Natural and Man-Made Disasters


Why did the Hindenburg use hydrogen to keep afloat?

The fact that Hindenburg used hydrogen might have been the airship’s only flaw; and it was made necessary by the political climate of the time. Hindenburg was the fulfillment of German airship designer Hugo Eckener (1868–1954), whose Zeppelin Company had enjoyed years of experience and success even as other airship companies folded. By 1934 Eckener felt that his successful Graf Zeppelin, which had made several transatlantic trips, was not well suited to such long-distance flights. Eckener envisioned a larger and speedier vessel. In the Hindenburg, which took her maiden flight on March 4, 1936, Eckener’s vision was made real. Named for the German war hero and politician Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934), the immense airship measured 803 feet in length and had a diameter of 135 feet, allowing it to hold nearly twice as much gas as other airships. The vessel was equipped with the latest technology, including four Daimler-Benz diesel engines that allowed it to travel as fast as 85 miles per hour.

Hindenburg was also a luxury liner: it featured private cabins, showers, dining room, promenade decks, picture windows, and even a pressurized and sealed smoking room. (Cigarettes, pipes, and cigars had to be lit using an electric lighter; matches were strictly forbidden on board.)

But there was one problem: Hindenburg had been designed to be lifted by helium. However, the gas was scarce at the time, and the United States refused to sell any to Germany, which had been taken over by national extremist Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). The American government suspected the Germans might soon have military plans for their airships. Thus, the Hindenburg was forced to use hydrogen—7 million cubic feet of the flammable gas.


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