Natural and Man-Made Disasters


What happened to the Hindenburg?

The image of the large airship bursting into flames is familiar to many: Hindenburg, a German vessel and the largest airship ever built, exploded while it was trying to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, at about 7:25 P.M. on May 6, 1937. Hindenburg had just completed a transatlantic flight and had dropped its mooring lines to the ground crew when the hydrogen gas that kept the airship afloat caught fire. Within 32 seconds, Hindenburg was nothing but smoldering rubble on the ground. Sixty-two of the 97 people on board survived the crash. In addition to the 35 passengers and crew who lost their lives, one member of the American ground crew also perished. Though the cause of the fire has never been conclusively determined, it is believed that an atmospheric electrical spark—not sabotage—ignited hydrogen gas that was flowing from a leak. The fact that the outer cover of the tail section had been observed to flutter just seconds before the explosion lends credence to the explanation that there had been a gas leak.

The crash was thoroughly documented. Though travel by airship had been going on for more than 25 years and some 50,000 passengers had been transported without a single fatality, the Hindenburg’s landing in New Jersey was still an event for which many spectators turned out. Airships were a marvel of technology, and the Hindenburg in particular was worth seeing since it was the largest afloat. Even though the airship was more than 12 hours behind schedule (due to weather over the Atlantic), the arrival was eagerly anticipated. The entire event was caught on film, and that documentary was widely shown in movie newsreels. Newspaper and radio coverage also helped link the Hindenburg—and airship travel on the whole—with terrifying technological disaster.

The highly publicized crash effectively ended airship travel. A sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin, was en route from Rio de Janeiro back home to Germany when news of the Hindenburg disaster came in. Upon arrival, the Graf Zeppelin was grounded until the cause of the Hindenburg’s crash was known. No passenger airships took flight again. Two years later, an airplane carried its first paying passenger across the Atlantic.

Today, airships, or “blimps,” are used by major corporations such as Goodyear during national events, primarily sporting events. Some airships are also used for reconnaissance and patrol.


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