What Really Felled The Hindenburg?

On May 6, 1937, the world’s largest dirigible airship went up in towering flames in New Jersey. While the Hindenburg had made passenger trips before, none would be like this one. On May 3, 1937, the hydrogen-floated Hindenburg departed from Frankfurt, Germany, bound for the first of ten round trip crossings to America. Not that the Hindenburg was new to Atlantic crossings, in 1936, it had transited the Atlantic, often to Brazil, 34 times.

It supplied this service because in that era aircraft crossings of the Atlantic were still impossible, the Hinderburg trips were intended to ferry passengers over the ocean, bringing them to Naval Air Station Lakehurst, in Manchester Township, New Jersey, just outside of New York City.

At Lakehurst, a mooring mast for airships awaited. Once tied-up, the Hindenburg’s 36 passengers could depart, where they would be picked up by representatives from American Airlines, who had contracted with the Hindenburg’s parent company for this trans-Atlantic shuttling. Then the passengers would be transported to Newark Airport to catch connecting continental airplane flights.

Hindenburg’s Atlantic crossing was relatively uneventful, other than some headwinds, that slowed U.S. landfall over Boston by about an hour. Then, once in the New York area, thunderstorms and bad weather thwarted the scheduled late-morning or early-afternoon rendez-vous at Lakehurst.

To avoid the storm, Hindenburg Capt. Max Pruss re-charted his course: over Manhattan and out into the Atantic, to wait until the storm blew through. The Hindenburg flew over New York City on its way out to sea, and was said to have created a sensation, with people running out of their houses, offices and stores to see the world’s largest airship overhead. Consider this: the Hindenburg was roughly the size of the RMS Titanic, but it flew overhead. And seeing that in the sky over New York City? Well, that would have been something to see. Pathé News, one of the big newsreel agencies of the day, even scrambled and sent out a biplane to get aerial footage of the huge Zepplin above the Empire State Building.

By 6:22 p.m., the storms had passed, and Captain Pruss ordered his ship to Lakehurst, almost a half-day late. By 7 p.m. on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg was on final approach to Lakehurst.

The Naval Air Station was the selected choice, because its mooring mast had a winch. Large airships like the Hindenburg dropped its lines and cable to be run down through the mast and into the winch, which then would slowly pull the airship to the ground, allowing the passengers to depart. This procedure was known as a “flying moor.”

Then the winds began to shift, and Captain Pruss was having to make sharp left turns on approach and manage the Hindenburg’s propeller thrust in order to keep the airship’s nose directed at the mooring mast. Twice, as the airship began to drop in altitude from 650 feet to 295 feet, the airship had to make hard left turns into the wind. It was said to be a challenging landing.

Still, at 295 feet, the mooring lines were dropped to the ground as a light rain began to fall. Then, with the Hindenburg finally tied-into the ground winches, and as things were finally calming, at 7:25 p.m., the Hindenburg caught fire, the flames bursting from somewhere near the stern of the airship, though eyewitness accounts of exactly where the flames first emerged vary. Some say it was near the airship’s top steering/stabilizing fin. Others say the fire burst through the airship’s port side.

Unfortunately, while film of the flaming airship does exist, pictures—moving or otherwise—of the moment of ignition do not.

As the Hindenburg’s flaming tail began to drift toward the earth, the flames moved forward through the different hydrogen-holding cells toward her bow. The ship began falling precipitously. When the airship’s stern hit the earth, the fire burst through the airship’s nose-cone. The entire disaster was over in less than 40 seconds.

Remarkably, of the 97 people aboard (36 passengers and 61 crew), only 35 were killed (13 passengers and 22 crew), plus one person on the ground: for a total of 36 fatalities out of a possible 97 people.

While the May 6, 1937 disaster will be forever remembered, the age of the airship was over. There would be boards of inquiry and hearings and a U.S. Department of Commerce report to try and assess what had happened, without much success. But, Crouch says, the underlying fact is, airship production ended shortly after with the disaster.

After the fire, Deutsche Zepplin-Reederei made one last airship, as it was already on order. Then World War II, its speedy fighter aircraft easily able to feed on the slow-moving airships, ended not only the company, but the industry.