The new Discovery Channel documentary “What Destroyed the Hindenburg?” airs Sunday, December 16, at 9 PM E/P.
I was pleased to participate in this project as technical advisor and on-air historian. I won’t give away the specific technical conclusion, but the show does a wonderful job of explaining and illustrating how a spark was likely generated by a combination of atmospheric conditions and the inherent properties of the ship’s structure, and how that spark created the fire pattern that we have all seen on film.
In order to explore various theories about how the fire began and spread we built three models of the airship at 1/10-scale, inflated them with 200 cubic meters of hydrogen, and ignited them in various ways. The models were designed to replicate the ship’s major features; a framework of rings and girders with individual gas cells, ventilation shafts, and an open area around the keel. The models were designed for function rather than appearance; they were not especially pretty, but the important structural elements were realistic.
The use of such large scale models (over 80 feet in length) was itself a real first. In addition the team replicated some of the key experiments done immediately after the crash in 1937 (such as the analysis of the electrostatic properties of the ship’s fabric covering done in Germany by Dr. Max Dieckmann), and explored a theory about the spread of the fire that has not been discussed in any previous documentary.
Although I have studied the Hindenburg for decades these experiments brought to life for me, in a vivid and dramatic way, various phenomena that had been purely theoretical before.
I just had a chance to see the rough cut and I am very pleased with the project, which was the result of months of hard work by the director, producers, and a large and enthusiastic crew. We had access to the impressive facilities and expertise of the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, and a great team that included presenter Jem Stansfied, who has a degree in aeronautical engineering, and documentary filmmaker Nic Young, who was determined to do justice to the science while keeping it accessible to the general public. And I need to give a shout-out to my colleagues Patrick Russell of Faces of the Hindenburg and Cheryl Ganz of the National Postal museum, who were wonderful resources as always.
Participating in this project also gave me new insights into the Hindenburg in ways I had not anticipated. If nothing else, simply working that closely with vast amounts of hydrogen gave me a new sense of how zeppelin crews might have felt and a new understanding of why they were so comfortable working with a substance that is so inherently dangerous.
I have studied hydrogen for decades but this was the first time I have been right up close to the actual stuff; as we were building the models I was inside the hull, with my hands right up against the gas cells feeling their level of inflation. I have always assumed it must have been at least a little intimidating to walk through the hull of the Hindenburg, surrounded by all that flammable gas, but working inside our models, surrounded by giant bags of hydrogen, I felt perfectly at ease. We followed safety procedures established by the experts at SWRI and I didn’t feel the slightest fear; I was literally surrounded by hundreds of cubic meters of hydrogen and I felt as comfortable as I do in my own house, and I think every other member of the crew felt the same way. I came away with a personal insight into how and why the men of the Zeppelin company felt so comfortable working with a gas that we now view with such fear.
I am very glad I decided to participate in this project. It was fascinating from a scientific and technical perspective, it gave me new insights into the minds of the zeppelin crews, and it was great to work with such wonderful people. But let’s be totally honest. I spent a week building giant models and then blowing them up. Now if that isn’t every boy’s idea of a damn good time, I don’t know what the hell is.
Behind the Scenes
Here are some photos from the set that I thought you might enjoy.
(All photos, unless otherwise credited, are © Dan Grossman 2012).