May 6, 1937 – Hindenburg Disaster

On this day in history, the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in Manchester Township, New Jersey. Of the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crewmen), there were 35 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmen). One worker on the ground was also killed, making a total of 36 fatalities.

The Hindenburg, built by the Nazis and named after former President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg) was a Zeppelin, a type of rigid airship named after the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who pioneered rigid airship development at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Hindenburg on its first flight on March 4, 1936. The name of the airship was not yet painted on the hull, but Nazi swastikas can be seen on the fins.

The Hindenburg on its first flight on March 4, 1936. The name of the airship was not yet painted on the hull, but Nazi swastikas can be seen on the fins.

With the coming to power of the Nazi Party in 1933, Zeppelins became a propaganda tool for the new regime: they would now display the Nazi swastika on their fins and occasionally tour Germany to play march music and propaganda speeches to the people. In 1934 Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, contributed two million reichsmarks towards the construction of The Hindenburg, and in 1935 Hermann Göring established a new airline to take over Zeppelin operations.

The Hindenburg was the largest airship ever built. It had been designed to use non-flammable helium, but the only supplies of that gas were controlled by the United States, which refused to allow its export. So, in what proved to be a fatal decision, the Hindenburg was filled with flammable hydrogen. Apart from the propaganda missions, LZ 129 was used on the transatlantic service alongside Graf Zeppelin.

Hindenburg class airship compared to largest fixed wing aircraft

Hindenburg class airship compared to largest fixed wing aircraft

The Hindenburg had departed from Frankfurt, Germany in the evening of May 3, 1937, on the first of 10 round trips between Europe and the United States that were scheduled for its second year of commercial service. American Airlines had contracted with the operators of the Hindenburg to shuttle the passengers from Lakehurst to Newark for connections to airplane flights.

Although carrying only half its full capacity of passengers and crewmen, the Hindenburg was fully booked for its return flight. The airship was hours behind schedule when she passed over Boston on the morning of May 6, and her landing at Lakehurst was expected to be further delayed because of afternoon thunderstorms. After finally being notified at 6:22 p.m. that the storms had passed, the captain directed the airship to make its landing almost half a day late. However, at 7:25 p.m local time, the Hindenburg caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flames. Where the fire started is unknown; witnesses gave conflicting testimony.

The fire bursts out of the nose of the Hindenburg.

The fire bursts out of the nose of the Hindenburg.

The disaster was well-documented because publicity about the first transatlantic passenger flight of the year by Zeppelin to the United States attracted a large number of journalists to the landing.

The spectacular film footage destroyed public and industry faith in airships and marked the end of the giant passenger-carrying airships. Also contributing to the Zeppelins’ downfall was the beginning of international passenger air travel with Pan American Airlines. Heavier-than-air aircraft regularly crossed the Atlantic and Pacific much faster than the 130 km/h (80 mph) speed of the Hindenburg.

You can watch actual amazing footage of the disaster on YouTube.

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