📸 The moment of disaster
On May 3, 1937 the Hindenburg set off on its final transatlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany to the United States. The airship’s smooth journey across the ocean belied the tragedy awaiting at its destination. Three days later, 35 people would be dead and the mighty airship would be nothing more than a smoldering metal skeleton resting on a New Jersey airfield. Not only was the Hindenburg destroyed upon arrival, the entire notion of commercial airship travel ended that day, an entire industry gone up in smoke.
📸 The Hindenburg a year before disaster
Built between 1931 to 1936, LZ 129 Hindenburg measured about 804 feet in length and 135 in diameter, with its sixteen gasbags boasting over seven million cubic feet of hydrogen. A true behemoth, the Hindenburg was the largest airship ever built, following a long line of flying machine predecessors, many of them made by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. Originally, the airship was to be filled with helium, but fearing Germany’s airships in the looming war, the United States halted all exports of the gas. As hydrogen is a lighter gas, this allowed for a larger cabin space, but its flammability ultimately doomed the airship.
📸 Propaganda leaflet dropped by the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin
Luftschiffbau Zeppelin was run by Hugo Eckener, an airship pilot who had commanded LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin on the first airship flight across the world in 1929 and a scientific expedition to the artic in 1931. A national hero for his feats, Eckener was a vocal anti-Nazi who ran afoul of the rising fascist government and fought to prevent his zeppelin from being named after the Führer, instead naming it after Germany's last president Paul von Hindenburg. As the Nazi’s influence grew, Eckener was sidelined in the company, and the zeppelin was nationalized for propaganda purposes, dumping Nazi leaflets in support of Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland, with four massive swastikas painted on its fins.
Eckener was distraught at his airship’s appropriation, but the ship also fulfilled its intended commercial function. During 1936, the Hindenburg traveled to Rio de Janeiro and to New York, Eckener personally inking a deal with President Roosevelt to use the Lakehurst airfield in New Jersey. During these flights, Hindenburg’s passengers were pampered with luxurious amenities, dozens of travelers situated in a two-story structure complete with a full kitchen, cocktail bar, and even a fireproofed smoker’s lounge. All told, Hindenburg completed 17 roundtrips during its first season, a bonafide success for the massive dirigible.
The removal of Eckener also resulted in a loosening of safety procedures. During his time as manager, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin had a perfect record with no passengers ever sustaining serious injury on his aircrafts. As he lost influence though, Nazi sympathizers focused on working faster at the cost of procedure. Even on its very first flight, the new captain of the Hindenburg brought the ship out in strong winds which damaged the craft.
📸 Diagram of the Hindenburg. Note the massive internal gas cells which kept it aloft.
The Hindenburg’s final journey was uneventful leading up to May 6, the three days passing smoothly, a promising start to the 1937 season. At the helm was Captain Max Pruss, an airship veteran commanding the Hindenburg for the first time. Strong winds had slowed the airship’s entry into New York, the ship arriving hours later and in the midst of a thunderstorm. Forced to circle the area before they were able to dock, the ship floated over New York City, another massive spectacle briefly joining the Manhattan skyline.
Awed spectators in the streets of New York could hardly guess at the disaster awaiting the ship. Hours behind schedule, the ship finally dropped its mooring lines at 7:21 PM. As it was being pulled to the mooring tower, the airship suddenly burst into flames, destroyed in about thirty seconds. The entire catastrophe was caught on film, with several news crews on the ground waiting for the Hinenburg’s return to the United States. Among them was journalist Herbert Morrison, working under a Chicago-area radio station, whose account of the explosion has become synonymous with the disaster itself.
📸 The wreckage
The exact cause of the Hindenburg’s explosion remains a matter of debate. Owing to the US embargo on helium, airships generally used hydrogen, which was cheaper to make, has a higher lift capacity, but is also explosive. The initial spark may have been caused by static electricity, a lightning strike, or deliberate sabotage, though no conclusive evidence has ever been found for the latter. But hydrogen was not entirely at fault; the airship’s skin was also painted with a mixture of cellulose acetate butyrate and aluminum powder, which has a similar chemical composition as rocket fuel.
The Hindenburg disaster spelled the end of the airship travel industry, but curiously it was not the first hydrogen explosion of such a craft. Why then was it this disaster that ushered in the watershed change in travel? For all of the destruction of those other disasters, none had been caught on film. The Hindenburg disaster, however, was witnessed not just by the ground crews but cameras that spread the image of destruction around the world. The Hindenburg explosion, perhaps the first mediatized disaster of the modern age, spelled the doom of the airship industry.
📸 The moment of disaster
📸 The airship skin specimen
A Piece of the Zeppelin
The Mini Museum collection contains two specimens from the Hindenburg: Airship skin and an internal gas cell. These pieces are authentic relics collected on the scene in 1937 by journalist Harry Kroh. Kroh was a local reporter dispatched to cover what was expected to be a routine landing but turned into one of the most well-covered disasters in history. These specimens are small fragments that were taken from the burning wreckage after it reached the ground.
The airship skin is a swatch of canvas fabric from the Hindenburg. The cotton canvas was made taut and durable by doping the skin with a mixture of cellulose acetate butyrate and aluminum powder, which also gave the airship its signature, metallic appearance.
📸 The gas cell specimen
The gas cell specimen is a fragment of one of the airship's internal chambers. To achieve lift, the Hindenburg relied on a complex system of gas cells embedded within the larger balloon. Comprised of cotton fabric brushed with a latex-gelatin mixture, the airship’s 16 enormous cells held a combined 200,000 cubic meters (7,062,000 cu ft) of hydrogen gas.
📸 EYEWITNESS NOTES FROM JOURNALIST HARRY KROH AND HINDENBURG MATERIAL
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