LZ 129 Hindenburg was a German zeppelin. Along with its sister-ship LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II, it was the largest aircraft ever built.


During its second year of service, it was destroyed by a fire while landing at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester, New Jersey, USA, on May 6, 1937. Thirty-six people perished in the accident, which was widely reported by film, photographic, and radio media.


The Hindenburg was named after Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), the President of Germany (1925–1934).



The German zeppelin Hindenburg at Lakehurst


The German zeppelin Hindenburg at Lakehurst - Hindenburg was the last passenger aircraft of the world’s first airline. Her chief steward was the first flight attendant in history, and she was the fastest way to cross the Atlantic in her day.

Hindenburg’s passengers could travel from Europe to North and South America in half the time of the fastest ocean liner, and they traveled in luxurious interiors that would never again be matched in the air; they enjoyed meals in an elegant dining room, listened to an aluminum piano in a modern lounge, slept in comfortable cabins, and could even have a cigarette or cigar in the ship’s smoking room.


All that came to an end in 32 seconds because above the elegant passenger quarters were 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen gas.



Design and construction


The Hindenburg was built by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in 1935 to a new, all-duralumin design. It was 245 m (804 ft) long and 41 m (135 ft) in diameter, longer than three Boeing 747s placed end-to-end and only 24 m (78 ft) shorter than the Titanic. It was originally equipped with cabins for 50 passengers and a crew complement of 61.


The Hindenburg was originally intended to be filled with helium, but a United States military embargo on helium led the Germans to modify the design of the ship to use flammable hydrogen as the lift gas. It contained 200,000 m³ (7,000,000 ft³) of gas in 16 bags or cells, with a useful lift of 1.099 MN (247,100 pounds).


Germany had extensive experience with hydrogen as lifting gas. Hydrogen-related fire accidents had never occurred on civil zeppelins, so the switch from helium to hydrogen did not cause much alarm. Hydrogen also gave the craft about 8% more lift capacity.


Four reversible 890 kW (1,200 horsepower) Daimler-Benz diesel engines gave the ship a maximum speed of 135 km/h (84 mph).


The duralumin frame was covered by cotton varnished with iron oxide and cellulose acetate butyrate impregnated with aluminium powder.


The total construction cost of the ship was £500,000 (US$2,500,000). It made its first flight on March 4, 1936. The cost of a ticket from Germany to Lakehurst was US$400 (about US$5900 in 2006 dollars), a tremendous amount of money for the Depression era; however, the Hindenburg's passengers were generally of the affluent classes or leaders of industry.





Passenger accommodations


To reduce drag, the passenger rooms were contained entirely within the hull, rather than in the gondola as on the Graf Zeppelin. The interior furnishings of the Hindenburg were designed by Professor Fritz Breuhaus, whose design experience included Pullman coaches, ocean liners, and warships of the German Navy. The upper A Deck contained small passenger quarters in the middle flanked by large public rooms: a dining room to port and a lounge and writing room to starboard. Paintings on the walls of the dining room portrayed the Graf Zeppelin's trips to South America. A stylized world map covered the wall of the lounge. Long slanted windows ran the length of both decks. The passengers were expected to spend most of their time in the public areas instead of their cramped cabins.


The lower B Deck contained washrooms, a mess hall for the crew, and a smoking lounge. Recalled Harold G. Dick, an American representative from the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation, "The only entrance to the smoking room, which was pressurized to prevent the admission of any leaking hydrogen, was via the bar, which had a swivelling air-lock door, and all departing passengers were scrutinized by the bar steward to make sure they were not carrying out a lighted cigarette or pipe."



First year of service


During its first year of commercial operation in 1936, the Hindenburg flew 308,323 km (192,583 miles) carrying 2,798 passengers and 160 tons of freight and mail. It made 17 round trips across the Atlantic Ocean, with 10 trips to the US and seven to Brazil. In July of that year it also completed a record Atlantic double-crossing in five days, 19 hours and 51 minutes. The German boxer Max Schmeling returned home on the Hindenburg to a hero's welcome in Frankfurt, after defeating Joe Louis.


On August 1 the Hindenburg was present at the opening ceremonies of the eleventh modern day Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Moments before the arrival of Adolf Hitler, the airship crossed over the Olympic stadium, trailing the Olympic flag from its gondola.


During its first year of service, the airship had a special aluminium Blüthner grand piano placed on board in the music salon. It was the first piano ever placed in flight and helped host the first radio broadcasted "air concert." The piano was removed after the first year to save weight.


The Hindenburg's success encouraged the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin Company to plan the expansion of its airship fleet and transatlantic services.


During the winter of 1936–37, several changes were made. The greater lift capacity allowed 10 passenger cabins to be added, nine with two beds and one with four beds, increasing the total passenger capacity to 72.



The Last Flight


Weeks before the last flight, a letter from a Kathie Rauch of Milwaukee predicted that the Hindenburg would be sabotaged and explode. Because of this and similar bomb threats, there were a few Luftwaffe security officers on board, but it is unclear if anything was done by the Zeppelin Company about the bomb threats.


On the night of May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt, Germany for Lakehurst, New Jersey.


The crossing was uneventful, except for strong headwinds. The ship was only half full, with only 36 passengers and 61 crew members, but the return flight was fully booked by people attending the coronation.


On May 6, the ship arrived in America. The ship was already very late, but the landing was further delayed because of bad weather. Captain Max Pruss took passengers on a tour through New York City, and the seasides of Boston and New Jersey.


Finally, at around 7:00 p.m. local time, altitude 650 feet, the Hindenburg approached the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. This landing was different, known as a high landing or flying moor, because the ship was winched down from a higher altitude. This type of landing manuever would save the number of ground crew, but would require more time. At around 7:08 the ship made a full-speed left turn to the west. A few minutes later the ship turns back towards the landing field and valves gas and all engines idle ahead and the ship began to slow. At 7:14, and altutude 394 feet, Captain Pruss ordered aft engine full astern to try to brake the ship. Later, at 7:19, the ship dropped 300, 300, and 500 kg of water ballast to try to correct the slight stern heaviness. Six men (all who were killed, including possible saboteur Eric Spehl) were also sent to the bow to trim the ship. None of these attempts to correct the problem worked, but Pruss was now permitted to land. At 7:21, altitude 295 feet, the mooring lines dropped from the bow. At this point, the cameramen were filming the lines being caught by the ground crew, and missed what was about to happen.


At 7:25, witnesses started reporting a small jet of flame near the vent in front of the upper fin. What happened next, shocked them.



The German zeppelin Hindenburg moments after catching fire


The German zeppelin Hindenburg moments after catching fire





At 7:25 p.m. local time, the Hindenburg caught fire violently, sometimes described as an explosion. The fire started around cell 4, and quickly spread forward. The Hindenburg's back then broke,


Witnesses described it as a "fire of Hell", and said that it smelled like burnt flesh..


Then the ship's back broke, though the ship still remained as one piece and the nose was facing upwards. As the Hindenburg's tail crushed the ground, a burst of flame came out of the nose, killing all of the six crew members in the bow. As the ship kept falling with the bow faced upwards because there was more gas in the nose, part of the port side in front of the front engine and behind the passenger deck crushed in, and a third fire started, erasing the scarlet lettering "hindenburg" (uncapitalized) while the ship's bow lowered. The ship's gondola wheel touched the ground, causing the ship to bounce up once more. At this point, all of the fabric had burned away. At last, the ship went crushing on the ground, bow first.


The incident is widely remembered as one of the most dramatic accidents of modern time. The cause of the accident has never been determined, although many theories, some highly controversial, have been proposed.



The Hindenburg flying over New York city



Historic newsreel coverage


The disaster is well recorded because of an extraordinary amount of newsreel coverage and photographs, as well as Herbert Morrison's recorded, on-the-scene, eyewitness radio report from the landing field. Heavy publicity about the first transatlantic passenger flight of the year by Zeppelin to the US attracted a large number of journalists to the landing. Morrison's recording was not broadcast until the next day. Parts of his report were later dubbed onto the newsreel footage, giving a false impression to many modern viewers, more accustomed to live television reporting, that the words and film were recorded together. Morrison's broadcast remains one of the most famous in history. His plaintive words, "Oh, the humanity!" resonate with the impact of the disaster. Strangely, all the newsreel cameras missed the moment when the Hindenburg just caught fire.


Spectacular movie footage and Morrison's passionate recording of the Hindenburg fire shattered the public's faith in airships and marked the end of the giant, passenger-carrying dirigibles. Also contributing to the Zeppelins's downfall was the arrival of international passenger airplane travel and Pan American Airlines.  Planes regularly crossed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans much faster than the 130 km/h (80 mph) of the Hindenburg. The one advantage that the Hindenburg had over airplanes was the comfort it afforded its passengers, much like that of an ocean liner.


There had been a series of other airship accidents, none of them Zeppelins, prior to the Hindenburg fire. Many were caused by bad weather, and most of these accidents were dirigibles of British and U.S. manufacture. Both nations' technologies in dirigible manufacture were primitive compared to the expertise of the Germans. Zeppelins had an impeccable safety record. The Graf Zeppelin had flown safely for more than 1.6 million km (1 million miles), including the first circumnavigation of the globe. The Zeppelin company was very proud of the fact that no passenger had been injured on one of their airships.



Death toll


Despite the violent fire, most of the crew and passengers survived. Of the 36 passengers and 61 crew, 13 passengers and 22 crew died. Also killed was one member of the ground crew, Navy Linesman Allen Hagaman. Most deaths did not arise from the fire but were suffered by those who leapt from the burning ship. (The lighter-than-air fire burned overhead.) Those passengers who rode the ship on its descent to the ground survived. Some deaths of crew members occurred because they wanted to save more people on board the ship. In comparison, almost twice as many perished when the helium-filled USS Akron crashed.



Controversies over cause of the accident


Among the many theories explaining the Hindenburg disaster, two are most prominent:


  • The traditional theory that the hydrogen which gave the aircraft its buoyancy ignited.

  • The Addison Bain incendiary paint theory that flammable dope used on the aircraft's exterior started the fire. This theory was the subject of the television program MythBusters.


Theories seek to explain how the fire started, which material (gas or fabric) started to burn first, and which material caused the rapid spread of fire, which traveled the length of the aircraft at a rate of approximately 47 feet per second.




Wreckage of the Hindenburg in 1937



Cause of ignition


Sabotage theory


At the time of the disaster, sabotage was commonly put forward as the cause of the fire, in particular by Hugo Eckener, former head of the Zeppelin company and the "old man" of German airships. (Eckener later publicly endorsed the static spark theory, and see below.)


Another proponent of the sabotage hypothesis was Max Pruss, commander of the Hindenburg throughout the airship's career. Pruss flew on nearly every flight of the Graf Zeppelin until the Hindenburg was ready. In a 1960 interview conducted by Kenneth Leish for Columbia University's Oral History Research Office, Pruss said early dirigible travel was safe, and therefore he strongly believed that sabotage was to blame. He stated that on trips to South America, which was a popular destination for German tourists, both airships passed through thunderstorms, were struck by lightning, yet were unharmed.


Among sabotage theories are some that blame Zionist agents motivated by the Nazis' anti-Semitism. The Zeppelin airships were widely seen as symbols of German and Nazi power. Critics note, however, that the Zeppelin company was openly anti-Nazi. Hitler had wanted the airship named after him, but to prevent this, the company quickly named it after Paul von Hindenburg, the late German war hero, president, and non-Nazi.


In 1962, A. Hoehling published Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?, a book that rejects all theories but sabotage. It even names the likely saboteur -- Eric Spehl, a rigger on the Hindenburg who died in the fire. Ten years later, Michael MacDonald Mooney's book, The Hindenburg, also identified Spehl as the saboteur.


Those putting Spehl forward as a saboteur cite:


--His girlfriend's anti-Nazi connections; she reportedly was a communist and therefore opposed to the Nazis.


--The fire's origin near Gas Cell 4, Spehl's duty station.


--Rumors that in 1938 the Gestapo was investigating Spehl's involvement.


--Spehl's interest in amateur photography, making him familiar with flashbulbs that could have served as an igniter. A dry-cell battery that might have powered a flashbulb was found in the wreckage. Crew members near the lower fin had seen what they described as a flash or a bright reflection.


During the landing maneuver rigger Hans Freund dropped a landing line in front of the lower fin which was caught in the bracing wires of the ship, and No. 2 helmsman Helmut Lau climbed up from the lower fin to release it. When both men looked up toward the front of the ship, they were surprised by what they saw.


Freund described a flash like a flashbulb's, and Lau said he saw a brilliant reflection between cells 4 and 5, where some believe the fire began. They then heard a muffled detonation and a thud as the Hindenburg's back broke. Some believe that this is evidence that the airship was sabotaged. Others believe Freund was actually looking rearward away from cells 4 and 5.


Another suspect was a passenger, a German acrobat named Joseph Spah, who survived the fire. He brought with him a dog, a German shepherd named Ulla, as a surprise for his children. (Ulla did not survive.) He often visited the dog to feed, talk, and play with it. Some, noting that Spah told many anti-Nazi jokes, accuse him of planting a bomb when he was with his dog.


It has even been suggested that Adolf Hitler himself had ordered the Hindenburg to be destroyed in retaliation for Eckener's anti-Nazi opinions.


However, opponents of the sabotage hypothesis argued that only speculation supported sabotage as a cause of the fire, and no credible evidence of sabotage was produced at any of the formal hearings. The sabotage theory was fostered by the children of Max Pruss merely to exonerate their father, opponents assert.


They argue that Spehl is a convenient scapegoat, because he died in the fire and was unable to refute the accusations. The FBI investigated Spah and reported finding no significant evidence of sabotage.


Opponents point to the fact that neither the German nor the American investigation endorsed any of the sabotage theories. Proponents of the sabotage theory argue that any finding of sabotage would have been an embarrassment for the Nazi regime, and they speculate that such a finding was suppressed for political reasons. Opponents reply that no such political pressure would have been applied to the American inquiry, which also concluded against sabotage. They argue that the postwar memoirs of Eckener and Hans von Schiller contain no support for the notion of "suppressed investigation findings." Given the timing of the memoirs - after the war when the Nazis had fallen - there would be little incentive for these two airship men to perpetuate any cover-up. This is particularly true of Eckener, who had been extremely vocal in his opposition to the Nazis during their rise to power.




The theory that hydrogen was ignited by a static spark is the most widely accepted theory as determined by the official crash investigations. Offering support for the hypothesis that there was some sort of hydrogen leak prior to the fire is that the airship remained stern-heavy before landing, despite efforts to put the airship back in trim. This could have been caused by a leak of the gas, which started mixing with air, potentially creating a form of oxyhydrogen and filling up the space between the skin and the cells.



Static spark theory


Another theory posits that the fire was started by a spark caused by a buildup of static electricity on airship.


Proponents of the static spark theory point out that the airship's skin was not constructed in a way that allowed its charge to be evenly distributed throughout the craft. The skin was separated from the duralumin frame by nonconductive ramie cords, in effect electrically insulating the skin from the frame and allowing a potential difference to form between them.


In order to make up for a delay of more than 12 hours in its transatlantic flight, the Hindenburg passed through a weather front of high humidity and high electrical charge. This made the airship's mooring lines wet and thus conductive and may have given its skin an electrical charge. When the wet mooring lines, which were connected to the frame, touched the ground, they would have grounded the frame but not the skin. That could have caused a sudden potential difference between skin and frame and set off an electrical discharge - a spark.


Some witnesses reported seeing a glow consistent with St. Elmo's fire along the tail portion of the ship just before the flames broke out, but these reports were made after the official inquiries were completed.


The Hindenburg had a cotton skin covered with a finish known as "dope". It is a common term for a plasticised lacquer that provides stiffness, protection, and a lightweight, airtight seal to woven fabrics. In its liquid forms, dope is highly flammable. When the mooring line touched the ground, a resulting spark could have ignited the dope in the skin.


Harold G. Dick was Goodyear Zeppelin's representative with Luftshiffbau Zeppelin during the mid-1930s. He flew on test fights of the Hindenburg and its sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin II. He also flew on numerous flights in the original Graf Zeppelin and ten round-trip crossings of the north and south Atlantic in the Hindenburg. On page 149 of his book, The Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships Graf Zeppelin & Hindenburg, he observes:


There are two items not in common knowledge. When the outer cover of the LZ 130 [the Graf Zeppelin II] was to be applied, the lacing cord was prestreched and run through dope as before, but the dope for the LZ 130 contained graphite to make it conductive. This would hardly have been necessary if the static discharge theory were mere cover up. The use of graphite dope was not publicized and I doubt if its use was widely known at the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin.


In addition to Dick's observations is the fact that during the Graf Zeppelin II's early test flights, measurements were taken of the airship's static charge. It is clear that Dr. Ludwig Durr and the other engineers at Luftshiffbau Zeppelin took the static discharge theory seriously and considered the insulation of the fabric from the frame to be a design flaw in the Hindenburg.


A variant of the static spark theory, presented by Addison Bain, is that a spark between segments of the Hindenburg itself started the fire.



Lightning theory


A. J. Dessler, former director of the Space Science Laboratory at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and a critic of the incendiary paint theory (see below), favors a much simpler explanation for the conflagration: natural lightning. Like many other aircraft, the Hindenburg had been struck by lightning several times. This does not normally ignite a fire in hydrogen-filled airships, because the hydrogen is not mixed with oxygen. However, many fires have been started by lightning striking while airships were venting hydrogen in preparation for landing, as the Hindenburg was doing at the time of the disaster. The vented hydrogen is mixed with air, making it readily combustible. Dessler cites an airship rule from the time: "Never blow off gas during a thunderstorm."




Almost 80 years of research and scientific tests support the same conclusion reached by the original German and American accident investigations in 1937: It seems clear that the Hindenburg disaster was caused by an electrostatic discharge (a spark) that ignited leaking hydrogen.



Fire's initial fuel


Most current analysis of the fire assumes that ignition due to some form of electricity was the cause. However, there is still controversy over whether the fabric covering of the ship or the hydrogen used for buoyancy was the initial fuel for the fire.



The incendiary paint theory


The incendiary paint theory (IPT) asserts that the major component in the fire was the skin because of the doping compound used on it.


Proponents point out that the coatings on the fabric contained both iron oxide and aluminum-impregnated cellulose acetate butyrate (CAB). These components are potentially reactive. In fact, iron oxide and aluminum are sometimes used as components of solid rocket fuel or thermite. The propellant for the Space Shuttle solid rocket booster includes "aluminum (fuel, 16%), (and) iron oxide (a catalyst, 0.4%)"


Addison Bain received permission from the German government to search its archives and discovered that during the Nazi regime, German scientists concluded that the dope on the Hindenburg's fabric skin was the cause of the conflagration. Bain interviewed the wife of the investigation's lead scientist, and she confirmed that her husband had told her about the conclusion and instructed her to tell no one, presumably because it would likely have embarrassed the Nazi government.



The hydrogen theory


Those who believe hydrogen was the initial fuel discount arguments for the incendiary paint theory as not credible. They point out that cellulose acetate butyrate (CAB) varnish is rated within the plastics industry as combustible but nonflammable. That is, it will burn when placed in a fire but is not readily ignited by itself. In fact, it is considered to be self-extinguishing. That so many pieces of the Hindenburg's skin remained despite such a fierce fire is cited as proof. In his experiment, Addison Bain had to use a high-energy ignition source and orient the fabric carefully to make it burn.


While aluminum and iron oxide components of the fabric doping compounds are potentially reactive, they were in incorrect proportions, were applied on only part of the airship, and were separated by a layer of CAB that would have prevented their mingling and reacting.


Critics point out that witnesses on the field, as well as crew members stationed in the stern, saw a glow inside Cell 4 before any fire broke out of the skin, indicating that the fire began inside the ship. Newsreel footage supports this. Photographs of the early stages of the fire show the gas cells of the Hindenburg's entire aft section fully aflame. Burning gas spewing upward from the top of the ship was causing low pressure inside, allowing atmospheric pressure to press the skin inwards. If the gas was not burning but the envelope was, this would not have happened.


Proponents' argument that the airship's nose remained airborne for a while because the hydrogen cells were intact overlooks the effects of buoyancy forces and the inertia of the ship's considerable mass, critics argue. They point to pictures which show the fire burning along straight lines that coincide with the boundaries of gas cells. This suggests that the fire was not burning along the skin, which was continuous. Crew members stationed in the stern reported actually seeing the cells burning.


Some proponents of the incendiary paint theory claim that the hydrogen was odorised with garlic, yet nobody reported smelling the odor of garlic. That no one detected a garlic smell does not prove the absence of a hydrogen leak, opponents argue. Odorised hydrogen would have been detected only in the area of a leak. The fire started near the top of the airship far from any crew or passengers. Once the fire was underway, more powerful smells would have masked any garlic odor. Opponents also argue there is no documentation that the hydrogen was odorised.



Hindenburg fire and crash footage Pathe Newsreel 1937







The Discovery Channel series MythBusters explored the incendiary paint and hydrogen theories in an episode that aired January 10, 2007 Using a 1:50 scale model, the show's hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, demonstrated that while a thermite reaction was possible with the Hindenburg's skin and was a significant factor in the fire, hydrogen was the main fuel. The model burned twice as quickly when it was filled with hydrogen instead of inert gases and produced a fire which visually matched the newsreel footage quite well.


The program concluded that both the hydrogen and the paint contributed to the disaster.



Rate of flame propagation


Regardless of the source of ignition or the initial fuel for the fire, there remains the question of what caused the rapid spread of flames along the length of the ship. Here again the debate has centered on the fabric covering of the ship and the hydrogen used for buoyancy.


The proponents of the incendiary paint theory also contend that the fabric coatings were responsible for the rapid spread of the fire. They point out that the combustion of hydrogen is not visible, because it burns in the ultraviolet range. Thus what can be seen burning in the photographs cannot be hydrogen. The motion picture films show the fire spreading downward along the skin of the airship.


The proponents of the hydrogen theory point out that once the fire started, all of the components of the ship (fabric, gas, metal, etc.) burned. Thus the presence of color in the flames does not prove that hydrogen was not burning. And while fires generally tend to burn upward, including hydrogen fires, the enormous radiant heat from the blaze would have quickly spread fire over the entire surface of the ship, thus explaining the downward propagation of the flames. Some also think that what looked like downward burning was in fact burning pieces of fabric, metal and other materials. They observe that World War I airships filled with hydrogen but constructed of completely different materials also burned visibly, suggesting that the glow is produced mechanically like a gas lantern.


Those skeptical of the incendiary paint theory cite recent technical papers which claim that even if the ship had been coated with actual rocket fuel, it would have taken many hours to burn — not the 32 to 37 seconds that it actually took. Proponents claim that this criticism does not take into account the conditions that lead to firestorms, such as convection and ignition from radiant energy.


Modern experiments that recreated the fabric and coating materials of the Hindenburg seem to discredit the incendiary fabric theory.


 They conclude that it would have taken about 40 hours for the Hindenburg to burn if the fire had been driven by combustible fabric. Two additional scientific papers also strongly reject the fabric theory.




END OF AN ERA - The public seemed remarkably forgiving of the accident-prone zeppelin prior to the Hindenburg disaster, and the glamorous and speedy Hindenburg was greeted with public enthusiasm despite a long list of previous airship accidents.

But while airships like USS Akron (on which 73 died) crashed at sea, and the British R-101 (on which 48 were killed) crashed in the darkness of night — both far from witnesses or cameras — the crash of the Hindenburg was captured on film. Millions of people around the world saw the dramatic inferno which consumed the ship and its passengers.

At least, that’s the conventional wisdom about why the age of the zeppelin died that rainy day at Lakehurst.

But perhaps after 35 years of accidents and disasters — the crashes of LZ-4, LZ-5, Deutschland, Deutschland II, Schwaben, R-38, R-101, Shenandoah, Akron, Macon, and the list goes on — perhaps the public had just had enough.



Other controversial hypotheses


Structural Failure


Although Captain Pruss believed that the Hindenburg could withstand tight turns without significant damage, others believe that the ship would have been weakened by being repeatedly stressed. Even a 33-foot, full-scale replica of the Hindenburg's passenger quarters, displayed in the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, has developed some metal fatigue.


The ship did not receive much routine inspection, even though there was evidence of damage on previous flights. The Hindenburg once lost an engine and almost drifted over Africa, where it could have crashed. Dr. Eckener was furious and ordered all section chiefs to inspect the ship during flight.


In March 1936, the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg made three-day flights to drop leaflets and broadcast speeches via loudspeaker. On one day during this tour, Captain Ernst Lehmann flew the Hindenburg at full power in very gusty conditions to impress spectators. The ship's tail struck the ground, and part of the lower fin was broken.


Many spectators' cameras were confiscated to prevent negative publicity, but Harold G. Dick concealed his camera and took pictures of the damaged fin. Dr. Eckener was very upset and rebuked Captain Lehmann:


How could you, Herr Lehmann, order the ship to be brought out in such wind conditions. You had the best excuse in the world for postponing this idiotic flight; instead, you risk the ship, merely to avoid annoying Herr Goebbels. Do you call this showing a sense of responsibility towards our enterprise?


The Hindenburg can also be seen in photographs and newsreels of the disaster cracking or bending, leading some to believe that the ship's structure was weak.


This theory of the cause of the fire has not been very popular, because it requires the puncture theory (see below).




DURALUMIN - One section of spar from the fated Hindenburg zeppelin.



Puncture theory


Newsreels show the Hindenburg making a sharp turn just before bursting into flames. Some speculate that one of the many bracing wires within the airship snapped and punctured at least one of the internal gas cells. Gauges found in the wreckage showed the tension of the wires was much too high. Some of the wires may have been substandard. One bracing wire tested after the crash broke at only 70% of its rated load. A punctured cell would have freed hydrogen into the air and could have been ignited by a static discharge.


Some witnesses reported seeing a piece of the airship's fabric flapping, perhaps providing an opening for a spark to reach escaping hydrogen inside the airship. These witnesses said that the fire began there. Persons on board the ship also reported hearing a muffled sound, and a ground crew member on the starboard side reported hearing a crack. Some speculate the sound was from a bracing wire snapping.


Dr. Eckener may have been among those who subscribed to the puncture theory. He blamed Captain Max Pruss for rushing and mishandling the landing maneuver. Privately at least, he believed Pruss was to blame for the disaster.


Advocates of this theory believe that the hydrogen began to leak approximately eight minutes before the fire, building up until a spark ignited the gas. This theory, however, remains speculation, because no concrete evidence has shown that the gas cells were punctured.



Fuel leak


The 2001 documentary Hindenburg Disaster: Probable Cause suggested that a 16-year-old boy, who said he had smelled "gasoline" when he was standing below the Hindenburg's aft port engine, had detected a diesel fuel leak. The resulting vapor would have been highly flammable and could have ignited the ship. The film also suggested that overheating engines may have played a role.


During the investigation, Commander Charles Rosendahl dismissed the boy's report.


Critics say the documentary is misleading, because it misconstrued the statements by the crewmen in the Hindenburg's lower fin. The crewmen said they saw a flash in the axial catwalk, but the film placed the flash in the keel catwalk closer to the passenger areas.





COMEBACK - Hydrogen could make a comeback despite the flammability of the fuel, if other ways of providing sustainable transport are not developed. The lessons we learned from airship fires seem to have been lost. That said, and despite the inefficiencies of the hydrogen energy chain, hydrogen could play a part in a circular economy, provided it is safe and there are no explosions.




Hydrogen Fuel Cells and Economy


Despite the dangers of hydrogen when stored as a compressed gas or in liquid form, the recent climate change emergency had triggered a number of projects to split water using electrolysis and renewables energy supplies from solar and wind farms, liquefy the gas and transport and then store the fuel for cars, buses and ships.



Luger pistol among wreckage


Some more sensational newspapers at the time said that a person on board committed suicide because a Luger pistol with one shell fired was found among the wreckage. Another possibility would be that the Hindenburg was shot with the pistol. Most historians discount this story as having only circumstantial and incidental evidence.



List of Officers and Crew

In addition to its 36 passengers, Hindenburg carried 61 other persons on its last flight; the regular crew of 40, plus 21 additional individuals who were aboard as observers or in training for upcoming assignment to Hindenburg’s sister ship, LZ-130, which was nearing completion.

Captain Max Pruss was in command, with three other qualified captains as watch officers; Captain Albert Sammt (who would later command LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin), Captain Heinrich Bauer, and Captain Walter Ziegler.


Two other airship captains were also on board as observers; Captain Ernst Lehmann, who had commanded Hindenburg on many flights and was director of the DZR, and Captain Anton Wittemann, who was the regular captain of LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin. (Wittemann would have been in command of Graf Zeppelin at the time of the Hindenburg disaster, but he had switched positions with Captain Hans von Schiller, who took Graf Zeppelin on a roundtrip to South America so he could attend a reunion in Germany.)


In all, there were six qualified zeppelin captains in the control car when Hindenburg crashed at Lakehurst.

The following list of officers and crew appeared as part of the Accident Investigation report published by the the United States Department of Commerce in the Air Commerce Bulletin of August 15, 1937 (vol. 9, no. 2):



Captain Max Pruss, Commanding
Captain Albert Sammt (watch officer)
Captain Heinrich Bauer (watch officer)
[Captain] Walter Ziegler, Watch Officer
Captain Ernst Lehmann (observer)*
Captain Anton Wittemann (observer)


Max Zabel, Navigator
Christian Nielsen, Navigator
Franz Herzog, Navigator
Kurt Bauer, Navigator


Willy Speck, Chief Radio Officer*
Herbert Dowe, Radio Officer
Franz Eichelmann, Radio Officer*
Egon Schweikart, Radio Officer


Rudolf Sauter, Chief Engineer
Eugen Schäubel, Engineering Officer
Wilhelm Dimmler, Engineering Officer*


Ludwig Felber*
Ernst Huchel*
Eduard Boetius


Alfred Bernhard*
Helmut Lau
Kurt Schönherr


Philip Lenz, Chief Electrician
Joseph Leibrecht
Ernst Schlapp*


Walter Bahnholzer*
Eugen Bentele
August Deutschle
Rudy Bialas*
Jonny Doerflein
Adolf Fischer
Albert Holderried*
Richard Kollmer
Robert Moser*
Alois Reisacher*
Theodor Ritter
Raphael Schädler
Willy Scheef*
Josef Schreibmuller*
Wilhelm Steeb
Alfred Stöckle*
German Zettel


Ludwig Knorr, Chief Rigger*
Hans Freund
Erich Spehl*


Heinrich Kubis, Chief Steward
Wilhelm Balla
Fritz Deeg
Max Henneberg
Severin Klein
Eugen Nunnenmacher
Max Schulze*
Emilie Imhoff (Stewardess)*


Dr. Kurt Rudiger


Xaver Maier, Chief Cook
Richard Muller*
Albert Stöffler
Alfred Grözinger
Fritz Flackus*
Werner Franz (mess boy)

* Indicates those who died as a result of the crash



Cultural references



  • The 1938 radio drama version of "War of the Worlds" uses the reporting of the Hindenburg disaster as inspiration for their style of reporting the Martian invasion.

  • English rock group Led Zeppelin's eponymous first album has a picture of the Hindenburg disaster on the front cover. The band's name is a reference to Keith Moon's quotation that the band would "go over like a lead balloon." The album cover is in fact an illustration of the famous UPI photograph, drawn with a Rapidograph pen and ink by graphic artist George Hardie.

  • Folk/blues musician Huddie Ledbetter (AKA Leadbelly) wrote a two-part song about the Hindenburg crash, called "The Hindenburg Disaster".

  • Captain Beefheart's 1969 album Trout Mask Replica uses the Hindenburg reporting footage as inspiration for the track "The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)" on side 4 of the double album.



  • In the Simpsons episode Lisa the Beauty Queen, Barney is in control of the Duff Blimp (a parody of the Hindenburg) and makes a severe turn. The blimp explodes and Kent Brockman echoes Morrison's words: "Oh, the humanity!", before returning to reporting on the opening of the Danish superchain, Shøp, in Springfield.

  • In the WKRP episode Turkeys Away live turkeys are thrown out of a helicopter in a Thanksgiving Day promotion. The turkeys are unable to fly and crash to the ground. Les Nessman, with tears in his eyes, exclaims "Oh, the humility" in his confused emulation of the Hindenburg radio broadcast.

  • On the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, the characters frequently quote Morrison's words: "Oh the Humanity!" (or a similar phrase) whenever something explodes.

  • In the Family Guy episode, The Cleveland-Loretta Quagmire, Peter refers to numerous aviation inventions including the "Hindenpeter," a play on the Hindenburg. The scene featuring the "Hindenpeter" ends in a similar fashion, with it landing on his neighbor Joe's house, and exploding.

  • The Hindenburg (1975 Movie)



The following is a partial list of airship accidents involving fires, crashes and deaths.






2 May 1902

Semi-rigid airship Pax explodes over Paris, killing Augusto Severo and Georges Saché.

5 August 1908

Zeppelin LZ 4 caught fire near Echterdingen after it broke loose from mooring and was blown into some trees.

13 July 1910

Airship Erbslöh explodes over Rhenish Prussia killing all five.

4 May 1911

British Army's Morning Post is blown off course during descent. It crashed into trees and houses before bursting and seriously burning one French mechanic.

2 July 1912

Privately owned Goodyear-built airship Akron explodes on transatlantic attempt off Atlantic City killing all five, including inventor Melvin Vaniman.

17 October 1913

Imperial German Navy L 2 (Zeppelin LZ 18) caught fire and was destroyed during a test flight. All 28 killed.

3 September 1915

Imperial German Navy L 10 (Zeppelin LZ 40) destroyed by fire on 3 September 1915 after being struck by lightning near Cuxhaven, killing 19 crew members.

10 November 1915

Imperial German Navy D.1 (Schütte-Lanz type SL6) explodes after take-off over Seddin, killing all 20.

17 November 1915

Imperial German Navy L 18 (Zeppelin LZ 52) destroyed in shed fire at Tondern.

12 May 1916

French airship CM-T-1 destroyed by fire near Porto Torres, Sardinia while en route to Fréjus/St Raphaël, France.

16 September 1916

Imperial German Navy L 6 (Zeppelin LZ 31) caught fire during inflation in hangar at Fuhlsbuttel and destroyed along with L 9 (Zeppelin LZ 36).

20 October 1917

Imperial German Army L 45 (Zeppelin LZ 85) performed a forced landing near Sisteron, France due to fuel exhaustion; all 17 crew were taken captive after the commander set the airship on fire.



5 January 1918

Ahlhorn hangars explode destroying the LZ 87 (L 47), LZ 94 (L 46), LZ 97 (L 51), LZ 105 (L 58), and SL20. Fifteen killed, 134 injured.

7 April 1918

Imperial German Navy L 59 (Zeppelin LZ 104) explodes over Malta for reasons unknown, killing all 21 crew.

2 July 1919

US Navy blimp C-8 explodes while landing at Camp Holabird, Maryland, injuring ~80 adults and children who were watching it. Windows in homes a mile away are shattered by the blast.

15 July 1919

Royal Navy North Sea class airship N.S.11 burns over the North Sea off Norfolk, England, killing twelve. In the early hours of 15 July on what was officially supposed to be a mine-hunting patrol, she was seen to fly beneath a long "greasy black cloud" off Cley next the Sea on the Norfolk coast and a massive explosion was heard shortly after. A vivid glare lasted for a few minutes as the burning airship descended, and finally plunged into the sea after a second explosion. There were no survivors, and the findings of the official Court of Enquiry were inconclusive, but amongst other possibilities it was thought that a lightning strike may have caused the explosion.

21 July 1919

American airship Wingfoot Air Express caught fire over downtown Chicago, 2 passengers, one crewmember and 10 people on the ground killed, 2 parachuted to safety.

19 June 1920

US Navy Goodyear airship D-1, A4450, is destroyed by fire at the Goodyear Wingfoot Lake Airship Base, Suffield Township, Portage County, Ohio.

7 July 1921

US Navy airship C-3 burned at Naval Air Station Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Virginia

23 August 1921

British R38. Built for US Navy and already carrying "ZR-2" markings, broke in half and burned after suffering structural failure during high-speed trials over Hull. 44 killed, 5 survivors.

31 August 1921

US Navy airship D-6, A5972, burned in hangar fire at NAS Rockaway along with airships C-10 and H-1 and kite balloon A-P.

21 February 1922

US Army airship Roma (ex-Italian T34). Hit power lines in Virginia and caught fire. 34 killed, 11 survivors.

17 October 1922

U.S. Army's largest blimp, C-2 (A4419), catches fire shortly after being removed from its hangar at Brooks Field, San Antonio, Texas for a flight. Seven of eight crew aboard are injured, mostly in jumping from the craft. This accident was made the occasion for official announcement by the Army and the Navy that the use of hydrogen would be abandoned "as speedily as possible." On 14 September 1922, the C-2 had made the first transcontinental airship flight, from Langley Field, Virginia, to Foss Field, California, under the command of Maj. H. A. Strauss.

21 December 1923

French Navy's Dixmude (ex Zeppelin LZ114). Struck by lightning over Mediterranean near Sicily and explodes in mid-air. All 50 aboard killed.

10 October 1924

US Army blimp TC-2 explodes over Newport News when a bomb it was carrying detonates. Two of the crew of five were killed.

16 August 1934

Soviet SSSR-V7 Chelyushinets burned in its hangar at Dolgoprudny along with SSSR-V4 Komsomolskaya Pravda and SSSR-V5; the fire was caused by a lightning strike.

24 October 1935

Soviet SSSR-V7 bis hit a powerline near the Finnish border causing a fire, one crew member died while the rest managed to escape.

6 May 1937

German LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey. 35 dead, 1 on ground killed, 62 survivors.

6 August 1938

Soviet SSSR-V10 crashed near Beskudnikovo killing all seven crew.

21 April 1944

The southeast door of blimp hangar at NAS Houma, Louisiana, was chained open due to a fault. A gust of wind carried three K-class blimps, all of ZP-22, out into the night. K-56 traveled 4.5 miles before crashing into trees. K-57, caught fire 4 miles from the air station. K-62, fetched up against high-tension powerlines a quarter mile away and burned. K-56 was salvaged, repaired at Goodyear at Akron, Ohio, repaired and returned to service.

3 May 1945

A Navy blimp's fuel tanks explodes over Santa Ana, California killing eight of nine.

14 June 2011

A Goodyear Blimp operated by The Lightship Group in Reichelsheim (Wetterau), Germany caught fire and crashed, resulting in the death of Michael Nerandzic, an experienced pilot whose last-minute actions saved the lives of his three passengers.






Botting, Douglas (2001). Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine. Henry Holt, 249-251. ISBN 0805064583. 


Lehmann, Ernst (1937). Zeppelin: The Story of Lighter-than-air Craft. Longmans, Green and Co., 319. ISBN. 

Dick, Harold (1985). The Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. Smithsonian Institution Press, 96. ISBN 1560982195. 

Dick, Harold (1985). The Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. Smithsonian Institution Press, 97. ISBN 1560982195. 

Berg, Emmett (July/August 2004). Fight of the Century. Humanities vol 25 no 4.

Birchall, 1936

A history of the Blüthner Piano Company

National Geographic, Hindenburg's Fiery Secret.

Source for the cause of death is secondary. Found on page 35 of Hawken, P, Lovins, A & Lovins H, 1999, "Natural Capitalism", Little Brown & Company, New York. Their footnote references Bain, A, 1997, "The Hindenberg Disaster: A Compelling Theory of Probable Cause and Effect", Procs. Natl. Hydr. Assn. 8th Ann. Hydrogen Mtg. (Alexandria, VA) March 11-13 pp. 125-128.

this however is not true,the hydrogen fire would have just exploded into the air the real culprit was the paint,wich had many of the same ingredients as rocket fuel. spot.colorado.edu/~dziadeck/zf/LZ129fire.pdf


Archibold, Rick, Hindenburg: An Illustrated History, ISBN 0-7858-1973-8

Moondance Films, Hindenburg Disaster: Probable Cause (2001), also known as Revealed...The Hindenburg Mystery (2002).

What Happened to the Hindenburg?, PBS


Hindenburg fire theories

Citizen Scientist on the flammable coating (IPT)

Hindenburg fire theories

Birchall, Frederick (August 1, 1936). "100,000 Hail Hitler; U.S. Athletes Avoid Nazi Salute to Him". The New York Times, p. 1.

Duggan, John (2002). LZ 129 "Hindenburg" — The Complete Story. Ickenham, UK: Zeppelin Study Group. ISBN 0-9514114-8-9.

Harold G. Dick & Douglas H. Robinson "The Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships Graf Zeppelin & Hindenburg." Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.*/+

Page at Great Zeppelins website, with various pictures

Footage from Castle and Pathé coverage of the Hindenburg disaster

Hindenburg & Hydrogen

An Article Supporting the Flammable Fabric Theory

Two Articles Rejecting the Flammable Fabric Theory

Experiments Reject the Flammable Fabric Theory

FBI investigation into the Hindenburg disaster

Harold G. Dick was an American engineer who flew on most Hindenburg flights.

Hindenburg Fire Video at Internet Archive

"The Hindenburg" - Failure Magazine (January 2002)

YouTube video of Herb Morrison's famous newsreel

Zeppelin Company -- the company is still in the airship business today

An article about the disaster that features rare photos of the disaster.

"Bird's Eye View" of crash site marker

What Happened to the Hindenburg? Transcript - Secrets of the Dead (June 15, 2001, PBS)













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