THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
Catching Fire (1)
The Official Story
THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937)
The Hindenburg disaster occurred on May 6, 1937, in Manchester Township, New Jersey, United States. The German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst. There were 35 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmen) from the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crewmen), and an additional fatality on the ground.
The disaster was the subject of newsreel coverage, photographs, and Herbert Morrison’s recorded radio eyewitness reports from the landing field, which were broadcast the next day. A variety of hypotheses have been put forward for both the cause of ignition and the initial fuel for the ensuing fire. The event shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and marked the abrupt end of the airship era.
Hindenburg Disaster – British Pathé Newsreel Footage (1937)
Around 7:00 p.m. local time, at an altitude of 650 feet (200 m), the Hindenburg made its final approach to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. This was to be a high landing, known as a flying moor because the airship would drop its landing ropes and mooring cable at a high altitude, and then be winched down to the mooring mast. This type of landing maneuver would reduce the number of ground crewmen but would require more time. Although the high landing was a common procedure for American airships, the Hindenburg had only performed this maneuver a few times in 1936 while landing in Lakehurst.
At 7:09 p.m., the airship made a sharp full-speed left turn to the west around the landing field because the ground crew was not ready. At 7:11 p.m., it turned back toward the landing field and valved gas. All engines idled ahead and the airship began to slow. Captain Pruss ordered aft engines full astern at 7:14 p.m. while at an altitude of 394 ft (120 m), to try to brake the airship.
At 7:17 p.m., the wind shifted direction from east to southwest, and Captain Pruss ordered a second sharp turn starboard, making an s-shaped flightpath towards the mooring mast. At 7:18 p.m., as the final turn progressed, Pruss ordered 300, 300, and 500 kg (660, 660, and 1100 lb) of water ballast in successive drops because the airship was stern-heavy. The forward gas cells were also valved. As these measures failed to bring the ship in trim, six men (three of whom were killed in the accident) were then sent to the bow to trim the airship.
At 7:21 p.m., while the Hindenburg was at an altitude of 295 ft (90 m), the mooring lines were dropped from the bow; the starboard line was dropped first, followed by the port line. The port line was overtightened as it was connected to the post of the ground winch. The starboard line had still not been connected. A light rain began to fall as the ground crew grabbed the mooring lines.
At 7:25 p.m., a few witnesses saw the fabric ahead of the upper fin flutter as if gas was leaking. Others reported seeing a dim blue flame – possibly static electricity, or St. Elmo’s Fire – moments before the fire on top and in the back of the ship near the point where the flames first appeared. Several other eyewitness testimonies suggest that the first flame appeared on the port side just ahead of the port fin, and was followed by flames that burned on top. Commander Rosendahl testified to the flames in front of the upper fin being “mushroom-shaped”. One witness on the starboard side reported a fire beginning lower and behind the rudder on that side. On board, people heard a muffled detonation and those in the front of the ship felt a shock as the port trail rope overtightened; the officers in the control car initially thought the shock was caused by a broken rope.
At 7:25 p.m. local time, the Hindenburg caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flames. Eyewitness statements disagree as to where the fire initially broke out; several witnesses on the port side saw yellow-red flames first jump forward of the top fin near the ventilation shaft of cells 4 and 5. Other witnesses on the port side noted the fire actually began just ahead of the horizontal port fin, only then followed by flames in front of the upper fin. One, with views of the starboard side, saw flames beginning lower and farther aft, near cell 1 behind the rudders. Inside the airship, helmsman Helmut Lau, who was stationed in the lower fin, testified hearing a muffled detonation and looked up to see a bright reflection on the front bulkhead of gas cell 4, which “suddenly disappeared by the heat”. As other gas cells started to catch fire, the fire spread more to the starboard side and the ship dropped rapidly. Although the landing was being filmed by cameramen from four newsreel teams and at least one spectator, with numerous photographers also being at the scene, no footage or photographs are known to exist of the moment the fire started.
Wherever the flames started, they quickly spread forward first consuming cells 1 to 9, and the rear end of the structure imploded. Almost instantly, two tanks (it is disputed whether they contained water or fuel) burst out of the hull as a result of the shock of the blast. Buoyancy was lost on the stern of the ship, and the bow lurched upwards while the ship’s back broke; the falling stern stayed in trim.
As the tail of the Hindenburg crashed into the ground, a burst of flame came out of the nose, killing 9 of the 12 crew members in the bow. There was still gas in the bow section of the ship, so it continued to point upward as the stern collapsed down. The cell behind the passenger decks ignited as the side collapsed inward, and the scarlet lettering reading “Hindenburg” was erased by flames as the bow descended. The airship’s gondola wheel touched the ground, causing the bow to bounce up slightly as one final gas cell burned away. At this point, most of the fabric on the hull had also burned away and the bow finally crashed to the ground. Although the hydrogen had finished burning, the Hindenburg‘s diesel fuel burned for several more hours.
The time that it took from the first signs of disaster to the bow crashing to the ground is often reported as 32, 34 or 37 seconds. Since none of the newsreel cameras were filming the airship when the fire first started, the time of the start can only be estimated from various eyewitness accounts and the duration of the longest footage of the crash. One careful analysis by NASA’s Addison Bain gives the flame front spread rate across the fabric skin as about 49 ft/s (15 m/s) at some points during the crash, which would have resulted in a total destruction time of about 16 seconds (245m/15 m/s=16.3 s).
Some of the duralumin framework of the airship was salvaged and shipped back to Germany, where it was recycled and used in the construction of military aircraft for the Luftwaffe, as were the frames of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin and LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II when both were scrapped in 1940.
In the days after the disaster, an official board of inquiry was set up at Lakehurst to investigate the cause of the fire. The investigation by the US Commerce Department was headed by Colonel South Trimble Jr, while Hugo Eckener led the German commission.