“Steady on, she doesn’t need to burn; She tries to flee and she tries to turn; Grappling fire, we latch her hull, She’s starting to roll, but we’ve got her on a leash…” -Airship Pirates, Abney Park
Abney Park, a steampunk band, have a great song on their album “Lost Horizons,” dealing with piratry and other silliness from the deck of their “airship” (the Victorian term for a zeppelin). Captain Robert sings of his crew of “drunken pilots” outrunning the East India Company’s boats. The crew of the Ophelia succeed in their plundering and subsequent escape and go on to produce more music—good for them and us; bad for the East India Company. But, there was one real zeppelin adventure that did not turn out quite so well. The adventure of the Hindenburg began with joy but ended in disaster.
The Hindenburg left Germany on May 3, for the first of 10 scheduled round-trip voyages from Europe to the US. The voyage out was wholly uneventful. The airship was also not full to capacity—only 35 of a possible 70 passengers—and her crew of 61 members sported 21 new trainees. The return trip, however, was booked solid. Most of the scheduled passengers had the intent of going to the coronation of King George VI the following week.
By the time the Hindenburg reached Boston, she was eight hours behind schedule. Strong headwinds on the voyage across the Atlantic caused her to lose some time. The landing in New Jersey would be further delayed, as well, due to thunderstorms. Once the dirigible was cleared to land, Captain Max Pruss turned the ship and headed for the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester. The landing was to be a “flying mooring,” meaning the ship would be anchored in the air and brought to the ground. It required more time, but less man power. Wikipedia offers the following timeline of events for the landing:
- 7:09: The airship made a sharp full speed left turn to the west around the landing field because the ground crew was not ready.
- 7:11: The airship turned back toward the landing field and valved gas. All engines idled ahead and the airship began to slow.
- 7:14: At altitude 394 feet (120 m), Captain Pruss ordered all engines full astern to try to brake the airship.
- 7:17: The wind shifted direction to southwest, and Captain Pruss was forced to make a second, sweeping sharp turn, this time towards starboard.
- 7:19: The airship made the second sharp turn and valved 300, 300 and 500 kg of water ballast in successive drops because the airship was stern heavy. Six men were also sent to the bow to trim the airship. These methods worked and the airship was on even keel as it stopped.
- 7:21: At altitude 295 feet (90 m), the mooring lines were dropped from the bow, the starboard line being dropped first.
Film crews actually stopped filming once the mooring lines were dropped from the ship. There was no reason to continue, it seemed. However, something happened that caused a leak of hydrogen. Something else caused a spark which caused the hydrogen to explode. Many of those present said there seemed to be a snag in the lining of the zeppelin and that one of the mooring lines caught the snag, causing a spark. Detailed accounts state there was a “fluttering” on the port side near the rear rudder—as if there were a gas leak. Another account states that the fire began on the under-starboard side at the rear, rather than upper-port side as others claimed. Where ever the spark began, the fire soon engulfed the airship and sent it to the ground.
The explosion caught everyone off-guard. The Hindenburg had made a year’s worth of round trip flights with no problems—suddenly, however, there was a very large problem. Miraculously, only 35 people lost their lives—including four of the six men who were sent to the bow of the airship. The breakdown of crew-to-passengers who perished in the disaster was 22 crewmen, and 13 passengers. Most of the passengers who perished were trapped on the starboard side of the vessel—the place where the winds carried the flames. Since hydrogen is more buoyant than gasoline, hydrogen fires burn upwards—and burn out quickly. The Hindenburg’s fire burned out within 90 seconds.
As with any disaster of the proportions of the Hindenburg, many people turn to conspiracies and insist upon something other than a mere “mistake” or “misjudgment.” In the case of the Hindenbrug, ideas from sabotage to lightning to static sparks to engine failure circulate as the most probable cause for the explosion. All have some merit, but all have evidence against them. There are other theories, as well, but none of them seem to hold as much weight as simple miscalculation and human error. It took many men to build the Titanic and only a single ice berg to bring it down. It took many men to build the Hindenburg and only, perhaps, a single mooring cable—or a tear in the lining—or a hydrogen leak—to bring it down.
For more information, please visit the following sites:
Hindenburg Disaster (Wikipedia)
YouTube video of the disaster
Listen to the Radio-cast
Eye Witness History (another copy of the famous radio broadcast)