As I start to write this, in the evening of May 6, it is 75 years to the day that the 61 crew and the 36 passengers of the airship Hindenburg were attempting what was called a “high landing” or “flying moor,” in which the airship would drop lines from altitude and then be winched onto the mooring mast. For several hours they had been slowly cruising along the New Jersey shoreline, waiting for thunderstorms over the Lakehurst area to clear the Naval Air Station so they could land. Everyone on board was impatient. The Hindenburg was late. Headwinds over the Atlantic had put the airship behind schedule. Absent those delays, the landing might have occurred substantially earlier in the day.
In any event, as airship and ground crews struggled in the winds and drizzle, the Hindenburg caught fire. Some seven million cubic feet of hydrogen (coincidentally, the Hindenburg at 840 feet in length and 135 feet in diameter was approaching the same size as the Titanic) burst into flame.
The entire airship was completely destroyed in less than a minute.
Because of the high profile of these German airships and their operations, press coverage had been extraordinary and this event was captured on film. Grim viewing, even to today’s jaded eyes. It’s hard to imagine how anyone escaped, but only 35 people died, including one member of the ground crew.
The post-accident investigation was extensive for the time. The Wikipedia links give much of the detail. Witnesses gave conflicting accounts of where the fire started. The possible triggers and contributing causes of the disaster have been the subject of much conjecture. Lightning or electrical activity from the nearby storms? Sabotage…maybe a camera’s flashbulb linked to a timer? In the shadowy alternative what-if, if-only, coulda-woulda world-that-might-have-been that closely tracks the real world we live in, perhaps the disaster might have been averted?
Certainly the single major contributing factor was the use of hydrogen instead of helium gas to provide buoyancy. Hydrogen provided an extra 8% lift, but that wasn’t the reason for its use in this case. Technology had only recently made it possible to collect helium, an inert gas, in the quantities needed. That technology was in American hands. The Germans had requested helium, but that request had been denied. By this time Hitler’s Germany was already considered a rogue nation, and helium was recognized as a strategic material. The swastikas emblazoned on the tail of the Hindenburg were a grim reminder that Hitler and the Nazi party had not only taken over the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company but also Germany itself…ironically wresting it from the leadership of Paul von Hindenburg, the German former military leader and statesman after whom the airship was named.
The Germans were comfortable handling the hydrogen. They’d been using it all along…were confident they knew how to control the risk (just as they thought they could handle Hitler).
As I read these background materials to prepare this post, a name caught my notice. Mark Heald, a Princeton professor of history who’d been an eye-witness, along with his wife and son, was quoted to the effect he’d seen St. Elmo’s fire on the airship moments before the airship became ablaze.
Mark Heald? While at Swarthmore, I’d had a physics professor by the same name. I googled Mark Heald the history professor and found a biography. He’d obviously had a distinguished career. And he had a son Mark Heald who had been living in Swarthmore at the time of his death.
Time to draw onthe Internet one more time…a little research yielded a phone number that got me in touch with my former professor, now retired.
What a great privilege to hear from this gentle, insightful scientist once again! Brought back a rush of gratitude and great college memories. And sure enough! He had witnessed the Hindenburg tragedy…
Mark told me he had been eight years old. His dad had gotten a new car, and asked the family if they wanted to go for a drive. They’d heard the Hindenburg was landing that day at Lakehurst, just about 40-50 miles away. So they set out.
Mark said at that time airships from Lakehurst – the Macon and the Akron – would often fly from Lakehurst to Princeton on training runs and then loop around. [The story of the Akron, including its loss at sea in a storm, makes particularly compelling reading.] The Princeton schoolkids could hear the distinctive sound of the airship engines in the schoolroom; they’d sometimes be allowed to go outside and watch.
Mark said he’d remembered that a squall had delayed the airship’s landing, so his family went for a bite to eat and then drove over to the naval air station. He said it had been quite rural then, and they were able to park the car in a lot outside the main entrance to the base. From there they enjoyed a close-hand side view of the landing, while shielded from the wind and drizzle. He said their vantage point was distinct from most of the camera perspectives which were essentially underneath the vessel. He remembers his father saying “oh my goodness the Hindenburg’s on fire.”
Mark said they left almost immediately afterward; his father had realized the two-lane roads would be clogged with emergency vehicles and they’d only be in the way. He said they were very surprised to read the next day that so many people had survived.
Airships had been making the trans-Atlantic run in three days or a bit less. The Hindenburg had made something like 17 round trips in 1936. Many saw these vessels as the people movers of the future. But their weather vulnerabilities, immense bulk, high operating costs, and dangers soon made their dangers and limitations all too apparent.
History went a different way.