Dirigible Bursts into Flames

The disastrous explosion of the zeppelin dirigible Hindenburg, the largest rigid aircraft ever constructed, caused the deaths of thirty-five on board. The crash marked the end of the age of lighter-than-air commercial passenger aircraft.

Summary of Event

On May 6, 1937, on its first scheduled transatlantic crossing, the LZ-129 zeppelin Hindenburg was preparing to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, when its hydrogen ignited and it suddenly burst into flames. As stunned spectators watched, the burning mass crashed to the ground within seconds. Thirteen of the thirty-six passengers and twenty-two of the sixty-one crew members died in the disaster, and one ground crew member was also killed. Miraculously, almost two-thirds of the ninety-seven people on board survived the crash. [kw]Hindenburg Dirigible Bursts into Flames (May 6, 1937)
[kw]Dirigible Bursts into Flames, Hindenburg (May 6, 1937)
[kw]Flames, Hindenburg Dirigible Bursts into (May 6, 1937)
Hindenburg (airship)
[g]United States;May 6, 1937: Hindenburg Dirigible Bursts into Flames[09460]
[c]Disasters;May 6, 1937: Hindenburg Dirigible Bursts into Flames[09460]
[c]Transportation;May 6, 1937: Hindenburg Dirigible Bursts into Flames[09460]
[c]Space and aviation;May 6, 1937: Hindenburg Dirigible Bursts into Flames[09460]
Lehmann, Ernst
Morrison, Herbert
Rosendahl, Charles E.
Eckener, Hugo

The flight from Frankfurt, Germany, had been smooth, and a routine landing was expected. The Hindenburg could carry seventy-two passengers, but it did not have a full passenger load on this flight; May was not peak flying season. No celebrities were onboard, and most of the crowd on the ground were family members and friends, ground crew, journalists, and customs, immigration, and public health officials.

The arrival of the airship had been scheduled for 8:00 a.m., but it was running behind schedule. As the ship neared the air station at about 4:00 p.m., Captain Max Pruss, the flight’s commander, signaled his intention to cruise and delay landing until 6:00 p.m. because of threatening storm clouds. Sudden showers drenched the crowd and landing crew, but at 6:12 p.m., Commander Charles E. Rosendahl, who was in charge of landing operations on the ground, signaled to Pruss that the landing could proceed. The ceiling was 200 feet, visibility was 5 miles, and the wind was from the west-northwest at 8 knots. Pruss headed the ship back toward the landing field, passed over it, and made a tight turn to return to the landing area. Passengers were waving from the windows as landing ropes were let down to the waiting ground crew and officials prepared to receive the passengers.

The Chicago-based radio station WLS had sent reporter Herbert Morrison and sound engineer Charles Nehlsen to make a disc recording of the Hindenburg’s arrival. As the airship approached, 200 feet above the field, Morrison described its awesome beauty and grace. At 7:25 p.m., a strange quiet fell on the ship as it neared the mooring mast. Some spectators reported they saw a blue flame along its back, and these flames suddenly mushroomed from the top of the Hindenburg. Landing personnel began scrambling away from under the ship as fire spread from one gas cell to another and the burning stern fell to the ground. Commander Rosendahl, who had survived the Shenandoah airship wreck, cried out in disbelief as tiny figures fell like ants from the dirigible. Some passengers walked from the burning wreckage in flames, some jumped to their death, others jumped to safety, and a few dazed, but relatively unharmed, passengers escaped with the help of the heroic crew and rescuers.

As the tragedy unfolded, Morrison sobbed and was unable to speak, but Nehlsen kept him talking and he resumed his historic account of the horrific scene. Photographers and newsreel cameramen also recorded the disaster live. Shocking photos of the catastrophe appeared on the front pages of morning editions of American newspapers and were carried by wire services to papers overseas. Later in the day, newsreels carried the images to horrified theatergoers, and Herbert Morrison’s emotional account was heard on radio across the country. Captain Pruss survived the wreck, but he underwent months of plastic surgery and was scarred for life. Captain Ernst Lehmann, a senior captain and German naval officer who had flown zeppelins on reconnaissance and bombing raids in World War I, was on board as an adviser. He was badly burned in the crash and died on May 7.

The Hindenburg flies over New York City on its way to Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.

(Courtesy, Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, Inc.)

The world was stunned. The loss of the Hindenburg was a serious blow to the German people. Named for their revered late president, Paul von Hindenburg, it was the symbol of German technology and progress. The largest airship ever built, it was 804 feet long (comparable to a thirteen-story building and only 79 feet shorter than the Titanic), with a maximum diameter of 135 feet. The ship contained sixteen cells, filled with more than seven million cubic feet of hydrogen gas, and traveled on the lower currents of the air. Living space was only 1 percent of the ship’s volume. Powered by four 1,200-horsepower Daimler-Benz diesel engines, the Hindenburg had a cruising speed of 78 miles per hour (126 kilometers per hour), and a maximum speed of 84 miles per hour (135 kilometers per hour). Airplanes of the day could carry only the pilot and crew, but zeppelin dirigibles offered intercontinental passengers luxurious service and faster travel than ocean liners at less expensive fares.

After construction was completed in 1935, the Hindenburg inaugurated the first scheduled transatlantic air service between Frankfurt, Germany, and Lakehurst, New Jersey, in March, 1936, logging 60 hours for the first trip and 50 hours for the return. In ten round-trips that year, it carried more than 1,300 passengers and thousands of pounds of cargo and mail (the Graf Zeppelin, the Hindenburg’s predecessor, had flown 590 flights, including 144 ocean crossings, for ten years, carrying a total of 13,110 passengers.) Since 1910, zeppelins had flown 2,300 flights and carried more than 50,000 passengers. Until the Hindenburg catastrophe, zeppelins had never lost a passenger. Only Germany enjoyed such an enviable safety record, and most countries, plagued by catastrophes, had given up building airships.

Adolf Hitler recognized the zeppelins’ potential as a propaganda tool and a symbol of the “new Germany” that could reinforce the image of German superiority and invincibility. The Nazi government took over the Zeppelin Company in 1935 (renaming it Deutschezeppelin Reederei) and financed the Hindenburg’s completion. Huge swastikas were painted on its fins, and Dr. Hugo Eckener, Count Zeppelin’s successor and an international celebrity unsympathetic to the Nazis, was installed as a figurehead chairman of the board. After the crash, ten thousand people witnessed the Nazi rites for the twenty-eight European victims, whose coffins were then transported by ship to Germany.

The Hindenburg seconds after bursting into flames.

(Courtesy, Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, Inc.)

Controversies raged about the disaster’s cause. Given the zeppelins’ safety record, many believed that the ship had been sabotaged. An American commission and German investigators, led by Eckener, however, found no evidence of sabotage. The most commonly held belief was that the thunderstorm’s conditions had ignited a static electrical charge (known as St. Elmo’s Fire) that resulted in the loss of hydrogen gas. (A U.S. embargo on the exportation of helium had forced Germany to use highly flammable hydrogen to lift the aircraft.) A few modern revisionist theorists claimed that the cover of the ship was ignited by static electricity rather than hydrogen. These theorists contended that reflective, flammable aluminum paint reacted with the fabric, hydrogen in the gas cells, and oxygen in the air to cause the crash.


The Hindenburg crash was not the worst aircraft disaster in history, but it was the greatest disaster captured live by the media up to that time. Herbert Morrison’s account became a landmark in the history of broadcasting and was later synchronized to newsreel footage. It foreshadowed the importance of the media in portraying world events. The demise of the Hindenburg ended the golden age of lighter-than-air ships: The public was no longer willing to trust airships. The United States was the world’s only source of helium, the safer, nonflammable gas, and its refusal to release it to any foreign concern also contributed to the end of commercial-airship construction.

However, advances in airplane design and technology were the most important factors behind the end of airship construction. After the Hindenburg disaster, Hitler was convinced that zeppelins had no military potential and that military superiority in the air would depend on heavier-than-air vessels. Zeppelins were never again used for commercial service, and by the start of World War II, Nazi authorities declared the dirigibles obsolete. On the third anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster, the German air ministry destroyed all of its airships. Still, long after the end of the age of airships, the debate over the cause of the Hindenburg disaster continued, as did fascination with lighter-than-air vessels. Hindenburg (airship)

Further Reading

  • Archbold, Rick. Hindenburg: An Illustrated History. New York: Warner Books, 1994. Discusses events leading up to the disaster and its possible causes, but the book’s strength is its wealth of photographs and illustrations.
  • Botting, Douglas. Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel. New York: Henry Holt, 2001. Discusses Eckener’s invention, its successful flight history, and examines the possible cause of the Hindenburg disaster, concluding that the zeppelins’ inherently flammable nature was responsible.
  • Dick, Harold G., and Douglas Robinson. Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships: Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1992. Illustrated volume concerning the evolving designs of the German airships.
  • Stephenson, Charles. Zeppelins: German Airships, 1900-1940. New York: Osprey, 2004. Provides a detailed history of zeppelins.
  • Syon, Guillaime de. Zeppelins: Germany and the Airship, 1900-1939. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Excellent resource on the political importance of the German airships to Nazi Germany.
  • Toland, John. The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs and Disasters. Rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1972. Chapter titled “Twilight of the Gods” discusses the Hindenburg disaster and points out the possibility of sabotage by an anti-Nazi crew member.

Wright Brothers’ First Flight

First Airplane Flight Across the English Channel

Germany Launches the First Zeppelin Bombing Raids

Fokker Aircraft Are Equipped with Machine Guns

Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight

Piccard Travels to the Stratosphere by Balloon

First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman