Hindenburg LZ 129 was a German commercial passenger-carrying airship. It was 245 meters long and had a volume of 200,000 cubic meter. Airships were quite different from the airplanes that we see nowadays. These were the flying machines in which a huge skeleton used to be covered by an envelope. When filled with a lifting gas this massive balloon would lift and travel through air. Hindenburg was a luxurious passenger vehicle like Titanic. And it met the same fate.
Hindenburg first flew in March 1936. On 6 May 1937, just 14 months later, the airship was on its first flight of the season to United States. It took off from Frankfurt in Germany and its destination was Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, USA. The airship crossed the Atlantic ocean without any problem like it had done before in the previous season when it made 17 round trips across the ocean.
Due to a storm the captain of the airship changed its route a bit and flew it over Manhattan. Public in Manhattan rushed out in open spaces to see this flying spectacle. At around 7:00 pm Hindenburg approached the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. As it was preparing to land, at 7:25 pm, it caught fire and within seconds the entire ship was on ground engulfed in flames.
The iconic photograph given above was taken by Gus Pasquerella, an employee of the US Navy on 6 May 1937 at the at Lakehurst Naval Air Station.
The cause of this disaster is not known with certainty. Of the 97 people on board, 35 died and one person on ground was also killed. There were several newsreel cameramen and photographers present at the site to cover the landing of airship —so this accident is quite well filmed. However, no newsreel camera was on when the fire erupted. Given below is a video that shows one such newsreel of this accident. The voice is that of Herbert Morrison who was on the scene to do commentary for WLS radio. The transcript of what Morrison said is also given below:
It’s practically standing still now. They’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) they’ve been taken a hold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again; it’s… the rain had (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from…It’s burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it! Watch it! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world. [indecipherable] its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it—I can’t even talk to people, their friends are out there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. Lady, I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because [indecipherable] I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.
With this accident the entire airship industry had to be shut down because people lost faith in the safety of airship travel. One accident had destroyed the entire industry forever.
Did you know:
- Hindenburg was using hydrogen gas instead of helium. Helium is a much safer gas for airships but at that time it was extremely expensive whereas hydrogen was cheaper and could easily be produced.
- The maximum speed of Hindenburg was 135 km/h and it needed at crew of 40 to 60 people. The passenger capacity was 50 to 72 people.
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