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:
Airship historian Patrick Russell has suggested that readers pay especially close attention to the following two portions of the film.
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.
Last hydrogen airship fire, the Hindenburg? What about the V-6 Osoaviakhim from the USSR, which crashed into an unmarked mountain and burned in 1938? Wasn’t that fire hydrogen-fueled? I only know about that one via the Airships book that had its own entry on here (great book, still enjoy reading… Read more »
The Hindenburg WAS painted with a flammable component of rocket fuel. This article is unbalanced in trying to place the blame entirely on the gas filled envelopes/bags. There is a slight attempt at rebalancing the argument in the summary, indicating that the covering MAY have been the original site of… Read more »
The Hindenburg WAS painted with a flammable component of rocket fuel. That’s like saying that modern automobiles are painted with a flammable component of rocket fuel. It’s literally true, but misleading and irrelevant. Does the author have any experience at all on combustion, thermodynamics or heat transfer? (Probably not) Actually,… Read more »
Hello Dan, have you read Addison Bain’s book released last year? I haven’t read it but there is a review suggesting he does make a rebuttal against his critics, pointing out their flaws etc. And he claims he never denied hydrogen didn’t contribute to the fire blahblah. I think the… Read more »
I was born in 1921. There was no TV etc so I was listenig to a battery operated radio during the landing. I recall the announcer saying, Oh my god and crying and repeatedly saying how horable it was. I felt sorry for those killed. I am also a veteran… Read more »
I worked at Goodyear aircraft(later aerospace) from 1952 to 1980 I was told by older engineers that sparks at large dia trim valve surfaces opening and closing started the hydrogen fire. Ballasting methods were tricky.
That’s an interesting take on the spark theory that I hadn’t heard before. The only problem with it is that no gas had been valved for at least five minutes before the fire broke out. Therefore, even if there was an issue with the valve covers rubbing against some part… Read more »
With all that Hydrogen in there only ignorants can claim that anything else was burning so quickly. But even with non-flammable Helium, the time of Zeppelins was at its end. Airplanes are much faster and smaller. Wind have to be much stronger to blow them away. But there’s one thing… Read more »
i think this is completely true although i think its a shame that the world totally wrote off any kind of airship after that, the helium ones are actually quite reliable athough slightly more expensive….
I was wondering what the two large objects were that appeared to fall from the Hindenburg during the initial stages of the fire. I am guessing that they were ballast tanks. Please let me know.
Both were storage tanks that were positioned alongside the keel walkway. The forward-most one was a 2500 liter waste water tank (it’s clearly missing in the overhead photos of the wreckage from the next day.) However, I’m not 100% sure if the one further aft is a water tank, or… Read more »
The claim that at least some of the fabric did NOT burn is absolutely correct! How do I know? My now deceased grandfather was ACTUALLY THERE and told me the exact same thing. When he arrived the fire was already under way.When I was a teenager I remember him telling… Read more »
I think the rationale of the hydrogen supporting the overall conflagration, as well as the source of the fire in the first place is valid. One can argue quite reasonably that the outer covering, as well as the cells themselves, also supported combustion which is amply shown in the bright… Read more »
thanks so much for this information. have you seen the mythbuster episode where they figured out what made it crash.