The Hindenburg (also known as a Zeppelin) was a type of rigid airship named after the German inventor Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin. He pioneered rigid airship development at the beginning of the 20th century. Formulated in 1874, and developed in 1893, the Zeppelin was patented in Germany in 1895 and shortly after in the United states in 1899.
Aside from using Zeppelins as a commercial aircraft, they were also used as bombers and scouts during the WW1. These majestic airships signified great wealth and power.
The defeat of Germany in 1918 slowed the airship business dramatically. Eventually Germany would be prevented from building large airships as documented under the terms of the Treaty Versailles.
An exception was made however, allowing the construction of one airship for the United States Navy, which saved the company from total destruction.
By 1926, the restrictions on airship construction were lifted work finally began on the construction of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin. The Graf Zeppelin was named after German airship Pioneer Ferdinand Von Zeppelin, a count (Graf in German) in his own right. The Graf was operated by Dr Hugo Eckener, and made 590 flights totalling almost 1.7 million kilometres.
Count Ferdinand’s interest in airship development began in 1874. He seriously pursued his passion after his early retirement from the military in 1890 at the age of 52. He began dabbling with designs in 1891, and had completed detailed designs of his vision by 1893. The rest is history.
The Graf’s brother ship “The Hindenburg” a larger LZ129 also joined the skies in March 1936, with regular transatlantic flights from Germany to North and South America ranking up 63 flights in total.
The Hindenburg was named after Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, President of Germany from 1925 – 1934.
The Art deco spire on the top of the Empire State Building was originally designed to serve as a mooring mast for the Zeppelins and other airships, however high winds made this impossible, so the plan was abandoned.
The ship was built with triangular duralumin girders (bright blue from protective lacquer) forming 15 main rings, connecting 36 longitudinal girders, with a triangular keel at the bottom of the hull, an axial corridor at the centre of the ship, and a cruciform tail for strength.
The airship was designed to be filled with helium gas, but because of U.S. export restrictions on helium, it was filled with hydrogen. Hydrogen is extremely flammable.
The Skin that covered the airship creating a balloon effect was made from cotton canvas. It was made taut and durable by dipping the skin in a mixture of cellulose acetate butyrate and aluminium powder, which also gave the airship its signature, metallic appearance.
The passenger’s accommodation aboard the Hindenburg was contained within the hull of the airship unlike the passenger space on the Graf, which was located in the ships gondola. The passenger space was spread over two decks known as “A Deck” and “B Deck”.
On the “A Deck” you would be treated to the ships dining room, lounge, writing room, Port and starboard promenades, and 25 double-berth inside cabins.
The Hindenburg’s heating came from forced air warmed by water from the cooling systems of the forward engines.
The Hindenburg’s dining room encompassed the entire length of the port side of A Deck. The Tables and chairs were made of lightweight tubular aluminium and the seats upholstered in ruby red. The paintings that adorned the walls were on silk wallpaper, depicting scenes from Graf Zeppelin’s flights to South America.
The Lounge was approximately 34 feet in length and was decorated with a mural depicting the routes and ships of explorers, Magellan, Captain Hook, Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus. The furniture like that in the dining room was made of a lightweight aluminium, but the chairs here were upholstered brown.
At one point the lounge housed a Bluthner baby grand piano, covered with yellow pigskin. It was the first piano ever to be carried on a passenger aircraft made of Aluminium, weighing only 162kg. The frame, rim, fallboard, and top lid were made of duralumin, and the legs, back bracing, and lyre were made of hollow duralumin tubing. The piano was located in the lounge on A Deck where it was frequently played by passengers and the ships captain Ernst Lehmann, who earlier used his accordion to entertain passengers on the Graf Zeppelin.
On the last night of its voyage to the coast of North America, NBC radio reporter Max Jordan directed a live broadcast where Professor Wagner played Schuberts Serenade and Strauss’s Blue Danube, and accompanied Lady Suzanne Wilkins who sang “Im in the mood for love”.
The piano was removed way before the Hindenburg’s last flight and placed on display at the Bluthner factory. The piano was destroyed in 1943 when the factory burned following an air raid during the 2nd World War.
Next to the Lounge was the Writing Room, quite small but manageable.
THAT FATEFUL FLIGHT
The Hindenburg began its last flight on 3rd May, 1937 carrying 36 passengers, 61 officers, crew members and trainees. The airship left Frankfurt airfield at 7.16pm flying over Cologne, The Netherlands, The English Channel, Southern England’s Chalky cliffs at Beachy Head and then headed out over the Atlantic shortly after 2.00am the following day.
The Hindenburg followed a northern track across the ocean passing Greenland and Newfoundland. Headwinds delayed the airships passage across the Atlantic and the scheduled arrival in Lakehurst at 6.00am was postponed to 6.00pm.
May 6th, and by noon the ship had reached Boston and by 3.00pm, The ship was over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, NYC.
The airship flew south from New York and arrived at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey at around 4.15pm but due to poor weather conditions, the Hindenburg’s commander Captain Max Pruss made contact with the Lakehursts commanding officer Charles Rosendahl and together they decided to abort the landing until weather conditions improved, so he took his ship over the beached and coast of New Jersey to wait out the storm. By 6.00pm conditions had improved enough for Captain Rosendahl to make contact again with Captain Pruss aboard the Hindenburg confirming visibility and conditions were now suitable for landing. At 6.22pm Rosendahl radioed Pruss “recommend landing now”. At 7.08pm Rosendahl again sent a message to the ship strongly recommending the “earliest possible landing”.
The Hindenburg finally came into view as it approached the field at Lakehurst from the southwest shortly after 7.00pm. It was flying at approximately 600 feet.
At 7.21pm with the ship about 180 feet above the ground, the forward landing ropes were dropped. A few minutes after the lines were dropped, R.H.Ward who was in charge of the port bow landing party, noticed what he described as a wave-like fluttering of the outer cover on the port side between frames 62 and 77 which contained gas cell number 5. Later at the Commerce Departmental inquiry he testified that it appeared to him as if gas were pushing against the cover having escaped from the gas cell. Another crew member R.W. Antrim on the ground who at the time was at the top of the mooring mast, also confirmed that he saw the covering behind the rear port engine fluttering.
At 7.25pm the first visible external flames were sited both on the ground and from inside the ship itself. The fire quickly spread soon engulfing the ships tail. The ship remained level for a few seconds, before the tail began to sink and the nose pointed to the sky.
If there is a silver lining to this story its this. In the port and starboard promenades on the passenger decks were most of the passengers and crew. They had gathered there to watch the landing. After being tumbled against walls, and dodging flying furniture, it was the best place to be to get off the crippled airship.
The ship was completely consumed by fire in less than a minute and survival was largely dependant on where one was located at the time the fire broke out.
The lucky ones who made it to windows managed to jump from the burning aircraft, those trapped further inside never had a chance.
Passengers and crew members began jumping out the promenade windows to escape the flames. Most of the passengers close enough to windows on the promenade deck survived.
Those deep inside the ship, in the smoking room bar on B Deck and those on the starboard side were trapped in the wreck. The men stationed in the bow had the least chance. The nine men who were closest to the front of the ship at the time of the fire, all perished in the flames.
In less than 30 seconds after the first flames were observed. Those who had jumped, were assisted to safety by members of the ground crew who had been positioned on the field below the ship. Natural instinct caused those on the ground to run from the burning wreck, but Chief Petty Officer Frederick J Bull Tobin had other ideas and yelled out to this sailors, “Navy Men Stand Fast”. He ordered them to return to the aircraft and assist survivors. Films of the disaster clearly show sailors turning back towards the flames rescuing survivors.
Surviving was one thing, many had suffered serious physical injuries, not to mention the psychological ones in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.
In total, 13 of the 36 passengers, and 22 of the 61 crew died that day alongside one member of the civilian landing party (Allen Hagaman).
Scientific tests and research into the crash support the same conclusion, and that was that the Hindenburg disaster was caused by an electrostatic discharge (a spark) that went on to ignite leaking hydrogen.
THE LAST LIVING SURVIVOR OF THE HINDEBURG
WERNER GUSTAV DOEHNER 1929 – 2019
Doehner was born in Darmstadt Germany but grew up in Mexico City, Mexico. As the last living link to the Hindenburg disaster, and part of American history, Doehner chose to live his life reclusively after the tragedy.
The Hindenburg took his father, sister and 34 others. His mother, and older brother also survived. It was after Doehner’s father retired, they decided to take a vacation on the Hindenburg from Germany to New Jersey.
Doehner never spoke about that fateful day, for years. On the 80th anniversary into the disaster, he finally broke his silence and told the Associated Press that it was in fact his mother who threw him and his older brother out of the ship while it was on fire. His mother then jumped to the ground at NAS Lakehurst, Lakehurst Borough, New Jersey after them.
Mr and Mrs Hermann Doehner and their three children (Irene, 16; Walter 10; and Werner, 8 ) were also in the dining room watching the landing, but Mr Doehner left before the fire broke out. Mrs Doehner and her two young sons jumped to safety, but Irene left the dining room in search of her father, and both died as a result of the crash.
COMPARRISONS TO THE TITANIC
Many over the years have called the Hindenburg the Titanic of the skies. While both are best remembered fro their dramatic disasters, these two passenger ships are far from identical. In fact they have very little in common.
The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, where the Hindenburg had 62 successful flights.
The death toll on the titanic was at 68% compared to the 36% on the Hindenburg. While the Hindenburg’s fiery destruction may have looked un-survivable from those on the ground, of the 97 on board at the time of the explosion, only 35 died in the disaster, with one civilian also dying on the ground after trying to assist.
The Titanic was built for size and luxury, where the Hindenburg was built for one purpose, and that was to cross the ocean faster then any other passenger vessel in the world.
The most notable difference between the two was, that the Titanic was 882 feet and could accommodate quite comfortably 2,500 passengers, where the Hindenburg was 808 feet, and could only accommodate 72 passengers.
Even though the Titanic failed her maiden voyage, transatlantic ocean liners, saw the succession of larger and faster ships come of age that included Bremen and Europa, Normandie, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, United States, Queen Elizabeth 2, and France.
As for the Graf and the Hindenburg, the Graf never carried a paying passenger and was dismantled in 1940. The Hindenburg would be known as the last airship to ever carry passengers across an ocean.
Despite a long list of airship accidents such as the USS Akron which crashed at sea (73 deaths) and the British R-101 that crashed in the darkness of night (48 deaths). The one differing outcome was both were far from any witnesses or cameras. The crash landing of the Hindenburg was captured on film, and the world watched as it fell from grace.
The arrival of these balloons of the sky made news, and on that fateful day, amongst some of the reporters, Sam Shere of the International News Photos service was on hand to film every blazing moment of it. Shere was one of nearly two dozen still and newsreel photographers who scrambled to document the tragedy before them.
Today the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society conduct tours of historic parts of the station which included the crash site. The duralumin framework of the Hindenburg was salvaged and shipped back to Germany where there it was recycled and used in the construction of military aircraft.