Mysteries of the Hindenburg Disaster


The Hindenburg in March 1936 (Image source: Wikipedia)

Interesting fact: The Hindenburg was just 82 feet shorter than the titanic. It spans up to the length of 15 jumbo jets.


One of the most horrific events of the early 1900s, the Hindenburg Disaster put a halt to the development of aerial travel and entrapped a fear into the minds of the public against travelling in airships. For those people who are not familiar with this tragic event, let us take a peep back into the past. One of the largest of the German airships, the “LZ 129 Hindenburg” on May 6th 1937 caught fire and crashed to the ground setting ablaze everything around it and killing 35 people of the 97 that were aboard the airliner. It marked the end of the period of airships.


Till then airships provided a fast, luxurious and comfortable means of transportation for long distances. It was much faster to cross the seas in these airships rather than by ships. Germany, under the rule of Hitler was one of the most advanced in the Zeppelin Production. The ones produced by the British and America were of a lower standard and had frequent technical failures, whereas the German technology was much more advanced. The Germans excelled in aeronautical and automobile technologies producing the world’s finest vehicles.


How do the Zeppelins Work?

This is a crucial part in understanding the theories put forward by the investigation team. The zeppelins were aircrafts which used a large reservoir of a gas which was lighter than air (mostly hydrogen) to give it lift. The directionality was controlled by tail rudder fins and throttle by propellers at the end of the airship. The cockpit was located at the extreme bottom of the ship for ground visibility and the passenger decks amidst the Hydrogen reservoir. Hydrogen is a highly flammable and therefore had to be stored in special conditions. The outer cover of the zeppelin was made with heat absorbing materials. To control the altitude of the airship, vents were present at the top of the zeppelin to let out hydrogen whenever the airship was to be lowered.


Hindenburg Disaster Facts: Summary of Events
  • Flight Name:              LZ129 Hindenburg
  • Origin of Flight:           Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
  • Date of Departure:     May 3rd­,1937
  • Destination:               Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey, USA.
  • People on Board:       36 Passengers + 61 crew


The luxury airliner, Hindenburg set out on what was to be its last journey on late evening of May 3rd 1937. It was a means of transportation that only the upper half of the society could afford. Ticket prices were enough to buy a luxury car at that time. Captained by Max Prusser, the Hindenburg made quite an ordinary journey excepting the encounter of strong opposing winds which caused a slight delay which was made up for later. As it was approaching the USA on 6th of May, there was an electrical storm over Lakehurst, New Jersey. The captain had to alter the course plane in order to avoid the storm, yet there was a lot charge present in the surrounding area.


At 7:00PM local time, the Hindenburg made its final approach into Lakehurst, ready to dock with the mooring mast by dropping the mooring cables and being pulled down by ground staff. It was at an altitude of 200m.


At 7:09PM, the airship made a sharp left turn towards the landing zone and slowed down gradually to the approach.


At 7:21PM, it stopped over the drop zone and dropped its cables which were tightened to the winches.

Hindenburg crash

Hindenburg Crash (Image source: Wikipedia)

At 7:25PM, as it was lowering down into the ground, according to certain eye witnesses, there were a few sparks accompanied by a yellow or orange like flame near the tail fin on the covers. The initial flame then spread rapidly across the zeppelin consuming it within 34 seconds.



Date of Crash: May 6th, 1937


Casualties: 13 passengers + 22 crew + 1 ground crew


The deceased had been given a memorial service in Manhattan with full Nazi traditions as they were to be returned to their homeland to be laid into the ground. Even the survivors were brutally injured and had just missed by good fortune.

Theories of Initial Ignition

Back in the earlier days there were no black boxes or recorders in the aircrafts to record the data of the flight course. Therefore the investigation to what caused this disaster depended immensely on the eye witness testimonials. The Americans and the German Deutsch Zeppelin Company conducted lateral assessments to what may have caused the crash. Early theories were:



The chief of the Zeppelin Company probed initially into consideration that the fire was set off on purpose. This was taken into consideration as the Nazi Germany under the rule of Hitler was consistent in carrying out such monstrous regimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was called for an investigation and began doing background checks on passengers and crew. There were suspects who initially thought to have possessed certain items which could have triggered the explosion. But there was no hard evidence proving that anyone were involved in a sabotage. The next rational explanation was “Mechanical Failure”.


Gas Leak:

The weak link of the design of the Hindenburg was the use of Hydrogen. Since hydrogen was an incredibly flammable gas, people invariably blamed that the leak of hydrogen into the atmosphere leading it to mix with the atmospheric gases making it a dangerous mixture. As the Hindenburg approached into the Lakehurst Naval Air station, the vents of the airship had let out hydrogen. At the time the weather condition was also considered to be a contributing factor for the presence of electric static in the air. When a static spark comes into contact with the hydrogen mixture, it begins to burn with a blue flame. The spark created the flame and burnt the entire content of the airship leaving it in ruins. This theory supported eye witness statements stating that the fire started near the vent located near the tail fin.


Inflammable Paint Theory

The investigation on the Hindenburg was closed immediately when a logical explanation was given concluding that the gas leak of hydrogen near the tail fin while forming a mixture with oxygen was ignited by an electric spark due to the persistent lightning storm caused the fire which led to the destruction of the Hindenburg. But retired NASA hydrogen program manager Dr. Addison Bain believes that the reason was quite different. He was obsessed with hydrogen becoming the fuel for future technology. While on a project he suddenly gained interest in the Hindenburg and conducted various experiments, reassess the news footage which was released in colour in the late 1980s and reinvestigating the eye witness statements. He stated that the colour of the flame (yellow and orange) was not characteristic of a hydrogen flame. On reviewing the video he found that the outer cover of the zeppelin burned very rapidly. The entire airship took 34 seconds to burn completely. On running a test on the material of the outer cover of the zeppelin, he found that the German engineers coated it with a special cocktail of chemicals of Iron Oxide and Powdered Aluminium to keep the cover water proof and heat absorbent. To understand the severity of this result, you can compare the fact that solid powdered aluminium is used as a modern day rocket propellant fuel. The aluminium on being excited by electric charge would heat it up so much that the flammable material surrounding it would burn almost instantly. He even proved this by subject a piece of cloth the Hindenburg to static electricity. He submitted his report in 1996 which was widely accepted by the public but also it had its fair amount of criticism.


What is the Truth?

All of these hypotheses were logical and have their own strong points and their weak links. Although the truth is unknown, there are people who keep creating reasons and the rest who disprove other theories. Dr. Addison Bain had flew to Germany after submitting his report and found in the archives that even the Zeppelin company had conducted the same experiment that he had conducted, in the course of the investigation in 1937-38 and deduced the same result. Maybe they did not disclose the matter due to insurance problems.

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