The Hindenburg Disaster (The Titanic of the Sky)


It’s 1937, and you’re just an average German
who’s won the opportunity of a lifetime, first class accommodations aboard Nazi Germany’s
premier airship, the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg is the height of luxury, and
a sixty-plus flight veteran of the world’s first airline, DELAG- which stands for something
in German that we don’t feel our narrator gets paid enough to pronounce. She sports luxury cabins for every one of
her passengers, and she’s also the fastest way to cross the Atlantic and get to America. “Gee whiz-bang!” you say to yourself in
Nazi, the opportunity of a lifetime! But wait, you think, isn’t hydrogen a highly
flammable gas that could end in the catastrophic incineration of the airship and a horrible,
fiery death for all of her crew and guests? Nah, you decide, it’s 1930 and man is a technological
god by now, master and commander of all he surveys- why just a few years ago some fellas
came out with a color talking picture! Hello future, hydrogen is nothing to worry
about. Soon though you’ll discover that hydrogen
is in fact, something to worry about keenly, but what led to one of the most horrific airship
disasters in history, a tragedy so shocking that it brought the golden age of airships
to a screeching halt? The first airship was built by Frenchman Henri
Giffard in 1852, and featured a simple three-horsepower steam engine that would in turn spin a large
propeller, giving the airship a speed of six miles per hour (10 kph). The first true zeppelin though would fly late
in the 1800s, and would get its name from German Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin, who pioneered
the use of airships to ferry passengers. Eventually transatlantic service to America
was made possible, with the Graf Zeppelin pioneering the first of many such flights. In the 1900s there were two options for lifting
airships. The first was the use of helium, which was
much safer as helium is not flammable. Unfortunately helium was not widely available,
and the only large-scale industrial process to create helium existed with the many oil
refineries of the United States. This difficulty in producing helium made the
gas incredibly scarce, and the United States quickly adopted legislation to ban the export
of helium outside of the US. Hydrogen was much more widely available, and
was much easier to make. This made the gas cheaper and much more in
vogue to use for airship construction. Hydrogen however, came with the famous drawback
of being extremely flammable, and all it would take for an airship to end with disaster,
as the Hindenburg would find out, was a stray spark. To prevent this though many measures were
taken, including covering the skin of the lifting body with non-flammable material,
and keeping the gas separated into different compartments. Some airships, mostly American in design,
featured a hydrogen core surrounded by helium. Hydrogen may have been more dangerous, but
as we said it was cheaper, and it provided more lift than helium. Despite many reservations, the Germans, who
led the way in airship manufacturing, decided that given their exemplary safety record,
they would go ahead with continuing to make hydrogen airships. Despite this though, the Hindenburg was originally
meant to be lifted by helium, rather than hydrogen. Designed in the 1920s, German builders hoped
that as the zeppelin neared construction the American ban on exporting helium would be
lifted. When US congress refused to do so, the Hindenburg
was quickly redesigned to be lifted by hydrogen. Because hydrogen had more lifting power than
helium though, the Hindenburg could afford larger, and more spacious accommodations. The ship featured luxury cabins and a grand
dining room with an aluminum grand piano featuring ivory keys crafted from the tusks of murdered
elephants. Because it was 1930 and smoking was good for
your health, the ship even included a smoking room, where you could join others and freely
smoke your cigars and cigarettes. But wait, smoking inside a vehicle lifted
by seven million cubic feet of extremely explosive gas? Yes, we hear your questions already, and it
turns out the citizens of 1930s weren’t completely insane, and thus the room was pressurized
so that no hydrogen gas could leak in, and a bus boy would carefully check each occupant
for lit cigarettes, cigars, or pipes as they exited. On May 3rd, 1937, the Hindenburg set off on
its last flight, lifting up into the air with 36 passengers and 61 crew. The ship famously made for such a smooth ride
that passengers often didn’t even realize they had already lifted up into the air until
they looked out a window, still believing themselves to be moored to the ground. On this trip the Hindenburg would set off
for the English Channel and then to open sea, crossing the Atlantic in half the time of
the fastest steam liner, or about four days. Aboard the Hindenburg, the passengers settled
in for the trip. The cabins may have been luxurious, but they
were still small, and the ship’s designers expected that passengers would spend most
of their time in the public spaces, of which there were plenty. Large public rooms featuring tables and couches
flanked the cabins on the upper deck, with a dining room to port and a lounge and writing
room to starboard. On the lower deck were washrooms as well as
areas for the crew, and of course the famous smoking room. All in all, the Hindenburg offered all the
accommodations of a luxury steam liner, though passengers would have to forgo the large outdoor
decks of a steam ship because after much careful consideration, the Hindenburg builders decided
that passengers being blown off the ship to their deaths thousands of feet below would
be bad for repeat business. In lieu of exterior spaces, large, slanted
windows ran the length of both decks, giving an incredible view of the peasants below,
stuck walking around on their dumb peasant feet while the rich elite floated serenely
through the heavens. After a departure at 7:16 pm, the Hindenburg
flew over Cologne and then crossed to the Netherlands before finally turning east to
the English Channel. By 2 am the next day it was already making
its way past the white cliffs of southern England and making for open sea. Because the earth is round, and not flat like
a bunch of idio- err, misinformed people believe, the Hindenburg followed one of several trajectories
that typically arced up north. This time the ship flew to the southern tip
of Greenland and then south again, crossing into North America over Newfoundland. Unfortunately strong headwinds delayed the
ship’s passage by nearly a full day, and this might have proven fatal. If the Hindenburg had arrived on time it may
perhaps avoided the atmospheric conditions that led to its ultimate doom. On noon of May 6th the ship had reached Boston,
and because Boston has very little worth looking at, it quickly made its way to New York City,
where by 3 pm it was floating serenely over the skyscrapers of New York City. The ship then flew south and arrived at its
final destination, the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, arriving there at about
4:15 pm. When the Hindenburg got there however, the
weather concerned the ship’s captain, Max Pruss. Lakehurt’s commanding officer recommended
that the ship wait out the foul weather, and so Captain Pruss ordered the ship to fly over
New Jersey’s coast for a few hours. With improving conditions, Lakehurst sent
the Hindenburg a radio call relaying temperature, pressure, visibility, and winds, signaling
that conditions were suitable for a landing. At 6:22 Lakehurst radioed again, saying “recommend
landing now.” The break in the storm was quickly lapsing. By 7:08 Lakehurst sent another message, urging
the ship to land as early as possible. Pruss was already on approach though, and
soon had made a pass over the field at an altitude of 600 feet so he could observe conditions
on the ground. With the wind blowing in from the east, Pruss
ordered the Hindenburg to conduct a wide left turn in a descending oval pattern, bringing
the ship down with its nose into the wind. As the ship made it’s slow left turn, and
reversed power from its engines, hydrogen gas was vented to reduce the ship’s buoyancy
and help bring it down to the ground. First Officer Albert Sammt however soon noticed
that the ship’s tail was dipping lower than the bow, and thus ordered that hydrogen be
vented from five cells in the bow in order to bring the bow down and keep the ship in
level trim. Yet the tail continued to dip low, and so
Sammt ordered that water ballast totaling 2,420 lbs (1,100 kg) be dropped from the tail,
and then vented an additional five seconds of hydrogen from the bow’s gas reserves. Still though the ship’s tail remained heavy,
and so Sammt ordered six crew members forward to add their weight to the bow. As the ship continued its descent and First
Officer Sammt fought to keep it level, the wind suddenly shifted directions from the
east to the southwest, forcing Captain Pruss to execute a risky maneuver. With worsening weather, the Captain was eager
to land the ship, and it was already close to the mooring mast, so the Hindenburg executed
a very tight S-turn in order to change the direction of the ship’s landing. Some people believe that this sharp S-turn
is what ultimately sealed the Hindenburg’s fate, as a bracing wire snapped from the stresses
on the body of the ship and slashed open a gas cell, venting hydrogen. At last though, the ship reached its mooring
mast and the landing ropes were dropped at 7:21 pm, with the Hindenburg 180 feet above
the ground. One of the landing party however, noticed
a wave-like fluttering of the outer cover on the port side, near one of the gas cells. He would later recall that it appeared to
him as if gas was pushing against the cover, having escaped its holding cell. Another ground crew member at the top of the
mooring mast also testified in the subsequent investigation that he saw the same covering
fluttering loosely. Just four minutes later, disaster struck. After many investigations, most believe that
an electric spark caused by atmospheric conditions and the ship’s own electrical charge set fire
to the escaping hydrogen. Whatever the source, at 7:25 ground crew saw
flames originating from the top of the hull just forward of the vertical fin, very near
the area where two ground crew had seen the cover fluttering. Within seconds, the tail of the aircraft was
seen to collapse inwards, and then spring into flames. Passengers aboard the ship heard the muffled
explosion and began to see flames devour the rear of the Hindenburg, yet there was little
they could do to escape. The fire spread quickly, fueled by the massive
store of hydrogen keeping it aloft. Flames then erupted from the bow, incinerating
the twelve crew members stationed there and the six men that First Officer Sammt had sent
there to try to level the ship. Molten aluminum and collapsed girders began
to rain down on the field below the Hindenburg, injuring some of the ground crew. As the ship began to lean backwards, crew
and passengers tumbled against each other and the walls, furniture pinning them in place
in some cases. In less than a minute the Hindenburg crashed
down into the field below, a flaming wreck too hot for rescuers to approach. Incredibly though, some of its passengers
and crew did survive. Some had jumped for their lives from open
windows, of those jumpers many didn’t survive the fall. Crew and passengers who were watching the
descent from the public rooms on A Deck had the highest survival rate, with life and death
decided by where one happened to be as the fire broke out and the ship tumbled out of
the sky. In all the Hindenburg had left Germany with
97 crew and passengers, and astonishingly, only thirteen passengers and twenty crew died,
along with one member of the ground crew. Airships had crashed before, and often with
greater fatalities- the American airship Akron had crashed out at sea, killing 73, and the
British R-101 had crashed and killed 48. The public had been largely unfazed by these
accidents, and airship travel remained popular. Yet though the Hindenburg had less fatalities,
it did have one extraordinarily bad stroke of luck- the presence of a film crew who had
been filming the ship’s descent. Within days millions of people had seen footage
of the giant airship being consumed in flames and crashing to the ground, and many today
remember the famous commentary by radio reporter Herbert Morrison who exclaimed, “Oh the
humanity!”. Interestingly enough though, that commentary
was not cut together with the footage of the crash until many years after. Thanks to the massive publicity of the crash,
airship travel ended almost overnight. Passengers no longer felt safe riding in massive
balloons filled with explosive gas, even though airships generally had a rather impressive
safety record. Instead, humanity ditched the single-most
elegant form of travel ever invented for the airplane, and nothing bad ever happened in
the sky again. How would you have tried to survive the Hindenburg’s
crash? Would you ever travel on an airship? Let us know in the comments! And as always, if you enjoyed this video don’t
forget to Like, Share, and Subscribe for more great content!

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