Save for different protagonists, the front-page newspaper headlines from May 7, 1937, bear a striking resemblance to those of the disaster-ridden autumn of 2001. On that day, the New York Times cried, “Airship Like a Giant Torch . . .” and “Germany Shocked by the Tragedy.” The Akron Beacon Journal was less conservative, saying, “It Might Have Been an Enemy Plot,” and fretted about the impact on the aviation industry with “Zepp Voyages Are Recalled,” “U.S. Dirigible Building Hit” and “Help Rushed by Goodyear.” For the first time, a major aviation accident had taken place with reporters present. The Hindenburg disaster was captured on film for all the world to see.
Ship of Dreams
When the LZ 129 (aka Hindenburg) was completed in March 1936, airships—self-propelled lighter-than-air craft with directional control ability—seemed poised to become the preferred mode of future transoceanic travel. For years, Germany had been at the leading edge of airship construction and technology and the Zeppelin Company Works’ LZ 129 raised the bar to another level. Named after the late German president, Paul von Hindenburg, the hydrogen-filled craft took four-and-a-half years to build and had a gas capacity of more than seven million feet, enough to lift a gross weight of 36 tons (or seven average adult African elephants). At 803.8 feet long, 135.1 feet wide and thirteen stories tall, it was the largest aircraft ever flown—just 78 feet shorter than the equally infamous Titanic. Today’s Boeing 757’s would be dwarfed by its prodigious proportions.
However, size was only part of what made the Hindenburg unique. Unlike the austere interiors of earlier airships the Hindenburg featured five-star passenger accommodations. In its original configuration the vessel had 25 two-passenger cabins on its upper deck plus a reading & writing room complete with its own mailbox. Large slanted windows allowed travelers a bird’s-eye view of the ground. In its lavish dining areas passengers could feast on the finest food and wine, or retire to the piano lounge, which was outfitted with a baby grand. The Hindenburg even had an onboard shower, the first on any aircraft. Of course, its ridership expected to be pampered. At $400 plus tax for a trip from Germany to the United States ($720 round trip), the cost of a one-way passage on the Hindenburg was about the same as a new car.
Although the Hindenburg was a state-of-the-art aircraft the crew needed a few months to work its kinks out. Just weeks after its completion the ship had a minor accident while being undocked from its mooring hangar. And, on an early transoceanic flight, operators found that its four diesel engines—the first diesels used in a German Zeppelin—had a design flaw that required an overhaul by manufacturer, Daimler-Benz.
Nor was the Hindenburg immune from controversy. Adorned with swatztikas, the ship was initially used as a propaganda vehicle, dropping leaflets that expressed support for the Third Reich as it flew over German cities. Hugo Eckener, head of the Zeppelin Company, vehemently objected to using the Hindenburg for political purposes and maintained an uneasy relationship with the Nazi party. Even the vessel’s moniker became a source of contention. The Nazis objected to the name Hindenburg, and ordered the German media to simply refer to it as LZ 129.
What Goes Up . . .
Regardless, the Hindenburg was a big hit in the U.S. In its first year of operation the immense airship regularly flew back-and-forth between Germany and Lakehurst, New Jersey, attracting crowds and media coverage whenever it reached American shores. Almost every crossing was sold out, proving that transatlantic Zeppelin service could be financially viable.
As a result, the Zeppelin Company began considering a buildup of global passenger service and planned to operate a fleet of three dozen airships within a decade. Luxurious and seemingly safe, the Hindenburg did its part by maintaining an enviable on-time record and providing an exceptionally soft and quiet ride. The Hindenburg’s owners expressed their optimism by modifying the ship over the winter of 1936-37, adding space for 22 additional passengers. Ironically, when it departed for its first U.S.-bound voyage of 1937 the cabin space was only half-filled.
Having the latest and greatest airship created another concern for the Zeppelin Company—the threat of terrorism. The company was especially concerned about a mail bomb being loaded onto the ship and implemented extensive security precautions. As if on cue, a bomb threat was received prior to its first (and only) transatlantic voyage of 1937.
Public acceptance for Zeppelins had been a long time coming. Most nations had already given up on building their own airships, owing to their long history of spectacular and often deadly mishaps. Some utilized them strictly for military and surveillance purposes. Still, entering 1937, German Zeppelins had an unblemished safety record; none had ever burned in the air.
. . . Must Come Down
When the Hindenburg left Germany on May 3, 1937, no fewer than five people with experience as Zeppelin captains were on board. The flight to the U.S. was more or less uneventful, although the ship arrived on May 6 hours late, in part due to inclement weather. On the way to its destination the craft flew directly over New York City—the Bronx, Manhattan and just a few hundred feet above the Empire State Building. As the Hindenburg approached Lakehurst (a few hours south of New York City) Herbert Morrison of WLS Radio in Chicago began recording what would become one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all time: “Here it comes, ladies and gentlemen . . . and what a great sight it is . . . a thrilling one, just a marvelous sight. It is coming down out of the sky pointed toward us, and towards the mooring mast….”
The Hindenburg slowed and finally came to a stop approximately 800 feet from its mast at an altitude of 260 feet. At 7:21 p.m. two handling lines were dropped from the ship and the ground crew raced to grab the ropes. Four minutes later a tiny burst of flame inexplicably appeared just in front of the vertical fin. In seconds half the ship was ablaze, the flames fed by the huge supply of hydrogen. Immediately, Morrison was overcome by emotion: “It’s burst into flames. It’s burst into flames and it’s falling, it’s crashing . . . get this, Charlie [Charlie Nehlson, Morrison’s sound engineer], get this, Charlie. . . . ” Morrison looked on in horror as the tail began to drop and the ground crew ran for their lives: “Oh, my, get out of the way, please! It is burning, bursting into flames and is falling on the mooring mast and all the folks . . . this is terrible, this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world…. It’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen…. Oh, the humanity and all the passengers…. I can’t talk ladies and gentlemen.”
In little more than half a minute the Hindenburg hit the ground, engulfed in flames. Miraculously, 62 of the Hindenburg’s 97 occupants survived, as they jumped before the ship crashed and then ran to escape the fireball. In total, 13 passengers, 22 crew and one member of the ground crew were killed.
The next morning all that remained of the Hindenburg was a smoking, twisted metal frame, several still-intact fuel tanks, and a small number of personal effects. Rumors of terrorism were rampant and many speculated that one of the crew members had planted a bomb. Although the cause of the crash remains a mystery the most credible explanation is that one of the gas cells began to leak just prior to landing and that its hydrogen was ignited by a discharge of static electricity.
After the crash, the Nazis insisted that the world could not be left with a lasting memory of German failure and urged that the Zeppelin program be continued. But any hope of restoring the public’s confidence in airships was quashed by the outbreak of World War II. Before long, Germany had mothballed its remaining Zeppelins and dismantled its facilities.
By the 1960s the airship had become virtually extinct, with only a few blimps (non-rigid, buoyant aircraft) in existence in the entire world. In recent decades, the blimp has revived the airships’ formerly high profile, as dozens (Goodyear, Fuji, Met Life, etc.) now function as advertising vehicles and provide aerial television shots of skylines and sports complexes.
Today, with a new threat of terrorism redefining all air travel, even the blimp may have outlived its usefulness. Perhaps airships will now reprise their role as military and surveillance aircraft? But with the development of faster, sturdier and more economically viable aircraft, it’s safe to say that the Zeppelin’s best days are in the past.
Great Balls of Fire