On This Day

Hindenburg, Hindenburg crash, Hindenburg fire, Hindenburg burning
Philadelphia Public Ledger/AP
This photo, taken at almost the split second that the Hindenburg exploded, shows the zeppelin just before the second and third explosions send the ship crashing to the earth, May 6, 1937.

On This Day: The Hindenburg Crashes

May 06, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg, a hydrogen-filled rigid airship, caught fire and crashed in Lakehurst, N.J., killing 36 people.

“Oh, the Humanity!”

A large crowd had gathered in Lakehurst, N.J., to watch the landing of the 803-foot Hindenburg, the largest airship ever flown, arriving after a flight from Frankfurt, Germany, with 97 people on board.

Before their eyes, the unthinkable happened. A flame appeared at the rear of the hydrogen-filled aircraft and, in an instant, the Hindenburg crashed in a fiery explosion.

“With a Cra-a-a-ack! the ship buckled,” described Time. “Down on the ground went the stern with a peculiarly gentle crash amid clouds of dust and smoke. As the still-undamaged bow tilted up at 45 degrees, the flame rushed through the middle and geysered in a long bright plume from the nose. For an instant the Hindenburg seemed a rearing reptile darting its tongue in anger. Then it was a gigantic halfback tackled behind the knees and falling forward on its face.”

Herbert Morrison, covering the Hindenburg’s landing for WLS radio (Chicago), in a now-famous broadcast, screamed, “It burst into flames! … It's burning, bursting into flames and it's—and it's falling on the mooring mast and all the folks agree that this is terrible. This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. … Oh, the humanity and all the passengers screaming around here.”

Thirty-five people on board and one ground crew member were killed; 62 passengers and crew survived.

What Caused the Crash?

The cause of the crash is still a controversial topic. At the time, both U.S. and German investigators considered sabotage as a likely cause because the aircraft was the pride of Nazi Germany and its destruction damaged Nazi prestige.

Most of the theories regarding sabotage due to the Nazi connection are “based on conjecture and coincidence,” writes Aerospaceweb, and other, more practical, theories have developed.

According to The Associated Press, the most widely accepted theory is that static electricity build up on the outside of the aircraft that, along with the stormy weather, caused mooring lines attached to the outside of the Hindenburg to become conductive. The airship's framework would have then picked up the charge when the ropes touched ground, and a spark could have ignited the hydrogen.

In 1937, the FBI conducted a “limited investigation” into the Hindenburg disaster. The report is available on the site in a PDF file.

Whatever the cause, the tragedy changed aviation history. Later designs used safer helium gas, but commercial dirigibles never regained their popularity.

Key Player: Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin

The dirigible balloon was invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. The first of these aircrafts, which were named “zeppelins” after him were built in 1900, and the first flight occurred on July 2, 1900, writes the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission.

Before his death in 1917, von Zeppelin had built a fleet of zeppelins, some of which were used to bomb London during World War I. After the war, they were used for commercial flights, until the crash of the Hindenburg.

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