THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
(Former Head, The Zeppelin Company)
The Official Story
(Former Head of the Zeppelin Company)
Hugo Eckener (10 August 1868 – 14 August 1954) was the manager of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin during the inter-war years, and also the commander of the famous Graf Zeppelin for most of its record-setting flights, including the first airship flight around the world, making him the most successful airship commander in history. He was also responsible for the construction of the most successful type of airships of all time. An anti-Nazi who was invited to campaign as a moderate in the German presidential elections, he was blacklisted by that regime and eventually sidelined.
Head of the Zeppelin Company
After the War, Eckener succeeded Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who had died on 8 March 1917. After considerable conflict with Zeppelin’s business manager, Alfred Colsman, who wanted to replace the production of airships with production of other (and likely more profitable) products, Eckener was able to keep the Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen on Bodensee (Lake Constance) in Württemberg, southern Germany, from being retooled. Colsman left the company soon afterwards.
The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germans to construct airships of the size needed to operate the profitable trans-Atlantic service that was Eckener’s goal. However, after much skilful lobbying, he persuaded the US and German governments to allow the company to build LZ 126, later rechristened the USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), for the US Navy as part of Germany’s war reparations. Eckener himself captained the airship on its delivery flight to Lakehurst, New Jersey. The Los Angeles became the longest-serving rigid airship ever operated by the US Navy.
The Nazis came to power in January 1933. A planned arrest of Eckener in 1933 was blocked by Hindenburg. Hitler met Eckener only once, in July 1933, but the two barely spoke. Eckener did not make any secret of his dislike of the Nazis and the disastrous events he foresaw. He criticised the regime frequently, and refused to allow the Nazis to use the large hangars at Frankfurt for a rally. Eventually the Nazis declared Eckener to be persona non grata and his name was no longer allowed to appear in print.
During the 1930s, the Nazi government nationalized the Zeppelin operation under the name Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei GmbH (DZR). The Nazis sidelined Eckener in favour of men who were more compliant with their wishes. In their haste to please the Nazi regime, these newly promoted airshipmen did not always obey Eckener’s safety procedures. For example, the maiden voyage of the Hindenburg nearly resulted in disaster when Captain Ernst Lehmann brought the ship out in strong winds in order to undertake a Nazi propaganda flight. The ship was damaged, and there was an argument between Eckener, Lehmann and the Nazi propaganda ministry.
Hugo Eckener had always made safety his absolute priority during his many years managing airship operations. With Eckener’s management, the Zeppelin company had a perfect safety record with no passenger ever sustaining a serious injury on any of the more than 1 million air miles that the rigid airships flew, until the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. Eckener was in Graz, Austria when he heard news of the Hindenburg disaster on 6 May 1937. In the official inquiry he concluded that a static spark ignited leaking hydrogen in the aft section of the ship. The leak would have been caused by a sharp turn, which he believed overstrained a bracing wire, causing it to snap and rip open an adjacent gas cell.
After the destruction of the Hindenburg, the nearly-completed LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II was redesigned as a helium-filled ship, although, owing to geo-political considerations, the American helium was not available. Thus the ship never began commercial service. However, under the command of Captain Albert Sammt, who had previously survived the fiery destruction of the Hindenburg, albeit with severe burns, the ship performed an espionage mission off the coast of Great Britain, intended to investigate the radar defences. Eckener, however, had by this time little influence on the Zeppelin Company.