Behind the Scenes of Discovery Channel’s “What Destroyed the Hindenburg?”

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.

Hindenburg model (Courtesy: Discovery Channel)

Hindenburg model burning

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.

Jem Stansfield, Steve Wolf, and Dan Grossman (Courtesy: Discovery Channel)

Director Nic Young

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.

Hydrogen Tank

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).

Hindenburg model

Fabric covering for Hindenburg model

Fabric covering for Hindenburg model

Fabric for Hindenburg model

Hindenburg model

Hindenburg model

Mark Fenn covering the Hindenburg model

Mark Fenn covering the Hindenburg model

Hindenburg model

The nose of the Hindenburg model

The nose of the Hindenburg model

Hindenburg model

Inside the Hindenburg model

Cylinders of hydrogen

Hydrogen Tanks

Filling the Hindenburg model with hydrogen

Filling the Hindenburg model with hydrogen

Hindenburg model gas cells

Jem Stansfield holding Hindenburg model

Crew of "What Destroyed the Hindenburg"

The crew of “What Destroyed the Hindenburg” (Courtesy: Steve Wolf)

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DanHendrick StoopsAdrian. T.G W ElderkinScott Lobdell Recent comment authors
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Hendrick Stoops

Neat photos (Then again, this is coming from the guy who has to watch films with the directors’ commentary on!) By any chance would you know the material that the crew used for the airships’ skin?

Adrian. T.
Adrian. T.

The hydrogen/air explosion of the reconstruction matches well with the start of the actual fire, but the subsequent spread of the fire through the model diverges more and more from that of the original disaster. The propagation of the fire downwards through the structure of the model was much reduced,… Read more »

Scott Lobdell
Scott Lobdell

What sort of safety considerations are required with hydrogen? Aside from not intentionally lighting it and being mindful that it is combustible, are there extra necessary precautions? I ask because I’m working on a 20 foot blimp that I intend to fill with hydrogen since it’s 1/4 the cost of… Read more »

G W Elderkin
G W Elderkin

In response to your question – We urge great caution!!! In fact your safety and those of others warrants the use of helium no matter what the costs. You better check with your insurance company too – you may not have coverage for this endeavor. You are playing with fire… Read more »

william klapper
william klapper

Many times in each trip the gas exit shafts were filled with a hydrogen air mixture. Each time this mixture was flushed out with the movement of the Zeppelin through the air. When hydrogen and air mix together an explosive mixture is formed which if ignited will detonate with great… Read more »

Jason Wallace
Jason Wallace

sorry about posting twice it didn’t go where i wanted it too! :/ hahaha 🙂

Jason Wallace
Jason Wallace

Stu; It really is great discussing such matter’s with the likes of my fellow LTA Advocates not many people around me are positive on such matters they laugh and joke every time i mention Zeppelin/Airships but when i explain about the Crafts themselves and they low and behold are in… Read more »

Stu
Stu

For purposes of privacy, perhaps I can set up a Facebook page on LTA stuff just for people like you and I to chat. My Facebook page is basically private now, and I would like to keep it that way. I sincerely do want to share thoughts with you and… Read more »

Jason Wallace
Jason Wallace

No Probs Stu i understand all about Privacy and i respect that it’s been great Talking with you on such Awesome Areas of the LTA Industry! 🙂 i Sincerely hope each and every one of my Fellow LTA Advocates have a merry Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year!!… Read more »

Stu
Stu

Very good documentary Dan. Enjoyed it very much. What would have been nice to show was the flight track of the Hindenberg on it’s final approach to LAS. (Source: HIndenberg – an illustrated history – Rick Archbold, pp. 202 illustration of landing approach): 1900 hrs: Altitude 650 ft. LZ129 approaches… Read more »

Jason Wallace
Jason Wallace

Stu; It really is great discussing such matter’s with the likes of my fellow LTA Advocates not many people around me are positive on such matters they laugh and joke every time i mention Zeppelin/Airships but when i explain about the Crafts themselves and they low and behold are in… Read more »

Francisco Carvallo
Francisco Carvallo

Dear Dan, I just finished watching the documentary on Discovery HD. It was wonderful!! The last theory really blew my mind! There were others who’d seen the “blue charge” on front of the fin, but not on top like the gentleman and hsi father did due to their great vantage… Read more »

Louis Gary
Louis Gary

You are full of surprises Dan. Thanks for sharing your works. -Louis

MattBlais
MattBlais

I was one of the Scientists from SwRI on this project. We had a ball working on it. Dan was a great resource on the history. My crew and I would like to thank him and the Blink Entertainment team for the wonderful opportunity to showcase our laboratories and capabilities.… Read more »