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Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg

Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg

It's starting to rain again; it's... the rain has slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just enough to keep it from...It's burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It's fire... and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It's burning and bursting into flames and the... and it's falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world.

The words of Herb Morrison on Station WLS Chicago will always be the strongest memory any of us hold of this gigantic flying machine. Along with its British cousin, the R101, its disastrous end has coloured our view of the short but splendid age of the airships.

Many countries experimented with airships, but it was only Germany that actually made them work. Their Zeppelin raids in WW1 had shown the world that civilians at home were no longer safe from enemy attack. And countless allied pilots had discovered just how difficult it was to bring them down. 

This last statement may be somewhat surprising. A slow moving, unmanoevrable target, hundreds of feet long and filled with highly compbustible gas, should be the easiest of targets. But hydrogen is surprisingly unwilling to burn. Without oxygen, it's completely non-flammable, so attacking a zeppelin required a gas bag to be punctured, and then an incendiary bullet had to pass through the cloud of escaping gas where it was mixing with the air. So, unless the attacker could hit a gas bag and then, once enough hydrogen had escaped, hit the same spot again, no fire or explosion would result.

Nevertheless, the crash of the R101 on 4th October 1930 caused the Zepellin company to reconsider its plans to build a giant airship to exceed even the mighty Graf Zeppelin. The R101 had burst into flames after a crash involving a relatively gentle ground impact, killing 48 people. The German company scrapped its plans for the LZ 128 and begin a new design, to be lifted by helium. Helium has the advantage of being non-flammable, but it's expensive and, most importantly, twice as heavy as hydrogen.

Helium could be obtained in bulk only from specialist producers in the USA. America declined to lift its ban on export of the rare gas, and so hydrogen became the only option for the Zeppelin company. On the plus side, this would give the new airship a significantly higher payload. Bear in mind also that Germany had, uniquely, operated airship transport for more than twenty years without incident. 

The new flying machine was christened Hindenburg, after Paul von Hindenburg, who was president of Germany at the time that the airship was under development.

The Hindenburg made its inaugural flight on March 4th, 1936, with 87 people on board. Shortly after, it flew alongside the Graf Zeppelin on a tour around Germany, to raise public enthusiasm and world recognition for the fast-growing Third Reich. A few days later, it crossed the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro on its first commercial flight.

Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin became international symbols of the vision and creativity of the the Reich, and both were pressed into service to deliver Nazi propaganda leaflets across Germany, in preparation for a national referendum on Germany's occupation of the Rhineland. Zeppelin's chairman, Hugo Eckener, was perilously vocal in his opposition to the use of his airships for political gain, and was chastised and sanctioned by the Nazi party.

Hindeburg was damaged on March 26 when, as part of the propaganda mission, it took off from Löwenthal in a heavy crosswind. The tail dipped and struck the ground, severely damaging the lower fin and rudder.

On beginning commercial service, Hindeburg proved itself reliable, safe, and palatially luxurious. Through 1936 it crossed the Atlantic more than thirty times without incident, while pasengers enjoyed cordon bleu meals in the dining room or relaxed with cocktails in the beautifully apppointed lounge. Years later, singer-songwriter Dory Previn was to recall the words of her father: "Did you know that ship has a ballroom hall, where it's big enough to dine and dance?"

On the 3rd of May 1937, Hindenburg lifted off from Franfurt on its first transatlantic flight of the 1937 season. Headwinds slowed the flight, but the air ship approached the mooring tower at Lakehurst NJ three days later, to be welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd, Pathé News, and the Chicago radio station, WLS. Thunderstorms had delayed the final approach, but all seemed well as the great zeppelin pushed against the wind towards its mooring. Those on the ground noticed water ballast being ejected, suggesting that the airship's descent needed to be slowed. The tail appeared to be dropping and it was some seconds before Hindenburg resumed what appeared to be a normal attitude. Landing lines were dropped from the forward engine nacelles and caught by ground crew. A few seconds later, fire was observed near the dorsal fin, spreading quickly forward. The airship settled rapidly, breaking its back as the tail struck the ground. Less than half a minute later, all that remained of the world's largest aircraft was a flaming skeleton on the ground. Thirty-six people, including one ground crew member, lost their lives.

The circumstances of Hindenburg's destuction remain controversial. To us, the most likely scenario seems to be that hydrogen was leaking from a rear gas bag and escaping via dorsal vent near the tail. This would tally with the tail-low attitude and water ballast ejection. We know that electrical storms had delayed the landing, so it's more than possible that the airship had accumulated a high static charge. A spark where the hydrogen and air were mixing at the tail vent could have started a fire. Within the hull, the fire could then spread rapidly, as hydrogen from a leaking gas bag would be mixed with air to make a highly volatile mixture. This may have burned hot enough to penetrate the rearmost gas bag, creating a chain reaction that quickly consumed the rest of the ship.

The destruction of the Hindenburg spelt the end of the age of the airships. Now all that remains to us is a few minutes of horrific fim footage and the heart-wrenching words of Herb Morrison. A tragic epitaph, but let's remember instead a golden time when giants flew and the rich and glamorous dined and danced in the sky.



LZ 129 Hindenburg by numbers
First Flight:March 1936
Capacity:50-72 passengers
Powerplant:4 x Daimler-Benz DB602 (LOF-6) diesel engines of
Performance 
Range:5,896km (3,685mi)
Maximum Speed:135km/h (85mph)
Ceiling:850m (2,800ft)
Dimensions 
Length:245m (803ft 10in)
Wingspan:Diameter: 41.2m (135ft 0)
Height:41.2m (135ft 0in)
Weight:97,522kg (215,000lb)
 

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