CHARLOTTE, N.C.: Early in May of 1937, the most famous airship catastrophe in history took place when the massive German zeppelin named the Hindenburg became an inferno of flames while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey. In less than a minute, the largest object in the history of flight and symbol of German power, ignited into an inferno with 97 passengers and crew on board.
Despite the gravity of the tragedy, the number of survivors far outweighed the victims by about 2 to 1. Of the 36 deaths, there were 22 crew members and 33 passengers plus one ground worker who died. Miraculously, 62 others survived the conflagration which seems incredible after viewing newsreel footage of the disaster.
The famous Hindenburg film
Contrary to popular belief, reporter Herbert Morrison did not broadcast the horror of the Hindenburg live. Morrison was taping an eyewitness account of the landing for later radio broadcast when the tragedy occurred.
Chicago listened to Morrison’s heartbreaking narrative on the radio later that day. Later on editors added his recorded voice to the newsreel film. Over the decades, that footage – and Morrison’s inadvertent voice over gave viewers the impression that the entire broadcast and narrative happened live, in real time.
Because of the joining of Morrison’s voice and newsreel footage, most people believe the Hindenburg catastrophe is the most famous airship disaster in history. But it was not the worst. Two other crashes were deadlier: one in 1930 and the other in 1933, which took the lives of 73 members of the U.S. Navy.
The Hindenburg disaster did, however, put an end to commercial airship travel forever.
Science can be lighter than air
Though the designer of the German zeppelin, Hugo Eckener, preferred using helium as the gas to propel his gigantic machine, the United States had a monopoly on the world supply of helium at the time. The reason? The U.S. government refused to export helium. They did not trust other countries with its use.
As a result, Eckener redesigned his airship to operate on hydrogen, which is considerably more flammable than helium, which is actually an inert gas.
Following the disaster at Lakehurst, American public opinion favored exporting helium to Germany for nonmilitary purposes. Later, in 1938, when Germany annexed Austria, Secretary of Interior, Harold Ickes, refused to sign the agreement that would allow Germany access to helium.
Hindenburg, Hitler, and Goebbels’ art of propaganda
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels recognized the potential of the zeppelin. The enormous airship was the perfect symbol of Germany’s strength.
The Hindenburg, which was longer than 3 football fields, made its first flight in 1936. It was the same year Germany played host to the Olympic Games in Berlin. Emblazoned with Nazi swastikas on its tail fins and the Olympic rings on the side, the Hindenburg flew around Germany for four days blaring patriotic music and pro-Hitler propaganda from specially designed loudspeakers. Goebbels used it get support for the German reoccupation of the Rhineland. It sent an ironclad message of Nazi power and fortitude to the rest of world.
Goebbels’ strategy invited several bomb threats against the Hindenburg. These included a conspiracy theory that the disastrous Hindenburg landing in New Jersey was the result of sabotage rather than a wayward, accidental spark that ignited the hydrogen gas.
Another part of Goebbels’ strategy was a push to name the Hindenburg for Adolf Hitler. Hugo Eckener was not a supporter of Hitler’s regime, however. He chose instead to dub his zeppelin the Hindenburg, in honor of former German president Paul von Hindenburg.
Oddly enough, Hitler was not thrilled with the idea of airship travel in the first place. So, despite his massive ego, he was not unhappy when the crash took place and his name was not part of it.
Bizarre luxuries and perks aboard the Hindenburg
Despite the danger of using hydrogen as a fuel, the Hindenburg surprisingly had a specially adapted smoking lounge on board. The Hindenburg actually had a smokers’ lounge even with the prohibition of matches or lighters.
Passengers could purchase cigarettes and Cuban cigars on board and light up in a pressurized cabin designed to prevent any gas from leaking into the room. Using a double-door airlock system that allowed entrance into the lounge, there was a single electric lighter operated by a staff member who also made certain no one departed the room with a lit cigarette, cigar or pipe.
Filled with 7 million cubic feet of highly combustible hydrogen, the Hindenburg took every precaution humanly possible to prevent an incident.
In addition, the airship did not stint on passenger amenities. Even given weight considerations, the ship’s designers incorporated a piano into the many luxury features aboard ship. To achieve this, the Julius Bluther Company built a full-sized grand piano of aluminum alloy weighing less than 400 pounds. Used only during the first season of flight, the piano stayed in Germany for the 1937 voyage.
You’ve got mail…
Perhaps strangest of all of many facts surrounding the Hindenburg is this one. Some 176 pieces of mail sealed in a protective container were among the artifacts that actually survived the disaster. Believe it or not, those pieces of mail, though charred, were readable and postmarked just four days following the crash. Today, the stamps from those letters are among the most valuable collectors’ items in the world.
If it quacks like a duck…
Finally, a thought. Given the German drive for efficiency, there’s a good chance they might not have used helium in the first place to get the Hindenburg aloft. After all, what if they had landed safely and everyone got off the zeppelin talking like Donald Duck?
Think about it.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)