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One spark ignited the spectacular Hindenburg conflagration

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History on Saturday, 31 December 2011

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This edited article about aviation disasters originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Hindenburg disaster, picture, image, illustration

The destruction of the Hindenburg

The giant airship Hindenburg cruised gently across the sky over New Jersey, having just completed an Atlantic crossing from Frankfurt, in Germany. It was the latest of many such crossings since her launching a year earlier.

To her commander, Captain Max Pruss, and 96 passengers and crew, it must have seemed one more proof of her stability and efficiency.

From the promenade windows lining her sides, the passengers could glimpse the lights of the Lakehurst landing-field ahead. During the hours of the crossing they had dined at tables laid with spotless linen, relaxed in the lounge to the music of a grand piano, or enjoyed a cigar in the smoking-room.

Four Daimier-Benz diesel engines powered the propellers of this flying luxury hotel, driving her forward against the prevailing westerly winds. For combined speed and comfort, she had no equal in the skies.

Speaking from Lakehurst, Commander Rosendahl informed Captain Pruss by radio that all was ready for a landing. The huge craft turned, aiming her bows at the spot where the ground landing crew waited.

Now she slowed, reversing her engines, gliding, finally floating motionless in the evening air. As the landing crew approached, mooring lines snaked down to them from the vast hull. Within minutes she would be secured and her passengers could begin to disembark.

Suddenly, above the heads of the hurrying men, flame blossomed. On the back of the giant, close to the vertical tail fin, fire burst through the silvery skin. Explosions shook the entire length of her metal framework. The tail-section dissolved in a ball of fire, spraying biazing fragments across the field. As the stern sagged and sank, the nose lifted high into the air like a colossal leaning tower, through which the flames roared skyward. Appalled and helpless, the spectators on the ground could only watch.

One minute later, the airship Hindenburg, pride of Germany’s Atlantic air service, was a pile of blackened metal. By some miracle, two-thirds of the people aboard her had escaped.

The Hindenburg burned not through any flaw in her design, but because of the price of helium. Helium is the second lightest substance in the Universe. The lightest substance is hydrogen. But helium is not spread evenly throughout the Universe. In 1936, the year of the first flight of the Hindenburg. It was produced only at great expense, and solely by America.

Germany was plainly arming herself for war at that time, and America refused to supply her with helium gas. In consequence, the airship’s immense buoyancy cells were filled with hydrogen. As a lifting agent, hydrogen is more efficient than helium. It is also highly inflammable. A slight leak in one of the cells and a spark from static electricity may have been all that was needed to doom the giant.

Several theories were put forward during the official inquiry, or by independent experts, to explain the cause of the fire. They made little difference to the future of the passenger airship – that future had died along with the Hindenburg. The picture of her giant hull melting in a mid-air holocaust was one that the public would never be able to forget.

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