Getting across the Atlantic these days is as easy as falling off a log, but it is actually less than a hundred years ago that Charles Lindbergh set the aviation world alight. In 1927, Lindbergh flew a small airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, for 33 hours from New York to Paris. When his safe arrival in Paris was announced a new age had dawned. Humanity could now cross the wide oceans by taking to the sky. Even so, disaster awaited.
No airliner large enough for commercially viable flights would be built until the late 1930’s, when the DC-3 was launched, but other inventors were remembering the Montgolfier brothers and looking to aviation via very large hydrogen balloons. The most notable of these was the German company Zeppelin, which had big ambitions in the years prior to WWII.
In 1936, Zeppelin built the LZ129 Hindenburg, the largest airship ever made, named after German president, Paul von Hindenburg. This enormous beast was 804-feet-long and 135-feet at its widest, four times larger than the biggest Good Year blimp, and almost twenty times the size of a 747 jumbo jet.
It was a rigid airship with a gas capacity of 7,062,100 cubic feet. Powered by four 1,100-horsepower diesel engines, it had a cruising speed of around 80mph, and could cross the Atlantic in three days or less, making it much faster than any ship. Crucially, perhaps, it should be noted that the original design had called for Helium gas to fill it.
Helium is a far, far less flammable gas than hydrogen but the USA refused to export helium to Germany because they feared the building of airships for military use. This meant that Hydrogen had to be used in filling 16 gas cells, creating a gigantic bomb that needed very little encouragement to explode violently.
The inside of this great transport was the absolute first in luxury. There were two decks for the passengers and crew, behind the control gondola, which spanned the width (but not the length) of the airship. It first left its shed in Friedrichshafen, Germany on March 4, 1936. Nazi propaganda minister, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, sent it along with sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin, over every German city with a population over 100,000.
This was a huge propaganda hit, and in that year the Hindenburg made ten smooth crossings to the USA carrying over 1,000 passengers, though many more were turned away for lack of space. On the first voyage of 1937, they were only carrying half the passengers they could cope with, 36 of them being attended to by a crew of 61. The round trip ticket cost $720, a great deal at that time, but for that money they were very well looked after.
Passengers relaxed in large and luxurious common rooms, eating and drinking only the finest cuisine. The luxury of the accommodation was astonishing in its opulence, and when you consider that aircraft could not make this journey until 1939, you can start to appreciate how novel and exciting it must have been, travelling in this way.
Usual Atlantic crossings saw the Hindenburg maintaining an altitude of around 650 feet above the ocean, but on this trip, strong head winds slowed the ship, pushing back predicted arrival time from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on May 6, 1937.
Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey was witnessing the birth of a storm on the afternoon of that fateful day. Captain Pruss, the officer in charge, got a weather report telling him that winds had strengthened to 25 knots, which was potentially dangerous for the lighter-than-air ship. Captain Pruss and air officer Charles Rosendahl agreed that they needed to wait for the weather to improve.
At 6:12 p.m., Captain Pruss was informed: “Conditions now considered suitable for landing.” However the airship needed to turn around and get back to the air force base in order to safely land. 7:10 p.m. saw Commander Rosendahl telling the captain: “Conditions definitely improved recommend earliest possible landing.”
By 7.20, the airship was about 300ft up and 1,000 ft away from the mooring mast. Most passengers were standing by the windows, seeing the crowd of spectators grow larger as the airship decreased its altitude and taking the opportunity to wave to family and friends. 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 who were in the tail section of the airship at that moment said they heard an explosion occurring which sounded like the burner on a gas stove being turned on. At this point the tragic flammability of Hydrogen was all too evident, with horrific consequences. The mid-section was completely in flames even before the tail of the airship had hit the ground. 34 seconds was all it needed for the entire airship to be consumed by flames.
The passengers and crew had only seconds to react, and did so with great courage. Some jumped out of the windows, some fell. Since they were still thirty stories up in the air, many of these people did not survive the fall, yet only 35 of the 97 men and women on board, plus one member of the ground crew, died in the disaster.
This tragedy effectively killed off the airship as a mode of travel, and the cause of the disaster remains a controversy. Was it simply a wayward spark from an electrical short-circuit, or something more sinister? We may never know, and it is quite certain that the shameless opulence that was an integral part of this form of travel will never be repeated, more’s the pity.