The internet is filled with claims that the Hindenburg’s “flammable covering” was the main reason the ship was destroyed by fire in less than a minute. In fact, the Hindenburg was only the last in a long line of hydrogen airships destroyed by fire as a result of their highly flammable lifting gas, and scientific studies show that the Hindenburg’s covering might not have been flammable at all.
For a detailed historical and technical analysis, visit Rocket Fuel, Thermite, and Hydrogen: Myths about the Hindenburg Crash. But perhaps the most obvious and compelling evidence is found in the films and photographs of the disaster: Even as the hydrogen flames roared around the covering, the covering itself did not burn right away.
Even with flames right behind the covering, the fabric itself did not not immediately ignite. Instead, the fabric burned from behind, where the hydrogen fire was roaring.
And even as the zeppelin crashed to the ground, with flames erupting from its nose like a blow torch, the covering had not yet burned: Flames fueled by hydrogen reached the airship’s nose, killing the crewmen stationed in the bow [see diagram], long before the covering on the hull caught on fire.
The following photograph demonstrates that the fire was fueled by the Hindenburg’s hydrogen gas cells and not by its fabric covering. As you can see, the fire progressed from gas cell to gas cell; if it had been the covering which was burning, rather than the gas cells, the fire would have spread evenly from one end of the ship to the other without the momentary pause between gas cells that we see in this photo:
From the 12-second mark to the 16-second mark, you can see a tear in the outer covering kicked open by crew members trying to escape the burning ship. Through the tear, you see light from the fire which was blazing in the hydrogen gas cells long before the outer covering finally ignited:
And between the 23-second mark and the 32-second mark, you can see the fabric covering below the passenger compartment, which had still not ignited, even as the rest of the ship was consumed by fire:
The Final Proof
The final proof may be this: Even after a fire so intense that it took less than a minute to destroy an airship the size of almost three football fields, some sections of the covering never burned at all.
Whether the Hindeburg’s covering was sufficiently flammable to have been the initial source of ignition may be open to reasonable debate. It is possible (although not likely, given the rainy and wet conditions) that the covering was the cause of the initial ignition, but if the Hindenburg had been inflated with helium instead of hydrogen, even a small fire on the outer covering would not have resulted in a major catastrophe.
Hydrogen is a highly volatile, flammable gas under all conditions, and when mixed in certain ratios with air it is even explosive. Claims by hydrogen fuel cell advocates that hydrogen was not responsible for the Hindenburg’s ultimate destruction are nothing less than silly.
For a detailed analysis of Hindenburg’s covering, visit: Rocket Fuel, Thermite, and Hydrogen: Myths about the Hindenburg Crash. And for detailed background about the accident in general, visit: The Hindenburg Disaster.
But for a basic understanding of the “rocket fuel” argument (sometimes called the Incendiary Paint Theory), you just need to look at the films of the crash: If the Hindenburg had been painted with anything as flammable as rocket fuel, its covering would have burned rapidly during the fire, but that simply did not happen.