Aviation technology dies

The last ride of the Hindenburg

A masterpiece of engineering

The airship LZ 129 is the pride of the German Zeppelin shipping company. Together with its sister ship LZ 130 - the "Graf Zeppelin II" - it is the largest airship ever built: 245 meters long, with a diameter of 41 meters and a gas capacity of 200,000 cubic meters.

Eleven tons of cargo and luggage can be loaded. In the age of airship travel, the "Hindenburg" is considered a masterpiece of engineering. It is the first passenger airship to fly across the Atlantic.

The Hindenburg is actually supposed to be filled with helium, as this gas, unlike hydrogen, is non-flammable. But helium is rare. Only the US has it in abundance.

The US Navy refuses to deliver helium to Germany because Hitler and the German Reich have become too powerful for the Americans. A war in Europe has long been feared. So the team has no choice and has to fill the Hindenburg, like all other German airships, with hydrogen gas.

Flying luxury hotel

On the two-and-a-half-day crossing to the USA, travelers are pampered with great luxury: 15 stewards take care of the guests' physical well-being. In the huge dining room you can enjoy fine à la carte cuisine. The crew includes five cooks.

The equipment on board is modern and elegant. There is a specially made china service, tablecloths, serviettes and cutlery.

Despite the highly flammable hydrogen on board, smokers don't have to do without their trucks. There is even a smoking salon, the use of which is subject to strict guidelines: a steward manages the guests' personal smoking utensils, gives them a fire and controls the door so that no one walks out of the salon with a lit cigarette.

Due to the risk of fire, the room is closed off from the rest of the airship by a lock door. A permanent slight overpressure prevents gas from entering the smoking salon.

The sleeping cabins of the passengers are housed on two decks in the body of the airship; they have hot running water. Travelers can stroll on the promenade deck and look down at the steamers crossing the Atlantic.

A trip overseas with the most modern means of transport in the world costs 40,000 Reichsmarks - that is around 10,000 euros today.

Storms and thunderstorms on landing

The Hindenburg is powered by four diesel engines and can reach speeds of around 125 kilometers per hour. On the voyage to Lakehurst, the ship has to deal with violent headwinds off Newfoundland and has to reduce its speed to 100 kilometers per hour.

Captain Max Pruss orders to bypass the bad weather. The Hindenburg should have landed at Lakehurst Naval Air Base, New Jersey, long ago. The stormy weather delayed the landing by about twelve hours. On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg approached the landing site in Lakehurst near New York.

A thunderstorm is raging over the city. The Hindenburg does not get a landing permit and has to turn off again. The airship flies a lap of honor over New York.

But time is running out, because the Hindenburg is supposed to start again at midnight, in time for the coronation of the English King George VI. to be back in Europe on May 12th. The passengers are getting impatient. The airship approaches the landing site a second time.

30 second firestorm

The thunderstorm and rain have subsided. The Hindenburg is now allowed to land. The usual maneuvers follow: gas is released, ballast is thrown off.

About four minutes after the tether lines for the ground crew were lowered, a fire broke out at the stern of the ship. Crew members in the ship see a reddish glow of fire. At 60 meters there is a small jolt in the ship, report eyewitnesses.

"It wasn't actually noticeable, but I noticed it. At the same moment from the gondola we were able to watch the sky above us turn bloody red," later describes Eduard Boëtius, who navigated the airship on the elevator when it landed and the scenario survived.

"That came as a surprise. I immediately felt that it was a terrible misfortune. As soon as the tip of the airship hit, I ran out. I must have come out at the last second because everything was over after 30 seconds burned down, "says survivor Albert Stöffler, the confectioner on board.

The fire spreads quickly. Within half a minute the whole ship was burned into a pile of scrap aluminum. Passengers and crew are surrounded by flames. Some can save themselves by jumping out of the gondola, albeit sometimes with burn injuries.

The last two captains jump and suffer severe burns. Max Pruss survives, his colleague Ernst Lehmann dies the next day of his injuries. A total of 36 people were killed: 13 passengers, 22 crew members and one member of the ground crew.

Photo and newspaper reporters, radio journalists and film teams document the crash of the Hindenburg on site. It is the first disaster that the public has witnessed so closely. May 6, 1937 marked the end of the world air traffic of German zeppelins.

Theories about the explosion

To this day, there is much speculation about the cause of the accident. There is also talk of sabotage. Captain Pruss remains convinced until the end of his life that neither technical failure nor an unfortunate accident have destroyed his airship, but an assassin.

A commission of inquiry made up of German and American experts did not come to a clear conclusion about what triggered the explosion. She concludes that the tragedy was a "case of force majeure".

The most common assumption about the crash is that a wire loosened during a sharp turning maneuver shortly before landing over Lakehurst and a leak tore in the outer skin of the airship. Hydrogen was released and mixed with air to form a dangerous oxyhydrogen gas.

The airship was electrically charged by the thunderstorm and discharged when the landing ropes touched the ground. They were wet from the rain and therefore extremely conductive. As a result, there was then presumably a strong tension between the outer skin and the framework during the earthing.

A spark was created that ignited the existing hydrogen-air mixture and set the rear of the Hindenburg on fire.

Others believe that the new paint job the airship was given earlier may have caused the disaster. Scientists found years later that the paint's conductivity was almost zero. While the skeleton of the airship immediately discharged when grounded, the outer skin may not have been able to do so, which then led to the explosion.

Design errors, force majeure, an electrical discharge or sabotage - it will probably never be finally clarified why the trip in May 1937 was the Hindenburg's last trip.