Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, May 12, 2012

75th Anniversary of the Crash of the Hindenburg

It was May 6, 1937 and a rainstorm had just passed the airship landing field at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Crowds of people and reporters stood by eagerly waiting what many considered one of the greatest inventions of human history. They were waiting on the arrival of the airship Hindenburg.

Because of the previous storm, the floating palace was running late since she had to circle until it had passed because one certainly couldn’t try landing a giant bag of hydrogen in the middle of a lightning storm. Finally, the giant airship came into view and approached the mooring tower. A light rain began to fall again she dropped her lines for the ground crew.

Then in a blink of an eye disaster struck as the giant airship suddenly exploded and crashed dramatically down to the ground. The blast started in the tail of the airship and quickly engulfed the Zeppelin.

As extreme as the explosion was, amazingly there were quite a few survivors. Of the 36 passengers and 61 crew members, only 13 passengers and 22 crew members died.

What caused the destruction of the Hindenburg has been a great mystery over the years. Some have speculated that it was sabotage while others blamed lightening from the recent storm setting off the hydrogen. Others have speculated that instead of lightening it was static electricity, also caused by the recent storm, which had traveled up the lines to spark the hydrogen. Here’s a variation on the last one, which I find most intriguing:

It's likely the Hindenburg suffered a major leak to its hydrogen gas cells during its approach, said Dr. Horst Schirmer, whose father was the Hindenburg's aeronautical designer. 

"It makes sense. They'd had gas leaks before," said Schirmer, who was 5 when he flew on the ship with his father. "The American ships had these safety valves, so when they had overpressure it vented." Eyewitnesses saw ripples in the fabric envelope as the Hindenburg approached the landing field, probably indicating something was going wrong internally, said Rick Zitarosa of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. 

"It's clear as a bell in my mind," said Zitarosa, the group's historian and curator. "On a tight turn, the torque of the (tail) fins would have been transmitted to the frame" and the twisting might have ruptured a gas cell in the last minutes of the landing approach, Zitarosa said. On the evening of May 6, the Hindenburg had been dodging thunderstorms and the atmosphere was still heavy with static electricity, Zitarosa said. 

When a wet manila rope landing line was dropped to the landing crew, that would have been the electrical grounding to trigger a spark to ignite the hydrogen, Zitarosa said. 

The mystery of the disaster of the Hindenburg may never be solved. What is a fact is that we can look back at the destruction of the great airship as warning against the dangers of hubris inherent in Modernity.

Here’s the famous film of the explosion with parts of Herb Morrison’s eyewitness radio broadcast recorded on the scene of the crash mixed in.

This site has the full 36-minute recorded broadcast by Morrison.

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