Hindenburg Disaster

The Tragedy That Ended Lighter-Than-Air Passenger Travel in Rigid Dirigibles.

The Hindenburg burning on May 6, 1937.
The Hindenburg burning on May 6, 1937. This picture is in the public domain.

The suddenness of the disaster was shocking. At 7:25 p.m. on May 6, 1937, while the Hindenburg was attempting to land at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, a flame appeared on the outer cover of the rear of the Hindenburg. Within 34 seconds, the entire airship was consumed by fire.

Take-off

On May 3, 1937, the captain of the Hindenburg (on this trip, Max Pruss) ordered the zeppelin out of its shed at the airship station in Frankfurt, Germany.

As was usual, when all was ready, the captain shouted, "Schiff hoch!" ("Up ship!") and the ground crew released the handling lines and gave the giant airship a push upward.

This trip was the first of the 1937 season for passenger service between Europe and the United States and it wasn't as popular as the 1936 season. In 1936, the Hindenburg had completed ten successful trips (1,002 passengers) and was so popular that they had to turn away customers.

On this trip, the first of the 1937 season, the airship was only half full, carrying 36 passengers despite it being equipped to carry 72.

For their $400 ticket ($720 round trip), the passengers could relax in the large, luxurious common spaces and enjoy fine food. They could play, sing, or listen to the baby grand piano on board or just sit and write postcards.

With 61 crew members on board, the passengers were well accommodated. The luxury of the Hindenburg was a marvel in air travel.

Considering that passengers were not taken across the Atlantic in heavier-than-air crafts (airplanes) until 1939, the novelty as well as the luxury of traveling in the Hindenburg was astonishing.

The smoothness of the ride took many of the Hindenburg's passengers by surprise. Louis Lochner, a newspaperman, described the trip: "You feel as though you were carried in the arms of angels."1 There are other stories of passengers waking up after several hours aloft questioning the crew as to when the ship was to take off.2

On most trips across the Atlantic, the Hindenburg maintained an altitude of approximately 650 feet and cruised around 78 mph; however, on this trip, the Hindenburg encountered strong head winds that slowed it down, pushing back the Hindenburg's arrival time from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on May 6, 1937.

The Storm

A storm was brewing over the Lakehurst Naval Air Station (New Jersey) on the afternoon of May 6, 1937. After Captain Pruss had taken the Hindenburg over Manhattan, with a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, the airship was nearly over Lakehurst when they received a weather report that stated winds were up to 25 knots.

In a lighter-than-air ship, winds could be dangerous; thus, both Captain Pruss and Commander Charles Rosendahl, the officer in charge of the air station, agreed that the Hindenburg should wait for the weather to improve. The Hindenburg then headed southward, then northward, in a continuing circle while it waited for better weather.

Family, friends, and newspapermen waited at Lakehurst for the Hindenburg to land. Most had been there since the early morning hours when the airship was first scheduled to land.

At 5 p.m., Commander Rosendahl gave the order to sound Zero Hour - a loud siren beckoning the 92 navy and 139 civilian ground crew personnel from the nearby town of Lakehurst.

The ground crew were to help the airship land by hanging on to mooring lines.

At 6 p.m. it began to really rain and soon after began to clear. At 6:12 p.m., Commander Rosendahl informed Captain Pruss: "Conditions now considered suitable for landing."3 The Hindenburg had traveled perhaps a little too far and was still not at Lakehurst at 7:10 p.m. when Commander Rosendahl sent another message: "Conditions definitely improved recommend earliest possible landing."4

Arrival

Not long after Commander Rosendahl's last message, the Hindenburg appeared over Lakehurst. The Hindenburg made a pass over the airfield before coming in for landing. Circling over the airfield, Captain Pruss tried to slow down the Hindenburg and to lower its altitude. Perhaps worried about the weather, Captain Pruss made a sharp left turn as the airship approached the mooring mast.

Since the Hindenburg was a little tail heavy, 1,320 pounds (600 kg) of ballast water was dropped (often, unwary onlookers who had ventured too close to an approaching airship would get drenched from ballast water). Since the stern was still heavy, the Hindenburg dropped another 1,100 pounds (500 kg) of ballast water and this time did drench some of the onlookers.

At 7:21 p.m., the Hindenburg was still about 1,000 feet away from the mooring mast and approximately 300 feet in the air. Most of the passengers stood by the windows to watch the onlookers grow larger as the airship decreased its altitude and to wave at their family and friends.

The five officers on board (two were just observers) were all in the control gondola. Other crewmen were in the tail fin to release mooring lines and to drop the rear landing wheel.

A Flame

At 7:25 p.m., witnesses saw a small, mushroom-shaped flame rise from the top of the tail section of the Hindenburg, just in front of the tail fin. The crewmen in the tail of the airship said they heard a detonation which sounded like the burner on a gas stove turn on.5 

Within seconds, the fire engulfed the tail and spread quickly forward. The mid-section was completely in flames even before the tail of the Hindenburg hit the ground. It took only 34 seconds for the entire airship to be consumed by flames.

The passengers and crew had only seconds to react. Some jumped out of the windows, some fell. Since the Hindenburg was still 300 feet (roughly equal to 30 stories) in the air when it caught fire, many of these passengers did not survive the fall.

Other passengers got wedged inside the ship by moving furniture and fallen passengers. Other passengers and crew jumped from the ship once it neared the ground. Even others were rescued from the burning bulk after it had hit the ground.

The ground crew, which had been there to assist the craft in mooring, became a rescue crew. The injured were taken to the airfield's infirmary; the dead were taken to the press room, the impromptu morgue.

The Radio Broadcast

On the scene, radio broadcaster Herbert Morrison captured his emotion-filled, first-hand experience as he watched the Hindenburg burst into flames. (His radio broadcast was taped and then played to a shocked world the following day.)

Aftermath

Considering the quickness of the catastrophe, it is amazing that only 35 of the 97 men and women on board, plus one member of the ground crew, died in the Hindenburg disaster. This tragedy - seen by so many via photographs, news-reels, and radio - effectively ended commercial passenger service in rigid, lighter-than-air crafts.

Though it was assumed at the time that the fire was caused by a hydrogen gas leak ignited by a spark of static electricity, the cause of the disaster is still controversial.

Notes

1. Rick Archbold, Hindenburg: An Illustrated History (Toronto: Warner/Madison Press Book, 1994) 162.
2. Archbold, Hindenburg 162.
3. Archbold, Hindenburg 178.
4. Archbold, Hindenburg 178.
5. Archbold, Hindenburg 181.