On this day seventy-four years ago, the age of the rigid airship came very abruptly to an end with what is commonly known as the Hindenburg Disaster. Throughout the preceding three decades, German commercial zeppelins (named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who pioneered this type of craft) had flown over a million miles on more than two thousand flights without a single injury, but all that was to change in Lakehurst, New Jersey on 6th May 1937.
The ill-fated final flight of the Hindenburg began on 3rd May when the ship left Frankfurt before flying across the English Channel and heading out over the Atlantic. The arrival in Lakehurst, scheduled for 6am on 6th May was delayed by twelve hours owing to strong headwinds, but the photograph at the top of the page (which was taken at 3pm) shows the Hindenburg flying over New York. Just over an hour later, the ship reached Lakehurst, but both the Hindenburg’s commander, Captain Max Pruss and Captain Charles Rosendahl from Lakehurst deemed the poor weather conditions unsuitable for landing.
Pruss steered the ship along the New Jersey coast until, at 6:22pm, he was advised by Rosendahl that it was now safe to land. Three quarters of an hour later, that advice had become a “strong recommendation” and Pruss directed the Hindenburg to the landing site. First Officer Albert Sammt oversaw the valving of hydrogen to reduce the ship’s buoyancy in preparation for landing, but further gas was released from the tail section in an attempt to level the ship. This maneouvre didn’t have the desired effect and more hydrogen was released, as was over 1,000kg of water ballast and eventually, six crewmen were ordered to add their weight to the bow in an effort to balance the vessel.
Whilst this was happening, the wind direction changed and Pruss ordered a sharp left turn to line up the ship with the mooring mast. Soon after, one of the landing party noticed a “fluttering” of the airship’s outer cover and at 7:25pm, flames became visible at the top of the hull and near the rear port engine. Within seconds, a section of the craft collapsed and streaks of flame were followed by a muffled explosion The fire soon engulfed the tail end of the Hindenburg, but the ship remained level for a few more seconds before the tail end dropped and flames erupted from the bow, where the men who had been send to balance the vessel were still situated.
The ship was consumed in less than a minute and survival chances basically depended on where the passengers or crew happened to be when the fire broke out. Some jumped – and survived – but amongst the passengers who perished was Emma Pannes, who had gone to fetch her coat; her husband John went to find her and also died in the inferno.
The Hindenburg settled on the ground, less than a minute after bursting into flame; those who had jumped from the ship scrambled desperately for safety, but video footage shows that naval officers led by Chief Petty Officer Frederick “Bull” Tobin rushed back to the burning ship to rescue survivors.
35 of the 97 people on board the Hindenburg lost their life... 13 passengers and 22 crew; one member of the civilian landing party (Allen Hagaman) was also killed.
The definitive cause of the disaster has never been determined; there have been theories aplenty, including a static spark, engine failure and lightning as well as sabotage (the cause favoured by both Pruss and Rosendahl). Whatever the reason, that was the end of the rigid airship... the German ships may have had a good safety record, but the history of the vessel had been littered with accidents (including the British R-101 on which 48 people died and the USS Akron, where 73 lost their lives), but maybe the determining factor was that this tragedy was captured on film and the events were seen by millions of people right around the world. I’ve watched the footage; I have no idea how anyone, let alone 62 of those on board survived, but if there’d been a queue for another flight, trust me I would have been right at the back…
All my own work... almost.