Film crews assembled, the world’s media on hand, every hack worthy of the name present to witness the spectacle. She was already 12 hours late. But they couldn’t leave and miss such a grand entrance. Because of poor weather – thunderstorms had delayed the arrival anyway – many of the journalists had booked to stay in Lakehurst overnight rather than return to New York immediately. They could wire the stories in. Photographers checked their flashes and shutters. The hacks, their stories all but written, needing only to record the exact time of arrival and, if lucky, to catch a few words from Max Pruss, the captain.
An armada of taxis waited to take passengers elsewhere for their connections. A little after 7 PM, she was visible and making her way slowly towards her docking point. Cameras rolled, the journalists did their pieces to camera, and waited. Capt Pruss slowed the engines, hard astern, at 7:14 PM, then released the mooring chains at 7:21 PM. The port line was tightened before the starboard was attached causing the ship to judder. Immediately after, at 7:25 PM, there was a loud thump sound aft as the rear three hydrogen cells of the Hindenburg burst into flames. The film crews were caught with their pants down, preparing for their ground shots with the captain, not pointing skyward. Amazingly not one of the four film crews caught the moment of explosion although the ensuing conflagration was captured in full. All 37 seconds of it.
The Hindenburg that evening was carrying 36 passengers from Frankfurt and 61 crew, 21 of them trainees. A total of 36 died due to the explosion, 13 passengers, 22 crewmen and one unlucky person on the ground. Ironically, the ship’s tardiness in arriving saved a great many more lives. In the time between change around for the return flight to Europe, it was common practice to allow spectators at the mooring mast, some even being shown on board. On this occasion there wasn’t time.
In those 37 seconds, the future of passenger carrying transatlantic airships was decided. The images of the blazing giant, its nose pointing skyward like some wounded Leviathan, went viral so to speak. In those 37 seconds, the public’s perception of airships took a sharp about turn. Previously, the safety of passenger carrying zeppelins had been exemplary, with not a single passenger killed in around a decade of service. An earlier airship from the same stable, LZ 127 (the Graf Zeppelin), had even circumnavigated the globe and flown just under a million miles without mishap.
Although the precise cause of ignition remains unknown, the demise of the Hindenburg can be traced back to the breakdown of US-German relations. The Hindenburg was designed to use helium for buoyancy. Not hydrogen. And although the buoyancy of helium is much lower than that of hydrogen, this was taken into account by the designers to the extent of incorporating the largest gas cells ever used. But the US cornered the market in helium, and, fearful that they might be used for military purposes, declined to provide the Germans with adequate helium. And let’s face it, their concerns were probably justified – some 70 odd zeppelins had waged war for Germany less than a couple of decades earlier.
Germany fundamentally shrugged its shoulders and went ahead with construction of what was to be at the time the largest airship ever made. Nearly three football pitches long, with a lifting capacity of 232 tons and a maximum speed of 84 mph, the Hindenburg was ideally suited to luxury transatlantic travel. Able to carry up to 70 passengers in the kind of luxury associated with the ocean liners, the appeal was always out of the price range of the proletariat. This was luxury travel for people with money to burn. Literally, as it happened. The Hindenburg had passenger accommodation inside the hull on two levels, with picture window promenades on port and starboard side, a restaurant, bar and a piano lounge, with an aluminium baby grand. But perhaps most unbelievable of all, bearing in mind the proximity of 7,000,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, the Hindenburg had a smoking lounge.
The smoking lounge was pressure sealed to reduce the likelihood of hydrogen leaking inwards. Although the constructors took all reasonable safety measures, it is a triumph of the power of smoking over common sense that such a thing was ever considered at all. Passengers were prohibited from bringing on board their own smoking materials and were rigorously searched before boarding with denial of passage as the minimum censure. Indeed all luggage was searched prior to boarding. Cigar lighters in the smoking lounge were chained to the tables and the room was staffed at all times to prevent passengers lighting up then absentmindedly wandering off to their rooms.
Amongst the media focus on the Hindenburg, it is often forgotten that the Hindenburg had an identical twin, LZ 130. The fate of LZ 130 as a passenger carrying venture was sealed by the Hindenburg disaster. Denied an international passenger carrying certification without helium and denied helium by the US because of anticipated military usage by Germany, the manufacturer’s hand was forced and the ship was adopted by the military, filled with hydrogen, and used mainly for air to ground observation in the period immediately leading up to Germany’s invasion of Poland. In 1940, it and its namesake the Graf Zeppelin (LZ 127), were dismantled. No hydrogen filled commercial airship has flown since.
What of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin itself, the company that constructed these behemoths? Consigned to the dustbin of history? Actually not. Zeppelin exists to this day and is still making airships. Not on the scale of the Graf Zeppelin or the Hindenburg – new zeppelins would comfortably fit inside the airframe of the old giants’ airframe – but airships nonetheless. Filled with helium.