• Last updated on November 10, 2022

The largest rigid lighter-than-air passenger transport vehicle ever constructed.

Germany and the Development of Dirigibles

Lighter-than-air flight began in Europe as early as 1783, when a cloth balloon filled with hot air carried several animals aloft in France. By 1898, European aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont had fashioned a cylindrical balloon that flew over Paris and the surrounding countryside powered by a motorcycle engine and steered by a rudder. This vehicle, however, carried only one person. By 1900, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had built a huge oblong aircraft with a cloth-covered steel frame inside of which were large bags of hydrogen that lifted the vehicle into the air. Several such aircraft, built by Zeppelin’s company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, were built and were used to carry passengers on sightseeing trips across Germany.

In 1909, the world’s first passenger airline, Deutsche Luftschiffahrts Aktien-Gesellschaft (Delag), was established. Its lighter-than-air fleet, consisting of the Schwaben, the Victoria-Luise, and the Sachsen, carried 37,250 passengers on sixteen hundred flights. During their 3,200 hours aloft, the airships covered more than 100,000 accident-free miles.

During World War I (1914-1918), the Germans used dirigibles for reconnaissance and for bombing missions over London. During the following decade, many civilian uses were found for dirigibles. Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen bought a dirigible, in which he flew over the North Pole, traveling the 3,180 miles from Spitsbergen, Norway, to Teller, Alaska, in about 71 hours.

By 1929, Germany had built the Graf Zeppelin, which carried twenty passengers on the first nonstop flight around the world. This feat marked the beginning of regular overseas passenger travel in lighter-than-air craft. At this time, it took at least five days to cross the Atlantic Ocean by steamship, and crossings were often rough during storms. In contrast, a dirigible, averaging 80 miles per hour, could make the transatlantic crossing in two and one-half days, floating like a cloud above turbulent seas.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany during the mid-1930’s, political storm clouds gathered over Europe. Hitler accomplished a tactical victory by luring the 1936 Olympic Games to Berlin. He conceived the idea of building the largest dirigible in the world, to be flown over the Olympic stadium during the games.

The project, referred to simply as LZ-129, was completed quickly. An 804-foot rigid frame of steel was covered with a superstrong, hand-stitched cotton fabric, and the ship’s interior amenities were refined to the point that it unquestionably offered the most luxurious means of crossing the Atlantic. On March 4, 1936, German aeronaut Hugo Eckener took LZ-129 on its maiden flight.

As Eckener hovered over Munich, the city’s mayor radioed to ask him the name of the ship. He unhesitatingly responded with the name Hindenburg, after German field marshal and former president of Germany’s Weimar Republic Paul von Hindenburg, who had died two years earlier. Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s minister of propaganda, reprimanded Eckener severely for presuming to name the ship without authorization, telling him that the Reich had been planning to call it the Adolf Hitler. A change could not be made gracefully after Eckener’s public statement, so the ship continued to be called the Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg‘s Amenities

The luxurious Hindenburg was three and one-half times the length of a Boeing 747 and about the same length as the steamship Titanic. It was outfitted with extremely lightweight furniture, including a 397-pound aluminum piano. It had a lounge, a writing room, a smoking room, and a dining room, whose tables were set with exquisite floral arrangements, silver, and china. Lavish meals prepared by superb chefs issued forth from its kitchens. Banks of windows along the bottom portion of the aircraft provided dramatic vantage points from which to view the scene below.

The Hindenburg’s staterooms were small but efficient, with bunk beds and foldout tables and sinks. Originally the ship could accommodate fifty passengers, but with the success of the 1936 season, during which every stateroom was usually filled, the ship was modified to serve seventy-five passengers. The new staterooms, unlike the old ones, had windows that offered spectacular views.

The May 3, 1937, flight of the Hindenburg carried thirty-six passengers and a crew of sixty-one. Those who were traveling alone had staterooms to themselves. Above the passenger-crew areas of the ship were cavernous spaces that could carry up to 100 tons of cargo. These spaces contained bags of hydrogen, required to lift the craft, and water, used for ballast.

Because hydrogen is a highly explosive substance, every precaution was taken to prevent the hydrogen on board from being ignited accidentally. Crew and passengers wore slippers with felt soles. Matches and cigarette lighters were confiscated and later returned to debarking passengers. The smoking room contained only one lighter, secured by a chain, and the room was tightly sealed so that no sparks could escape.

Helium, another gas, which is not explosive, would have lifted the craft as well as hydrogen. Hydrogen, however, took up less space, permitting the Hindenburg to carry a larger payload. In addition, the United States, a major supplier of helium, was reluctant to sell this substance to Germany as it moved increasingly toward fascism.

The Hindenburg‘s Fateful Landing

On Monday, May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg drifted from its moorings in Frankfurt at 7:30 p.m. to begin its first flight of the season from Germany to the United States. Although it had made ten trips to New York in 1936, in winter, when the North Atlantic was stormy, the Hindenburg flew the Frankfurt-to-Rio de Janiero route instead, resuming its North Atlantic flights when the weather improved. Eighteen flights to the United States were scheduled for 1937.

The Hindenburg’s May 3 flight was to have taken about thirty-six hours, with touchdown at Lakehurst, New Jersey, outside New York City, scheduled for the morning of Thursday, May 6. Headwinds across the Atlantic delayed the ship’s arrival. By the time it flew over New York City, it was nearly twelve hours late.

The weather was bad, so even though the aircraft flew over Lakehurst, it did not land immediately. Rather, it flew down the coast toward Atlantic City, New Jersey, before circling back for its landing at Lakehurst, where it was awaited by a ground crew and people who had come to meet arriving family and friends.

As the ship inched toward its metal mooring at about 7:30 p.m., it dumped some of its water ballast to slow its descent, dousing some of the ground crew below. Those on the ground looked up at the gleaming ship with rapt expressions. Suddenly a thunderous noise shook the area, and the observers’ expressions turned from joy to horror, as the ship trembled violently with reverberating explosions. As the hydrogen quickly ignited, fireballs engulfed the ship.

Chaos ruled as people on board, many with their clothing and hair on fire, jumped from the craft to the ground 100 feet below. Others, such as cabin boy Werner Franz, who, two weeks short of his fifteenth birthday, was the Hindenburg’s youngest crew member, were trapped. As fire rolled toward Franz from two directions, his situation seemed hopeless. Suddenly a ballast tank ruptured, immersing him in 2 tons of water. Soaking wet, Franz jumped from the inferno onto the ground, emerging with only minor injuries. He arrived home in Germany on May 22, his birthday.

In all, twenty-two of the Hindenburg’s crew of sixty-one died in the disaster, including Captain Ernst Lehmann who, although badly burned, had returned to the inferno in an attempt to rescue trapped passengers and crew. Twenty-three of the thirty-six passengers survived, although a number of them were severely injured.

Possible Causes of the Disaster

Following the Hindenburg’s destruction, speculation about its causes was widespread. Certainly the hydrogen used to lift the craft, once ignited, exploded to create a fire of great intensity. However, what caused the hydrogen to ignite remained a mystery.

Some experts believed that as the aircraft had flown through the electrical storms that had raged along its course, static electricity had collected on its exterior, so that when it made contact with its metal mooring, sparks flew and ignited the hydrogen, small quantities of which could already have been leaking. The U.S. Department of Commerce established a commission to probe into the cause of the explosion, but no firm conclusion was forthcoming from that commission. Among the possible causes mentioned were a ball of lightning, demon protons, static electricity, and St. Elmo’s fire, a discharge of atmospheric electricity that commonly collects on aircraft flying in thunderstorms. However, eyewitnesses verified that the fire started inside the ship; if any of these possibilities been valid, the fire would have begun on the outside.

Given the strained relations between the United States and Hitler’s Germany, the U.S. government wanted to prevent the disaster from escalating into an international incident. The official finding of the committee identified the disaster’s cause as St. Elmo’s fire, although in all of aviation history, no similar incident had ever been recorded.

In Germany, General Hermann Göring ordered the German commission investigating the explosion to “discover nothing.” He officially declared the event an act of God, foreclosing further investigation.

Conspiracy Theories

Accidents such as the explosion of the Hindenburg often spawn conspiracy theories, which are sometimes given serious consideration. One cannot forget that Adolf Hitler, in promoting the development of the Hindenburg, sought to bring favorable attention both to Germany and to his despotic regime, in only its second year when the airship was conceived.

Germany had already planned to build other transoceanic dirigibles, and those opposed to Hitler did not want Germany to fulfill this dream. The destruction of the largest dirigible in the world would thwart plans for expanding Germany’s lighter-than-air passenger service and would be a great personal blow to the country’s dictator. Further, one must remember that threats had been made against the Hindenburg. Not long before its ill-fated trip, a bomb had been found in the dining salon of the Graf Zeppelin and was removed before it exploded.

Some conspiracy theorists noted that one of the passengers on board the Hindenburg had been Joseph Spah, a German who had fled the country as Hilter was coming to power, and who was an outspoken opponent of the Nazi government. Spah had been observed in restricted areas and explained his presence there by saying that he had wanted to visit his dog, who was being carried in the ship’s hold.

Those doubting the conspiracy theories pointed out that if a passenger or crew member had sought to destroy the Hindenburg by planting a bomb somewhere aboard, that person would have had to die in the explosion. The counterargument to this objection is that a time bomb might have been hidden somewhere in the craft’s vast superstructure with the intention of destroying the ship after it had landed. Because the Hindenburg arrived twelve hours behind schedule, such a bomb might have detonated just as the dirigible was landing.

Bibliography
  • Archbold, Rick, et al. Hindenburg: An Illustrated History. New York: Warner, 1994. Filled with startling photographs, this oversized volume offers shocking, mute testimony to the extent of the Hindenburg disaster.
  • Mooney, Michael Macdonald. The Hindenburg. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. A detailed account of the disaster, well written and accurate. A personalized view with strong human interest elements.
  • Morrison, Herbert. “The Hindenburg Aflame.” In Mine Eyes Have Seen: A First Person History of Events That Shaped America, edited by Richard Goldstein. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. A brief, lively account of the disaster and an enticing read.
  • Tanaka, Shelley. The Disaster of the Hindenburg. New York: Scholastic, 1993. Excellently illustrated and engagingly written for teen audiences, this book should also prove useful to adult readers.

Dirigibles

Lighter-than-air craft

Transatlantic flight

Ferdinand von Zeppelin

This photograph of the Hindenburg on fire as it attempted to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937, is among the most dramatic pictures ever taken of an air disaster in progress.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
Categories: History Content