The airship Hindenburg left Frankfurt airfield on her last flight at 7:16pm, May 3, 1937, carrying 97 passengers and crew. Crossing over Cologne, Beachy Head and Newfoundland, the largest dirigible ever constructed arrived over Boston at noon on May 6. By 3:00pm she was over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, headed for the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Foul weather caused a half-day’s delay but the landing was eventually cleared, the final S turn approach executed toward the landing tower, at 7:21pm. Within moments, the ship arrived at the mooring mast. She was 180-feet above the ground with forward landing ropes deployed when the first flames appeared near the top tail fin.
Eyewitness accounts differ as to where the fire, came from. The leading theory is that, with the metal framework grounded through the landing line, the ship’s fabric covering became charged in the electrically charged atmosphere, sending a spark to the air frame and igniting a hydrogen leak. Seven million cubic feet of hydrogen ignited almost simultaneously. It was over in less than 40 seconds.
The largest dirigible ever built, an airship the size of Titanic burst into flames as the hull collapsed and plummeted to the ground. Passengers and crew jumped for their lives and scrambled to safety along with ground crews only moments earlier, positioned to receive the ship.
The famous film shows ground crew running for their lives, and then turning and running back to the flames. It’s natural enough to have run, but there’s something the film doesn’t show. That was Chief Petty Officer Frederick “Bull” Tobin, the airship veteran in charge of the landing party, bellowing at his sailors above the roar of the flames. “Navy men, Stand fast! We’ve got to get those people out of there!” On September 4, 1923 Tobin had survived the crash of the USS Shenandoah. He wasn’t about to abandon his post, even if it cost him his life. Tobin’s Navy men obeyed. That’s what you’re seeing when they turn and run back to the flames.
The Hindenburg disaster is sometimes compared with that of the Titanic, but there’s a common misconception that the former disaster was the more deadly of the two. In fact, 64% of the passengers and crew aboard the airship survived the fiery crash, despite having only seconds to react. In contrast, officers on board the Titanic had 2½ hours to evacuate, yet most of the lifeboats were launched from level decks with empty seats. Only 32% of Titanic passengers and crew survived the sinking. It’s estimated that an additional 500 lives could have been saved, had there been a more orderly, competent, evacuation of the ship.
As it was, 35 passengers and crew lost their lives on this day in 1937, and one civilian ground crew. Without doubt the number would have been higher, if not for the actions of Bull Tobin and is Navy men.
Where a person was inside the airship, had a lot to do with their chances of survival. Mr and Mrs Hermann Doehner and their three children (Irene, 16, Walter, 10, and Werner, 8) were in the dining room, watching the landing. Mr. Doehner left before the fire broke out. Mrs. Doehner and the two boys were able to jump out but Irene went looking for her father. Both died in the crash.
For all the film of the Hindenburg disaster, there is no footage showing the moment of ignition. Investigators theorized a loose cable creating a spark or static charge from the electrically charged atmosphere. Some believed the wreck to be the result of sabotage, but that theory is largely debunked.
Four score years after the disaster, the reigning hypothesis begins with the static electricity theory, the fire fed and magnified by the incendiary iron oxide/aluminum impregnated cellulose “dope” with which the highly flammable hydrogen envelope, was painted.
The 35 year era of the dirigible was filled with accidents before Hindenburg, but none dampened public enthusiasm for lighter-than-air travel. The British R-101 accident killed 48, the crash of the USS Akron 73. The LZ-4, LZ-5, Deutschland, Deutschland II, Italia, Schwaben, R-38, R-101, Shenandoah, Macon, and others. All had crashed, disappeared into the darkness, or over the ocean. Hindenburg alone was caught on film, the fiery crash recorded for all to see. The age of the dirigible, had come to an end.