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Almost everyone has heard of the Hindenburg and seen footage of people jumping from the flaming wreckage that
was once a Zeppelin. Such a catastrophic event is etched in the minds of many but few actually know the facts and
opinion is still divided as to the cause of the disaster.
In this essay I will provide background about the Hindenburg, cover the events leading up to the disaster and
discuss the hypothesised theories that many have put forward as reasons for this horrific event.
On the sixth of May 1937, the Hindenburg Zeppelin departed from Frankfurt, Germany, set to travel to Lakehouse,
USA. It was the first of a group of ten journeys that were planned for the Zeppelin to undertake. Unknown to the
organisers however, a disastrous event would occur that would eventually lead to the end of zeppelin travel.
The Hindenburg was a rigid airship that was able to carry seventy passengers (not including crew). It was 244 metres
long and was designed for luxurious travel which could be achieved due to its size. Even though the airship was that
long, a considerable amount of space was taken up by engines, hydrogen cylinders and other devices necessary to
keep the Hindenburg afloat. This resulted in small but decadent cabins. Even though they weren't particularly
roomy, tickets cost the same amount as two small cars were priced at the time. Nevertheless, zeppelin was an
attractive way to travel as it was much quicker and more comfortable than a boat which was the other popular way of
travelling at the time. So if you could afford it you would probably take a zeppelin. Consequently, the return journey
was booked full as it was the coronation of King George VI (of England) soon after the Hindenburg was scheduled to
arrive back in Germany.
The Hindenburg was built in Germany by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (which was a German zeppelin company). At the
time there were two available gases with which to fill the cylinders: hydrogen, which was the cheaper option, and
helium, which was more expensive, but is inert, so does not react and is therefore safer. The helium was available from
the USA, but on the brink of war the Americans refused to sell some to Germany, for fear that it would be used
against them if war did break out. Consequently, the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen. This was a big mistake as
hydrogen will burn and it was this that caught fire during the zeppelin's final moments.
The Hindenburg had been flying for almost a year on trips to the Americas, specifically Brazil and the USA before the
disaster and the Hindenburg was considered safe by many, including Hugo Eckener (who will be later mentioned),
one of the leaders of the Zeppelin company at the time. Therefore it was quite a shock when the incident occurred.
On the final journey, the Hindenburg ran afoul of two storms that were between Europe and America. Consequently
the airship arrived much later than anticipated and finally began to approach Lakehouse at about 7 pm. The landing
crew was to be smaller than normal as the Hindenburg was going to throw out a line and be `reeled in' by the crew.
This was more convenient but also time consuming. From 7:09 to 7:19 the Hindenburg's captain, Pruss, made two
sharp turns while coming into descent. The line was then dropped and the ship began to land. At 7:25 pm, a
mushroomshaped cloud ballooned upwards from the stern of the ship. Although there is some speculation as to the
precise location of this cloud, it is thought that it first appeared by the tail of the zeppelin. Immediately the
Hindenburg burst into flame and a water and fuel tank in the hull exploded. The stern of the ship crumpled in and
began to sink due to a lack of buoyancy. The inside of the zeppelin acted as a sort of chimney and channelled the
flames to the bow of the airship. At this point the nose rigorously became engulfed in flames and the ship began to
fall. Bouncing up once from the ground, it crashed down into a burning mess as the crimson name `Hindenburg'
From the mushroomshaped cloud to the Hindenburg hitting the ground, it was thought to have taken about thirty
seconds for the airship to burn. Thirteen of the thirtysix passengers and twentytwo of the sixtyone crew died. The
ones that survived had jumped from the flaming zeppelin as it burnt. One acrobat, Joseph Späh, managed to smash a
window and help many nearby people escape, showing them exactly when to jump, before dropping himself from the
windowsill. He obtained only a twisted ankle from the experience and was much luckier than many others who had
decided to chance the fall. People on the port side of the zeppelin were more fortunate than those on the starboard
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Therefore, most of them survived. In death figures, this
disaster was not major, but like the infamous Titanic, with the reputation of the Hindenburg, and the horror and shock
of the disaster, it has become one of the most remembered events in recent history.
On the night of the catastrophe, Hugo Eckener received a telephone call from a journalist telling him what had
happened. He was so shocked that he at first thought that there must have been a mistake.…read more
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On the other hand, the Hindenburg had flown through many
storms before and been hit by dozens of bolts of lightning during its travels. Why would the storms affect the
zeppelin then? We cannot be certain, although the most plausible explanation seems to be that chance conditions
caused the Hindenburg disaster.…read more