On This Day, 1937: The Hindenburg Disaster

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“Oh the humanity,” cried journalist Herb Morrison as the Hindenburg crashed to earth in a ball of fire and fury.

As the largest airship ever built, the Hindenburg was a symbol of mankind’s quest to conquer the skies and of Nazi Germany’s ongoing rise in power.

However, on the 6th of May, 1937, disaster struck the airship as it came into land in New Jersey, USA.

The newsreel footage and commentary from the time are iconic and distressing in equal measure. But what caused the disaster and dozens of deaths?

The peak of innovation

Airships were, by no means, a newcomer in the world of aviation.

In 1852, Henri Giffard developed and constructed the first ‘airship’ of its kind. More than half a century later, airships were being deployed as weapons of war.

During the First World War, Germany had caused havoc above the skies of Britain using rigid-hulled airships known as ‘zeppelins’, which were named after the inventor Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

In the late 1920s, one of the most famous airships ever built, the Graf Zeppelin, travelled around the world. This particular zeppelin was a trailblazer of sorts, offering the first commercial transatlantic passenger flight service.

Graf Zeppelin may have blazed the trail in transatlantic airship flights. However, with the Hindenburg, the intention was to perfect it at a mass scale.

Although the Hindenburg was a larger passenger airship with greater capabilities, it still possessed the same potentially fatal flaw as others of its time; hydrogen gas.

Hydrogen was used to lift the airship, and while this was efficient, the highly flammable nature of hydrogen posed questions over safety.

The Hindenburg
The Hindenburg pictured over Manhattan shortly before the disaster.

Disaster strikes

On the 3rd May 1937, three days before the disaster, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt to embark on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. This voyage was meant to mark the first of 10 between Europe and the United States and followed a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro just two months prior.

After making its way across the ocean, the airship was set to land at Lakehurst Naval Airbase, New Jersey, carrying 36 passengers and 61 crew. While attempting to moor at the airbase, however, the Hindenburg erupted into a ball of flames and cascaded some 200 feet to the ground.

In total, 35 people died in the disaster; 13 passengers, 21 crew members and one civilian ground crew member. Many survivors of the crash were left irrevocably scarred by burns and other various injuries.

Present at the airbase that day, Herb Morrison saw the disaster unfold before his eyes. Morrison had arrived there with the intention of doing a quick and easy voice-over for NBC.

His commentary as disaster struck has seared the footage of that flaming wreck into the minds of millions over the years. You can listen to Herb Morrison’s commentary of the Hindenburg disaster today on YouTube.

What happened that day?

The exact cause of the disaster has prompted debate over the years. However, the commonly accepted cause was that a static spark ignited the highly flammable hydrogen gas used by the airship.

Investigations following the disaster found that poor weather conditions at the time of the crash, combined with a hydrogen leak. were to blame.

Speaking to LiveScience in 2017, airship historian Dan Grossman said: “The Hindenburg disaster has a bit of an air of a mystery about it, but to be honest, I don’t think there is a reason for that.

“We know pretty much everything about it. We know that hydrogen was leaking and that it was ignited probably by an electrostatic discharge caused by the weather – there was a thunderstorm at the time of the landing.”

One thing that is for certain is that the age of the airship all but came to a close with the Hindenburg disaster.

The age of the aeroplane had truly dawned, and in 1939 Pan American began operating its first transatlantic passenger services. The first Pan American flights began in June of 1939, with aircraft travelling between New York and Marseilles. In July, another service between New York and Southampton was launched.


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