The Hindenburg Disaster of 1937 Part 1

About the Hindenberg disaster of 1937 when the German zeppelin or blimp exploded, the history of the disaster and possible causes.

THE Hindenburg

Other than the storms that delayed its arrival by more than 10 hours, the flight of the zeppelin Hindenburg, from Frankfurt, Germany, to Lakehurst, N.J., was an uneventful routine flight. Over the years more than 32,000 passengers had flown over 100,000 mi. in German zeppelins without a single accident. Then in the spring of 1937, on its arrival at Lakehurst, the big silver ship once again dropped its mooring lines to the ground. Navy and civilian workers grabbed them to guide the Hindenburg to its mooring mast.

As newsmen clicked their camera shutters and radio commentators recorded the arrival for a later broadcast, there was a puff of smoke at the zeppelin's stern, then a bigger one. The great Hindenburg was afire. Shortly thereafter, there was an explosion of hydrogen gas. In 34 seconds the graceful giant of the skies was a flaming funeral pyre.

When: At 7:25 P.M. on May 6, 1937.

Where: The Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, N.J.

The Loss: Fifteen passengers, 20 crewmen, and one line-handler were killed. The Hindenburg, last of the great zeppelins, had cost upward of $5 million.

The Cause: The real cause of the disaster may never be known, since in subsequent inquiries neither the German nor U.S. Governments were willing to consider sabotage for fear of creating an international incident. The official cause was listed as "St. Elmo's fire," though there is no other recorded case wherein St. Elmo's fire caused an explosion. Before leaving the Fatherland, both Germany's Gestapo and the S.S. had reason to believe that a bomb would be aboard the Hindenburg. A careful search of passengers and ship revealed no bomb, but as a precautionary measure, the 1st officer of the Luftwaffe, Col. Fritz Erdmann, plus Maj. Franz Hugo and Lieut. Klaus Hinkelbein were put aboard as passengers.

The Hindenburg, largest zeppelin in the world, more than 800' long, had 16 gas bags containing a total of 7,200,000 cu. ft. of explosive hydrogen gas. Its 4 V-16 diesel engines with 20' 4-bladed props developed 5,000 hp and drove the ship silently and vibrationless at a speed of 80 knots. There were sleeping compartments with baths for 50 passengers and a crew of 30, plus 1st-class dining rooms. Catwalks traversed the ship within its framework of 16 10-story-high rings and 36 longitudinal girders. Twenty-five fuel tanks carried 137,500 lbs. of fuel to give the Hindenburg a 10,000-mi. cruising range. Commissioned in March, 1936, the Z-129 had made 10 round trips between Germany and the U.S. The airship designed to use nonexplosive helium was filled with hydrogen gas. The only source for helium was the U.S. and the cost for more than 7 million cu. ft. would have run about $600,000. The expense was unnecessary according to the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei Company, operators of the Graf Zeppelin passenger lines. Hydrogen was perfectly safe when handled by experts, and who were more expert than the Germans?

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