The Hindenburg disaster proved to be the downfall of commercial zeppelin travel but prior to the catastrophe zeppelin travel had been a success, an exciting and growing way to travel, particularly in the early Twentieth century. After more than thirty years of successful commercial travel on zeppelins involving tens of thousands of people, flying over a million miles and successfully completing more than two thousand flights. The future of commercial zeppelin travel looked set to flourish. The LZ 129 Hindenburg as it was officially known began construction in 1932. It was constructed by the German company, DELAG (German Airship Transportation Corporation ltd) which was the first ever airline. The Hindenburg was eventually to become its last ever passenger aircraft it would produce. It was named after the former German Weimar Republic President Paul Von Hindenburg. The Hindenburg was different from previous zeppelins in a number of ways including having areas for passenger and crew which were inside the airships body, previous designs had separate compartments for the crew and passengers separate from the main body. German ships had a light framework of metal girders that protected a gas filled interior lifted by highly flammable hydrogen has. The Hindenburg at the time was the pinnacle of lighter than air travel the world had ever seen. The Hindenburg took its first flight in March 1936 and flew 63 times successfully primarily across the Atlantic.
The Hindenburg was a feat of engineering. Despite it being based in Nazi Germany and having swastikas on the fins many countries were happy to see the extraordinary sight of it flying over their territories. The ship was three times larger than a Boeing 747, stretching 804 feet from stern to bow. As a comparison that is longer than 17 double decker buses. It had a maximum speed of 84 mph and a cruising speed of 76 mph. It was the fastest mode of transport across the Atlantic, travelling to the America’s in half the time any current ocean liner could achieve. It was also an extremely luxurious mode of transportation where passengers could dine in luxurious surrounding and listen to the sound of relaxing piano music. The Hindenburg even had a smoking room despite Hydrogen being an extremely flammable gas. The smoking room had a double door airlock to keep hydrogen away from entering the room. Hindenburg had made ten trips to the US the previous year leading up to the disaster and plans for new airships were already in the works as the success of the Hindenburg and zeppelins was evident.
The Hindenburg left Frankfurt, Germany on May 3rd, 1937 with its destination being Lakehurst, New Jersey in the United States. The ship successfully crossed the Atlantic but the disaster occurred when the ship attempted to moor in Lakehurst. There is evidence that the ship experienced a significant leakage of hydrogen before the disaster. The Hydrogen mixed with oxygen which produced a particularly flammable compound. It is generally accepted by the literature that this mixture was ignited by a spark. Theories surrounding the sabotage of the Hindenburg are not accepted by historians who have looked at the event. The airship quickly erupted into flames as the hull incinerated in seconds, burning from tail to nose in just 34 seconds. As the tail of the Hindenburg plummeted into the ground a burst of flames erupted through the nose of the ship. The ship rapidly fell 200 feet towards the ground and the surviving passengers and crew were forced to take extreme measures to survive the inferno. This included jumping from the ship in areas such as the dining room or lounge windows as the ship plummeted to the ground. One bystander claimed he saw ‘at least a dozen people jumping from the forward end of the ship. Some were in flames as they plunged to the earth’. Despite this most of the survivors suffered substantial injuries. The Hindenburg lay on the earth scorched, little left of what was regarded as a new and exciting way to travel across the Atlantic. The disaster resulted in 36 fatalities including one individual being killed on the ground with 62 survivors. But the reputation and iconic footage and photographs of the catastrophe would forever scar the idea of zeppelins being a viable mode of travel.
Onlookers excited about seeing the feat of engineering arrive as it had previously done successfully were shocked by the catastrophe unfolding so quickly in front of their eyes. George Willens a member of the crowd who waited for the Hindenburg’s successful arrival described the chaos he witnessed. He said ‘it was all so sudden- so unexpected- so without precedent- that for precious moments no one knew what to do or what to say. It seemed as if no living thing could pass unscathed through that hell of flames- as if all must have perished’. The witnesses of the event were caught off guard by such a historic and devastating moment. Herb Morrison, an NBC reporter immortalised the famous scene in which he poignantly declared ‘oh, the humanity!’. He even paused at one point, left speechless by the scene unfolding in front of him. The events were broadcast throughout the globe and shocked the public. Pictures and newsreels of the event combined with Morrison’s iconic phrase destroyed public trust and belief in the future of zeppelins. The end of commercial travel ended as the Hindenburg burnt away and crashed to the ground. This combined with the emergence of commercial aeroplane travel sealed the future of zeppelin travel. An iconic moment in commercial air travel occurred during the Hindenburg disaster and helped shape how air travel in the Twentieth century developed, with zeppelins being left in the past as the public feared and distrusted the once revered and iconic mode of transportation.
If you would like to understand and experience the Hindenburg disaster you can watch the news coverage of the event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgWHbpMVQ1U