Perhaps moreso than any other date, May 6, 1937 marks what is probably the final nail in the coffin of the great Age of the Airship. 36 souls were lost when the LZ-129 Hindenburg went down in flames in Lakehurst, NJ, after a Transatlantic flight from Germany. Wind gusts made the landing troublesome, but the true tragedy of the crash came when one of the aft gas cells sprung a leak and the hydrogen inside ignited, spreading flames through the ship with deadly speed. To this day, the true cause of the leak and the fire are unknown, but the great ship was decimated in less than sixty seconds.
Some passengers and crew were able to jump to safety from the windows and exits, while others sought emergency exits once the dying ship was on the ground. Navy sailors among the passengers and ground crew were heroes that day as they ran back and forth into the inferno seeking survivors. 13 passengers, 22 crew, and 1 ground landing crewman perished that day, and so did the age of the airships.
The Hindenburg (Deutsches Luftschiff Zeppelin #129 Hindenburg-class) was the largest airship yet built in its time. It was the longest, at almost 804 feet, and the largest in the volume of the envelope (over 7 million cubic feet of volume). It was the flagship of its class. It is still the second largest thing ever to fly (the sister ship LZ-130 was the largest) The airship’s propulsion system consisted of 4 Daimler-Benz 16-cylinder diesel engines, each running at 1200 horsepower. It carried 50 to 72 passengers with an upper limit of 61 crew members. The cost of a ticket for the Transatlantic journey between Germany and New Jersey was $450 (over 6 grand in today’s money). But that investment brought you to Jersey in 2 and a half days instead of 5, which was the fastest an ocean liner of the day could make the same crossing (Economy Class-fuhgeddaboutit–we’ll see you in 10 days). And those 2 and a half days were spent in luxury.
Although the LZ-129 was designed to use helium as its lifting gas, the decision to use hydrogen was based on the fact that it could be cheaply and plentifully made, while helium was only available from natural gas reserves, and the only seller of helium was in the US. The US Helium Control Act of 1927 prohibited the US from exporting helium to anyone that hadn’t applied to the US government for an exception.
Hindenburg and the Nazis
The ominous shadow of the German Nazi party’s dominance didn’t fail to fall on the impressive airship. Although it was built for commercial use, it was also pressed into service to distribute Nazi propaganda when it was barely out of the hangar, when Germany’s ground forces entered the Rhineland. The Graf Zeppelin LZ-127 (a sister ship) and the Hindenburg circled the skies, distributing Nazi party propaganda and leaflets that called for Germans to support both the occupation of the Rhineland and to solidify Nazi power in in the German Reichstag. The captain’s decision to fly the not-fully-tested airship to impress the Nazi party politicians caused a rift between the Nazis and Hugo Eckener, the leader of zeppelin operations, and caused him to be sidelined through political maneuvering.
The Hindenburg also made an appearance at the 1936 Olympics in Munich and served several times as a symbol of Nazi technological power both inside and outside Germany.
The End of an Age
The Hindenburg was not the only disaster to befall hydrogen airships, and Germany was unusually skilled (or unusually lucky, or perhaps a bit of both) in its safe operation of hydrogen-lifted airships. So why did the Hindenburg disaster mark the end of the era? The prevailing theory is to blame the media. While the US and Britain both suffered airship disasters prior to the Hindenburg, these were military disasters, and the public and the press were far away from the wreckage and loss of life. The Hindenburg marks not only a tragedy of technology and the close of an era, but it was the first tragedy of its kind to have live media coverage.