough; I am happy for this page to be a forum for debate, and you are correct, statements should be supported by evidence.

    With regard to iron oxide as an oxidizer, you point to a Wikipedia article about thermite reactions. Since I am not a chemist myself, I can only refer you to the two scholarly papers by Dressler, Overs, and Appleby which I cited above, and to the links and citations on this page regarding thermite (which were selected because they point to .edu domains and other authoritative sources).

    The Wikipedia article you cited simply supports the assertion that iron oxide can act as an oxidizer. The question here, however, is not whether iron oxide can ever function as an oxidizer (which it clearly can), but whether it could have done so in the proportions found on Hindenburg, and in manner applied to Hindenburg’s covering (in a layer separated from the aluminum), which are the questions addressed in the citations above. From a more empirical perspective, though, the question arises that if the iron oxide applied to the top of Hindenburg’s hull HAD acted as an oxidizer for the aluminum powder in the doping solution, why didn’t the covering on the upper hull (which contained iron oxide) burn more rapidly or furiously than the covering on the lower hull (which had no iron oxide)?

    With regard to diesel fuel, although there are no records of the actual amount remaining on Hindenburg’s last flight, Harold Dick states that on a flight from Frankfurt to Lakehurst of very similar duration (78:30 hours; May 17-20, 1936) Hindenburg landed with only 13,050 kg of diesel fuel remaining, or about 4,000 US gallons (See, Harold Dick, Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships, 1985, p. 126). And while that fuel was divided between barrels located all along the keel for even weight distribution, most of the fuel tanks were closer to the engines, hundreds of feet behind the passenger compartment. Naturally, I don’t think anyone would contend that there was no hazard whatsoever presented by the diesel fuel remaining onboard when Hindenburg caught fire, but in terms of the destruction caused by 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel versus the 5-1/2 to 6 million cubic feet of hydrogen remaining after the flight, there is little comparison. And does it really matter, in any case, which particular substance (diesel fuel or hydrogen) caused the actual injuries, since the Hindenburg would not have crashed to the ground in half-a-minute if if had not been inflated with hydrogen?

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    henry December 8, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    There was lightning and a storm.I saw a video.Someone who survived said(along with many others)they saw lightning.:)

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    James Yarger October 24, 2010 at 12:45 am

    there were passing thunder and lighting storms on that day which cause the Hindenburg to circle for almost six hours waiting to come in between storms, building up a static charge. Not the lightning, but static electricity yes. Like getting zapped on the ear by your buddy. Only imagine your friend being the size of the Hindenburg.

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    Rip Tragle December 8, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Of the volumes of testimony from eye witness
    reports at the time: nobody mentioned lightning.

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    Rip Tragle October 24, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    I believe all airships built up a static charge while
    passing through the air whether circling or not.
    If I remember correctly ground crews did not
    touch the landing lines until they hit the ground
    and dissipated said charge …. which I believe
    was enough to possibly kill you.

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    James Yarger October 24, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Your absolutely correct. When I was in the Navy they taught us not to tough lines being lowered from a helicopter until they had hit the water for the same reason. I’m sure an Airship would stop your ticker.

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    Rip Tragle October 24, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    Yup, with all that surface area passing
    through the air and building up a charge it
    well…. blow your sox off? I used to rappel
    outtta Huey’s in Vietnam.

    Reply

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