On May 6, 1937 a dream died with a bang, along with 37 souls. Up until then, the future of trans-oceanic and other mega-long distant air service looked like it belonged to lighter than air craft. Airplanes, it was thought, were too limited by fuel needs and lift capacity to economically serve this need. They were alright for military use, that had been proven, and had a place supplementing good rail service in shorter distance travel, but the great dirigibles held the promise of connecting the world with fast, reliable passenger service and a lift capacity that could also eventually become a freight hauler.
All of that changed when the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg ignited and crashed in a fiery inferno as it attempted to dock with its mooring mast at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. The event was captured in all of its dramatic horror by newsreel cameras and described in a live broadcast by WLS Radio of Chicago.
Dirigibles were a refinement on the concept of a powered balloon developed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin beginning in 1899. Unlike their predecessors, Zeppelin’s creation featured a light but rigid cigar shaped envelope inside of which lighter than air gas was contained in a series of tanks or bladders. The envelope provided additional space inside which could be used for freight or passengers. The ships were powered by two or more gasoline or diesel engines and a cab extending below the envelope served as a pilot station.
Zeppelin built several models of increasing size and lift potential over the years. In the World War I they were pressed into military service and famously bombed London.
The British, French, Italians, and the U.S. all scrambled to enter the field with lighter than air craft themselves. But crashes and failures dodged all attempts. The British R34 became the first dirigible to cross the Atlantic in 1919, but it crashed in a storm two years later. A larger sister ship R38 exploded in 1921 when its frame snapped, unable to stand the strain causing a spark which ignited explosive hydrogen gas used for lift.
The U.S. hardly fared better. It ship, the U.S. Navy’s ZR1 Shenandoah was built in 1923 and used non-combustible helium for safety. Despite this advantage Shenandoah broke up in a thunderstorm over Ohio in 1925 killing 19 of 43 crewmen.
The Navy, which remained committed to lighter than air ships, commissioned the Zeppelin company to build it a ship as part of war reparations from defeated Germany. The commission kept the company alive while Germany was forbidden by treaty from building airships for its own use. Delivered to the Navy in 1924 it was also designed for use with helium. Designated ZR3 Los Angeles it became the most successful large dirigible yet with a capacity for 30 passengers in addition to crew. It made more than 250 flights including trips to Puerto Rico and Panama.
Impressed, the Navy arranged for the Zeppelin company to license the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to build ships of German design. The results were the Akron and the Macon both of which could serve as aircraft carriers capable of launching and retrieving 5 light scout planes. Delivered in 1931 both ships went into service. But the Akron but was lost in a storm over the Atlantic in 1933 and the Macon crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1935. The Navy then abandoned building new rigid airships, although it continued to fly the Los Angeles.
Meanwhile the British re-entered the race with two new mammoth airships, the largest ever built. The R-101, the largest ship ever to fly with a passenger capacity of over 100, crashed and burned near Beauvais, France, on October 4, 1930 killing 48 of 54 aboard. The slightly smaller R-100 made a successful round trip to Montreal, Canada, but was withdrawn from service and ultimately scrapped after the R-101 disaster.
Despite the dismal safety record, the fact remained that no dirigible ever manufactured by the Zeppelin company in Germany had ever crashed. They seemed immune from the stresses of extreme weather that had doomed most other ships.
Following the success of its Los Angeles for the U.S. Navy, the Zeppelin company began construction of a new airship for German civilian use. The Graf Zeppelin completed in 1928 was meant to be a prototype and a demonstration for a new generation of air ships meant for passenger packet and airmail service. It was a huge success. It made a trans Atlantic flight to Lakehurst in October and was welcomed with great ballyhoo including a New York ticker-tape parade for the crew and a reception at the White House. The next year she completed a round the world trip that officially began and ended in Lakehurst after she had crossed the Atlantic again. After that their were triumphant tours of Europe and trips to South America. Crossing from Germany to Lakehurst became almost routine, if not yet regularly scheduled.
The company planned for a larger airship to inaugurate regular scheduled service. Plans for that ship, designated LZ-129 had to be reconsidered after the R-101 disaster. He ship was made heavier and stronger, but also intended for the safer helium being successfully used by the U.S. Navy. As the ship was being re-designed the Nazis came to power in Germany. Despite the resistance of Zeppelin company chief Dr. Hugo Eckener impressed the Graf Zeppelin and future air ships into a new state owned air line. From then on German airships would be ablaze the Nazi swastika on their tail fins and the air ships would become propaganda tools for the Third Reich.
The new ship was dubbed the Hindenburg by Eckener in honor of the former German President Paul von Hindenburg, much to the annoyance of Nazi authorities who had hoped the ship would be named for Hitler. She was tested in March of 1937. But due to the rise of German militarism, the Zeppelin company was unable to obtain helium from the United States, the only nation with a capacity to produce it in large quantities. Helium was restricted as a strategic material Eckener was force to fly the new ship with dangerous hydrogen under pressure from the government.
After a series of trial flights and an extensive propaganda tour of Germany the Hindenburg made its first trans Atlantic flight to Rio de Janerio, Brazil the ship was put into the long dreamed of regularly scheduled service. In 1936 she made ten trips to Lakehurst and seven to Rio.
The Hindenburg left Frankfurt for Lakehurst on May 3, 1937 on its first scheduled round trip between Europe and the United States that season. She arrived over New Jersey three days later but attempts to land were delayed until a line of thunderstorms passed Lakehurst. The press was out in force to cover the still unique event.
When the weather cleared, the Hindenburg made a routine descent. Just after she had dropped bow lines to be taken up by Navy personnel on the ground, the ship was rocked by an explosion. Fire erupted about a third of the way from the ship’s stern. She dropped to the ground in 37 seconds and was completely engulfed in flames in moments. WLS announcer Herbert Morrison famously sobbed “Oh the Humanity!” as he attempted to describe the horrible scene.
Amazingly, of the 36 passengers and 61 crew on board, only 13 passengers and 22 crew and one ground crew member died. Others were severely injured including those with horrible burns. What ever the toll, it was enough to end lighter than air travel. German invincibility in the air was disproven and the image of the burning ship seared into the public imagination. The Graf Zeppelin was withdrawn from service and work on its replacement, Graf Zeppelin II was scrapped.
Although many theories abound as to the cause of the explosion ranging from spontaneous combustion to sabotage, no cause has ever been proven. Ultimately, any airship using explosive hydrogen and at the mercy of any stray spark was probably doomed. We will never know if the safe operation of the ship with helium might have led to continued development of lighter than air fleets.
The compressed laboratory of war time soon produced technological innovations that made trans oceanic service by fixed wing air craft not only possible but routine.
Today, despite some efforts to revive them as freight handlers, lighter than air ships are mostly to blimps, much smaller gas filled bags used mostly for advertising and as camera platforms for sporting events.