THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
(Lakehurst Naval Air Station, 1936)
The Official Story
LZ 129 HINDENBURG
LZ 129 Hindenburg (Luftschiff Zeppelin #129; Registration: D-LZ 129) was a German commercial passenger-carrying rigid airship, the lead ship of the Hindenburg class, the longest class of flying machine and the largest airship by envelope volume. It was designed and built by the Zeppelin Company (Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH) on the shores of Lake Constance in Friedrichshafen, Germany, and was operated by the German Zeppelin Airline Company (Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei). It was named after Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who was President of Germany from 1925 until his death in 1934.
The airship flew from March 1936 until it was destroyed by fire 14 months later on May 6, 1937, while attempting to land at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester Township, New Jersey, at the end of the first North American transatlantic journey of her second season of service. This was the last of the great airship disasters; it was preceded by the crashes of the British R38, the US airship Roma, the French Dixmude, the British R101, and the USS Akron.
Operational History (Launching and trial flights)
Five years after construction began in 1931, Hindenburg made its maiden test flight from the Zeppelin dockyards at Friedrichshafen on March 4, 1936, with 87 passengers and crew aboard. These included the Zeppelin Company chairman, Dr. Hugo Eckener, as commander, former World War I Zeppelin commander Lt. Col. Joachim Breithaupt representing the German Air Ministry, the Zeppelin Company’s eight airship captains, 47 other crew members, and 30 dockyard employees who flew as passengers. Harold G. Dick was the only non-Luftschiffbau representative aboard. Although the name Hindenburg had been quietly selected by Eckener over a year earlier, only the airship’s formal registration number (D-LZ129) and the five Olympic rings (promoting the 1936 Summer Olympics to be held in Berlin that August) were displayed on the hull during its trial flights. As the airship passed over Munich on its second trial flight the next afternoon, the city’s Lord Mayor, Karl Fiehler, asked Eckener by radio the LZ129’s name, to which he replied “Hindenburg“. On March 23, Hindenburg made its first passenger and mail flight, carrying 80 reporters from Friedrichshafen to Löwenthal. The ship flew over Lake Constance with Graf Zeppelin.
The name Hindenburg lettered in 1.8-metre (5 ft 11 in) high red Fraktur script (designed by Berlin advertiser Georg Wagner) was added to its hull three weeks later before the Deutschlandfahrt on March 26. No formal naming ceremony for the airship was ever held.
The airship was operated commercially by the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (DZR) GmbH, which had been established by Hermann Göring in March 1935 to increase Nazi influence over airship operations. The DZR was jointly owned by the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (the airship’s builder), the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (German Air Ministry), and Deutsche Lufthansa A.G. (Germany’s national airline at that time), and also operated the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin during its last two years of commercial service to South America from 1935 to 1937. Hindenburg and its sister ship, the LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II (launched in September 1938), were the only two airships ever purpose-built for regular commercial transatlantic passenger operations, although the latter never entered passenger service before being scrapped in 1940.
After a total of six flights made over a three-week period from the Zeppelin dockyards where the airship had been built, Hindenburg was ready for its formal public debut with a 6,600 km (4,100 mi) propaganda flight around Germany (Die Deutschlandfahrt) made jointly with the Graf Zeppelin from March 26 to 29. This was to be followed by its first commercial passenger flight, a four-day transatlantic voyage to Rio de Janeiro that departed from the Friedrichshafen Airport in nearby Löwenthal on March 31. After again departing from Löwenthal on 6 May on its first of ten round trips to North America made in 1936, all Hindenburg‘s subsequent transatlantic flights to both North and South America originated at the airport at Frankfurt am Main.