LZ 129 Hindenburg was the largest airship ever built, 804 feet long, capable of ferrying 158 crew members and passengers across the Atlantic from Germany to North or South America. Supported by huge bags of hydrogen gas, the dirigible Hindenburg was the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime until May 6, 1937, when it exploded and burned during docking maneuvers at Lakehurst, New Jersey. In the space of 37 seconds, 35 of the 97 persons aboard perished in flames while onlookers watched in horror and newsreel cameras captured the disaster for posterity. Investigators on both sides of the Atlantic concluded that the fire was a simple accident, leaking hydrogen ignited by a charge of static electricity—but was it true? As with most disasters of modern times, conspiracy theories surfaced within hours of the Hindenburg explosion. Some theorists believed (and still maintain today) that saboteurs destroyed the blimp in a homicidal bid to embarrass Nazi Germany.
For half a century, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s (1838–1917) inventions had embodied Germany’s aeronautical aspirations. Zeppelin drew on the work of several forerunners for his designs, most notably Henry Cavendish, who discovered hydrogen in 1766, and the brothers Montgolfier, who presented a first hot-air balloon to the French public in 1783.
Later engineers failed to safely combine the flammable gas with the blimp design but suggested that an elongated envelope would be conducive to a vessel’s stability in strong winds. Zeppelin designed a rigid frame that further improved controllability of the luftschiff, or airship, and separate gas cells to be filled with hydrogen. He had the first dirigible patented in 1898. For the building of Luftschiff Zeppelin (LZ) 1, however, the count’s company lacked government funding and had to turn to private shareholders.
In 1908, donors had to save the project a second time when LZ 4 crashed in the German city of Echterdingen. Following models proved more dependable, and airships would soon be used for Arctic exploration, German air raids on London in World War I, and commercial travel.
On May 3, 1937, the Luftschiff Zeppelin 129 Hindenburg climbed from Rhein-Main airport into the air above Frankfurt, Germany. Its namesake was the recently deceased Paul von Hindenburg, World War I field marshal, president of the Weimar Republic (1925–34), and national idol. The LZ 129 was 804 feet long, 135 feet in diameter, and weighed approximately 250 tons. To provide the necessary lift, the Hindenburg’s 16 gas cells still had to be filled with combustible hydrogen, as the United States remained the only country to produce the nonflammable helium.
Since its maiden flight in 1936, the LZ 129 had completed 20 flights across the Atlantic Ocean and broken the previous models’ speed records. Under normal conditions, its four 1,050-horsepower Daimler-Benz DB 602 diesel engines accelerated the dirigible to a maximum of 84 miles per hour, but favorable winds had allowed for top speeds of up to 188 miles per hour. A westward trip from Germany to the United States took an average of 63 hours 42 minutes, which was 17.5 hours faster than its predecessor’s best time of 81 hours 14 minutes. Although the Hindenburg had been built to accommodate 50 to 70 passengers, it carried only 36 travelers in addition to 61 crew members when it embarked on its fatal final flight. The control gondola was the only element to protrude from the body, the passengers resided in 20 heated cabins at the center of the hull’s lower decks. Amenities on board included a 528- square-foot dining room, a reading and writing as well as a smoking room, and centrally located sanitary installations with showers. Panoramic windows embedded in the concave hull provided spectacular views for strollers on the promenade deck.
From the outset of the trip, Captains Max Pruss and Ernst Lehmann had to confront numerous adversities, all of them due to bad weather conditions. Storms first kept the airship from crossing the English Channel and then delayed its journey across the Atlantic. Blown off course to Newfoundland, it passed Manhattan behind schedule at 3 P.M. on May 6 and finally reached the U.S. Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, at 6 P.M. Heavy rains kept the airship from initiating landing procedures right away, and it was only an hour later that the storm calmed and the Hindenburg approached the mooring mast.
Suddenly the spontaneous combustion occurred at 7:25 P.M. As a ball of flames consumed the paneling and the exposed frame crashed on the landing field, the American ground-crews fled in panic. Once the ship hit the ground, those crewmen spun around to pull survivors from the blazing wreckage. The injured were rushed to hospitals, where more succumbed to their wounds, including Zeppelin captain Ernst Lehmann. A column of black smoke rose from the site as the heavy oil engine fuel continued to burn for three hours. A total of 13 passengers, 22 crewmen, and 1 Lakehurst-based navy soldier died in the crash. There were 62 survivors.
Contemporaries suspected sabotage or a lightning strike, while more recent hypotheses state that maneuvering in the storm might have led to a build-up of static energy in the ship’s envelope. An electric discharge may have ignited the hydrogen.
Captain Pruss, commander of the Hindenburg, was one of those who blamed the disaster on sabotage, but Hitler’s regime and the U.S. administration of President Franklin Roosevelt seemed equally eager to close the investigation without pointing fingers. One suspect often named in conspiracy theories is Joseph Spah, a surviving passenger who frequently visited his dog in the Hindenburg’s baggage compartment (and thus had ample opportunity to plant a bomb). Another suspect, crewman Eric Spehl, died in the fire and was posthumously credited with anti-Nazi attitudes. No solid evidence indicts either suspect (or anyone else), but speculation on causes of the fire still continues.
In 1998 spokespeople for the National Hydrogen Association blamed weather conditions and an “unorthodox” landing for the explosion. As explained in the NHA’s publication:
Observations of the incident show evidence inconsistent with a hydrogen fire:
(1) the Hindenburg did not explode, but burned very rapidly in omnidirectional
(2) the 240-ton airship remained aloft and upright many seconds after the fire began,
(3) falling pieces of fabric were aflame and not self-extinguishing, and
(4) the very bright color of the flames was characteristic of a forest fire, not a hydrogen fire (hydrogen makes no visible flame).
Also, no one smelled garlic, the scent of which had been added to the hydrogen to help detect a leak. Conspiracists remain unpersuaded as they have for the past seven decades, noting that a bomb blast would preclude any lingering aroma from a slow leak, with or without garlic.
Disasters, Accidents and Crises In American History by Ballard C. Campbell;
The Encyclopedia of Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories by Michael Newton
Disasters, Accidents and Crises In American History by Ballard C. Campbell page 267