It was the pride of Germany’s passenger air travel fleet, and, with a length of 245m (800 feet) and a volume of 200,000 cubic metres (7 million cubic feet), the biggest flying machine ever constructed. What’s more, it became a major dramatic news event: when it burned up after a mystery blast on arriving at its destination, the disaster was caught on camera, with cine newsreel audiences seeing for themselves the fire, smoke, and scores of survivors running for their lives as the structure was engulfed in flames.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but in the 1930s travel by airship (as opposed to by plane) was considered the future of commercial passenger journeys. Germany’s Zeppelin company led the way for airship travel at the time, and the Nazi regime were not slow in using this advanced money-spinner for propaganda purposes.
In the evening of 6 May 1937, the biggest airship ever built, LZ 129 Hindenburg, was completing the first of 18 scheduled transatlantic flights for that year when it approached the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Up to then it had been carrying passengers around the world for nearly a year, with its flights including visits to South America. While the weather conditions that day had been wet and stormy, there was no reason to suspect that the Hindenburg might be in danger. Yes, its gas bags were filled with hydrogen (which is combustible) rather than helium (which is not), but there were stringent safety measures on board designed to reduce the risk of disaster: passengers had to hand in cigarette lighters as they boarded, and the smoking compartment was tightly insulated from the rest of the cabin. Yes, there had been threats to destroy the airship, but such threats were so commonplace that the Hindenburg‘s top brass’s instinct was to ignore them.
When the disaster did unfold, it took virtually everyone by surprise. At about 7:25pm a “pop” was heard by the ground staff assembled to moor the Hindenburg and help the passengers to disembark. Then, a fire broke out near the top of the rear fin, which quickly spread, and engulfed the rest of the airship. As the flames and blasts billowed out, the airship crashed to the ground. It had taken just 34 seconds for the initial fire to destroy the Hindenburg completely. Of the 97 people on board, 35 died (22 of them passengers) – as did one worker on the ground. The tragedy was caught on radio commentary by the broadcaster Herb Morrison:
It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing, terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it’s… crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity!
Exactly what it was that caused the Hindenburg to blow up has never been definitively established. It remains a possibility that it was down to sabotage, as the writers Jeremy Kingston and David Lambert believe in their 1979 book Catastrophe and Crisis:
The commission of inquiry set up at Lakehurst to discover the cause of the tragedy considered various possibilities – a spark from an engine, an electrical fault, a sticking gas valve. Dr Hugo Eckener, considered after Count von Zeppelin to be the greatest figure in airship development, believed that an internal stay wire had broken and pierced a gas cell while at the same time creating static electricity that ignited the escaping hydrogen. The commission wanted to consider the possibility of sabotage but those crew members well enough to be called to give evidence were curiously unhelpful on this point. Not till after World War II was it learned that Hermann Goering, chief of the Nazi air force had sent orders to the officers and crew of the Hindenburg that “they should not try to find an explanation.” The destruction of the airship was a serious enough blow to the pride of Nazi Germany. If it had become known that an enemy saboteur had managed to elude the strict security surrounding the airship, the anger within Germany – and perhaps also the flickering powers of resistance – might have become uncontrollable. So nothing was said. No suspicions were voiced. One of the Hindenburg’s officers later quoted their instructions: “Give no opinions. Answer questions. No more.”
Kingston and Lambert even go so far as to name a suspect: Erich Spehl, one of the crew members. Indeed, the author Michael Macdonald Mooney, in his 1972 book Hindenburg, point the finger directly at him. It is known that Spehl had a female companion back home in Germany who was a member of the anti-Nazi underground, and she is known to have called the Zeppelin company’s offices three times during the airship’s flight to check on its whereabouts (though she could just have been checking that her friend was well). Kingston and Lambert explore the suspect’s case further:
One other piece of evidence, overlooked by the Commission of Inquiry, could link Spehl with the disaster. A small metallic object was removed from the wreckage and identified as the remains of a small dry battery – not powerful in itself but when connected to a photographic flash bulb able to produce in it a flash of dazzling brilliance and a temperature briefly of 6,400 degrees Fahrenheit – six times the temperature required to ignite hydrogen. The men in the tail fin who saw the start of the fire said it began with the sort of flash that could be produced by a photoflash bulb.
A battery, a bulb, a pocket watch to set the time of the explosion – that would be all that would be necessary to destroy the airship. Spehl died in the inferno so it will never be known for certain whether it was an inferno of his own making.
More recently, in a 2005 documentary about the disaster, the renowned air crash investigator Greg Feith put forward what he considered to be the real reason why the Hindenburg blew up. He dismissed talk of sabotage on the part of a crew member as being too far-fetched, given both the airship’s design and its stringent on-board security regime, and focused instead on reports from on-the-ground eyewitnesses of a “rippling” effect that they saw at the rear top of the airship. Feith’s belief is that this was caused by leaking hydrogen from one of the gas bags, which in its turn was caused by a ruptured internal wire in the Hindenburg‘s structure. Such a rupture would have been caused by a sudden turn in the airship’s trajectory on the orders of the Captain, Max Pruss – even though this was against the Zeppelin company’s safety regulations, and the Hindenburg was known not to be strong enough to cope with sudden turns. As to the question of how the fire started, Feith reckoned this was down to a spark of static electricity – enough charge would have built up over the airship’s three-day flight to produce a spark powerful enough to set the leaking hydrogen on fire.
Of course, the problem with coming up with any answer as to why the disaster happened is the sheer lack of any solid evidence – for the simple reason that whatever evidence there might have been to support whatever thesis simply burned up with the rest of the airship.
Moreover, it wasn’t just the Hindenburg that was destroyed eighty years ago – it was the idea of airships as a form of international passenger transport: the camera film-captured spectacle of a seemingly impregnable airborne leviathan going up in flames in just 34 seconds was enough to turn sufficient numbers of people off the idea. Just as the R101 disaster in Beauvais in 1930 killed off the British airship industry, so the Hindenburg tragedy did the same for the German one. Replacing hydrogen gas with safer helium might have made a difference, but the United States – the only country where helium was manufactured at the time – refused to sell it to Germany, so long as its government persisted with its aggressive foreign policy and inhuman domestic ones. Germany cancelled all passenger airship flights on 7 May 1937, the day after the Hindenburg, its pride and joy, literally crashed and burned.