It’s May 6, 1937, and a crowd of spectators eagerly watches the skies over Lakehurst, New Jersey. Above them, the great airship Hindenburg is preparing to berth, casting out its long ropes into the gathering rain. But in a flash, the scene turns into a disaster of epic proportions – a catastrophe that will doom a promised new era of travel before it has barely begun.
For more than a year, the Hindenburg has been carrying passengers successfully across the Atlantic, providing a more luxurious and genteel alternative to the early days of airplane travel. On this trip, almost 100 people are on board the airship, taking a three-day journey from Germany to the United States.
As they soar between continents, the passengers of the Hindenburg relax in surroundings akin to those on an ocean liner, with a comfortable dining room and even a lounge for smoking. But as they approach the end of their journey, something goes wrong. And within moments, their airborne adventure has turned into a nightmare that many will not survive.
By the time that the Hindenburg left Germany on its fateful flight, many were lauding airships as the future of long-distance travel. In fact, the excitement surrounding these unlikely craft had begun at the turn of the century, when the German-built Zeppelin LZ 1 successfully took to the skies.
Significantly, it would be another three years before the Wright brothers would achieve powered flight in their prototype airplane. However, the vast airships took a different approach. A type of lighter-than-air craft, they used a lifting gas – a substance with less density than the air around it – in order to take off.
In the years between the First and Second World Wars, Britain and the United States joined Germany in producing airships for military use. And although the latter’s output was initially limited by the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, these restrictions were eventually lifted in 1925. Three years after that, the Graf Zeppelin was launched – the first commercial aircraft to offer a transatlantic flight.
Although they promised an exciting future for global travel, however, the airships were not without their problems. And by the mid-1930s the U.S. had lost three of their craft in accidents – each resulting in a loss of life. In fact, the crash of the USS Akron into the Atlantic Ocean killed 73 of 76 crewmen, making it the worst airship disaster of all time.
Yet despite these issues, people were enthusiastic about airships. In fact, by the 1930s they had become a serious form of transport to rival ocean liners and commercial aircraft. What’s more, the future looked bright. And in 1931, the newly-completed Empire State Building in New York specifically included a mooring station for this emerging form of transport.
For travelers looking to cross the Atlantic, the appeal of the airships was clear. With the capacity to carry more passengers than contemporary commercial aircraft, their luxurious interiors offered far superior conditions. However, they were also capable of traveling between continents at a much faster rate than ocean liners.
As this mode of transport grew in popularity, the Zeppelin company found itself at the forefront of a burgeoning industry. And in 1931, it began work on the Hindenburg – the lead ship in a fleet of two airships constructed in Friedrichshafen in southern Germany. They would become the largest ever to take to the skies.
At over 800 feet long and 135 feet across, the Hindenburg was capable of carrying as many as 70 passengers and 60 crew at speeds of up to 84 miles per hour. Moreover, it was initially intended to use helium, rather than the more flammable hydrogen gas. Just one year previously, the British airship had crashed and burned with the loss of 48 lives, prompting designers to seek a safer alternative.
In the early 1930s, however, helium was a rare commodity that could only be produced in large quantities in the United States. And with the country refusing to export any, the designers of the Hindenburg eventually adjusted their craft to use hydrogen instead – a decision that would ultimately seal the fate of the doomed airship.
Built from aluminium alloy with a cotton outer skin, the Hindenburg was decked out with furnishings by the designer Fritz August Breuhaus, who had previously worked on ocean liners and luxury trains. And although the passenger cabins were a little on the small side, the airship boasted a number of spacious public rooms.
On the upper deck of the Hindenburg, a dining room, lounge and writing room were equipped with windows that could be opened by passengers. Meanwhile, the lower deck boasted a smoking room – despite the highly flammable nature of the hydrogen gas that powered the craft. Apparently, the space was pressurized, and a member of the crew kept watch to ensure that nobody wandered away with their cigarette lit.
Indeed, the Hindenburg was so luxurious that initially there was even a specially-made baby grand piano on board. Crafted from aluminum alloy, it was designed to be as lightweight as possible, tipping the scales at less than 400 pounds. However, even this was ultimately deemed too heavy, and the instrument was cast aside after the airship’s first season.
After a successful test flight, the Hindenburg carried its first official passengers across Germany’s Lake Constance on March 23, 1936. By that point, the dictator Adolf Hitler had completed his meteoric rise to power. And when the famous airship finally took to the skies, it was with the swastika flag of the Nazi Party painted on its tail.
Although Dr. Hugo Eckener, the chairman of the Zeppelin company, wished to keep the Hindenburg apolitical, the mighty airship was soon co-opted by the Nazis. And on March 26, with a crucial public vote looming, the craft set off on a four-day propaganda mission accompanied by the Graf Zeppelin.
During this mission, the Hindenburg flew over Germany playing patriotic music from a loudspeaker and dropping propaganda leaflets on the towns and cities below. Then, on March 31, the airship departed Germany on its first transatlantic voyage. And after a successful journey to Rio de Janeiro, the craft began regularly traveling between Europe and the Americas.
Throughout 1936, the Hindenburg made 17 transatlantic return journeys, at one point crossing from Germany to New Jersey and back in less than 99 hours – a record achievement for the time. But with a single ticket costing around $400, it was an experience strictly reserved for the more wealthy members of society.
In August 1936 the Hindenburg was commandeered by the Nazis once more, appearing in the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics. And the following month, it was tasked with performing a flyover of the Nuremberg Rally. By this point, the airship had become a symbol of Hitler’s Germany, and a number of threats were made against it.
Despite sabotage threats, the Hindenburg was gearing up for a second season when it departed Frankfurt, Germany on May 3, 1937. Bound for Lakehurst in New Jersey, the airship was set to complete a series of ten return flights across the Atlantic. However, a terrible tragedy was about to unfold.
At the time, the Hindenburg was carrying more crew than passengers, with just over half of its capacity booked out. However, it was due to ferry a full quota of travelers back to Europe, where many hoped to attend King George VI’s upcoming coronation. Sadly, they would never get the chance to make the trip.
Despite a successful transatlantic crossing, the Hindenburg was running a few hours late by the time it flew over Boston on May 6. And with forecasters predicting inclement weather conditions at Lakehurst, Max Pruss, the airship’s captain, decided to delay landing by taking passengers on a tour over Manhattan. Eventually, after a further detour to the New Jersey coast, the vessel arrived at its destination.
At around 7:00 p.m., the crew of the Hindenburg, as well as workers on the ground, began to prepare for a maneuver known as a flying moor. In this procedure, an airship drops its ropes from height before being winched down to the mast below. But although this was relatively common practice for American craft, the German team had limited experience in landing this way.
After dumping stores of water used as ballast in order to balance out the ship, the crew of the Hindenburg dropped the mooring lines just after 7:20 p.m. But within minutes, it became clear that something was wrong. According to some witnesses, the fabric of the airship’s cover began to flutter, suggesting that there was a gas leak inside. Meanwhile, others later claimed to have spotted a blue flame flickering on parts of the dirigible.
Although the truth about what sparked the disaster is unclear, the outcome was undoubtedly swift and brutal. At 7:25 p.m., the Hindenburg burst into flames. As the flammable hydrogen gas continued to fuel the fire, the great airship dropped from the sky. And in a little over 30 seconds, it had crashed to the ground, leaving witnesses struggling to comprehend what they were seeing.
At the time, radio reporter Herbert Morrison was on the ground covering the arrival of the Hindenburg for the Chicago station WLS. And as the disaster unfolded in front of him, he was able to record his horrified reaction. Today, his eye-witness commentary is one of the most famous and poignant descriptions of the Hindenburg crash.
“Crashing, oh! Oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen,” Morrison reported at the time. “There’s smoke, and there’s flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here! I told you; it – I can’t even talk to people, their friends are on there!”
Amazingly, not everyone on board the Hindenburg died in the crash. In fact, 62 people managed to survive the inferno – some with barely a scratch on them. However, 13 passengers and 22 members of the airship’s crew lost their lives in the incident, as well as one linesman who had been working on the ground.
Within days of the incident, both German and American organisations had launched an official investigation into the cause of the crash. And at first, many suspected that the Hindenburg had been sabotaged – in part due to the threats that the Zeppelin company had received in the past.
In fact, Eckener himself initially believed in the sabotage hypothesis, although he later changed his mind. However, over the years many continued to insist that human interference – rather than technical error – had caused the crash of the Hindenburg. Among them was Captain Pruss, who dismissed other theories that bad weather had brought down the airship.
Highlighting the fact that the Hindenburg had previously survived a South American thunderstorm unscathed, Pruss continued to believe in the sabotage theory until at least 1960. Meanwhile, Charles Rosendahl, the commander at Lakehurst, agreed with this hypothesis. In fact, he published a book outlining his suspicions in 1938.
But if someone had sabotaged the Hindenburg, who could it have been? Because the surviving crew members refused to accept that one of their coworkers might have been responsible for the disaster, suspicion fell on the passengers who had boarded the airship for its final voyage. In particular, many blamed Joseph Späh, a German man with a career in acrobatics.
Apparently, Späh had made a number of trips to the interior of the airship in order to feed his pet dog, who made the flight in the hold. However, some suspected that this could have been a pretext for sabotaging the ship – perhaps using his acrobatic ability. Interestingly, he wasn’t the only person who would be accused of having tampered with the dirigible.
In his 1962 publication Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?, writer A. A. Hoehling accused rigger Erich Spehl of having planted a bomb in the airship, likely in an attack against Nazi Germany. But even though this theory later inspired another book and a movie, no evidence has ever been found to support these claims.
But if sabotage didn’t bring down the Hindenburg, then what did? As the investigation progressed, Eckener came to believe that static electricity had built up around the airship, creating an electric spark which in turn ignited a fire. And later, others argued that leaking hydrogen could have exacerbated this effect. However, some have pointed out that none of the witness testimony supports this theory.
As yet another potential explanation, some have suggested that weather conditions might have contributed to the fatal crash. Specifically, that a lightning strike had somehow set the airship ablaze. Alternatively, some have placed the blame on St. Elmo’s Fire – a rare phenomenon in which the electrical field created by a thunderstorm produces a blast of plasma.
To this day, no definitive explanation has ever been offered for the Hindenburg’s crash. However, the incident spelled disaster for the industry, destroying public confidence in the safety of the vessels almost overnight. The next day, the Graf Zeppelin landed in Brazil – the last international flight that a commercial airship would ever make.
Before long, airplanes stepped in to fill the gap that the airships had left behind. And today, it’s estimated that there are fewer than 25 such craft operating around the world – mostly blimps that serve as little more than stationary advertisements. Meanwhile, a memorial has been constructed at Lakehurst, commemorating the people who lost their lives in the Hindenburg disaster.
Today, the Hindenburg occupies a special place in popular culture. And over the years, it has appeared in a number of books, movies and television shows. In fact, the story of the catastrophe has been retold so many times that it has become difficult to separate truth from fiction, further immortalizing one of the deadliest airship disasters of all time.