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What Was to Blame for the Hindenburg Disaster?

Updated: Nov 30, 2016

Since its launch in 1936, the LZ 129 Hindenburg airship had logged more than 190,000 miles (305,775 km) without a mishap, including a round-trip flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But disaster struck in March 1937 as the airship was preparing to touch down at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, N.J., at the completion of its trip from Frankfurt. The zeppelin, which contained 7 million cubic feet (198,218 cubic m) of highly flammable hydrogen gas, suddenly ignited and plunged to the ground in about 30 seconds. The cause of the disaster was never determined, but many have since noted the irony that the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg actually contained a smoking lounge. Nevertheless, it has been determined that the smoking room, located at the bottom of the airship, was not to blame. Since hydrogen is lighter than air, any gas leak would have traveled upward, away from the smoking room, which was kept at a higher pressure than the rest of the ship and which was protected by a double-door airlock.

Oh, the humanity:

  • The smoking room was closely monitored and all matches and lighters were confiscated before takeoff. Just one electric lighter was available to passengers wishing to light their cigarettes.
  • Of the 97 passengers and crew on board, 62 survived. Many jumped out of the zeppelin’s windows and scampered away quickly.
  • Radio reporter Herbert Morrison's emotional account of the disaster -- including his cry of “Oh, the humanity!” -- was not broadcast live. His report was aired the next day, synced to the now-iconic video footage in newsreels.
Discussion Comments
By dwp — On Nov 30, 2016

A PBS program, perhaps "Secrets of the Dead", suggested that the cause of the disaster was not initially hydrogen but the coating of the fabric that covered the Hindenburg. In composition and chemistry it was very similar to the propellant, containing metallic elements, that is used in today's solid fuel space-launch boosters. Naturally once that was ignited by static electricity, the hydrogen followed. Observers noted that the fire consumed the ship from nose to tail very rapidly suggesting a surface burn. Also, in contrast to the vivid flames of the disaster, hydrogen flame is almost invisible.

I would like to see dirigibles or some similar LTA have a resurgence, and they could use Hydrogen for the improved lift and availability. Additionally the excess could be bled off to operate fuel cells to generate auxiliary power. Obviously they would use some covering that did not include rocket fuel.

regards: David

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