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Back in the Golden Era of aviation,
there was an aircraft that surpassed all others in size, range and palatial luxury. This was the LZ 129 Hindenburg.
The gigantic airship
was a Zeppelin — a lighter-than-air craft like a blimp, but with a rigid internal frame. It was the largest flying machine ever built at 263m (804 feet) in length, about the size of the RMS Titanic
and four times the length of a Boeing 747 (and looking especially big
considering since unlike the 747, it was usually seen at a much lower altitude in flight), and was used as a commercial craft, like a luxury liner.
Although it isn't readily apparent from the exterior of the ship in pictures, Hindenburg
had passenger decks totaling more interior space than even an Airbus A380, the world's largest double-decker jumbo jet. There were truly astonishing luxury facilities on board. The Hindenburg
boasted a gourmet restaurant, a bar with a glass floor, promenades with huge tilted windows that could be opened in flight, staterooms reminiscent of the sleeping car on a luxury train, a double grand staircase, a smoking lounge, a small library and writing room, a huge stylized mural of the world with moving ships and Zeppelins that tracked the journey of the airship, and even a piano lounge. It also carried unusual cargo, such as live animals and even a luxury car.
One cannot overstate the appeal of these magnificent airships. People would drop what they were doing and rush outside to see one pass overhead. They would take pictures. It was the kind of thing you told your grandchildren about, especially if you got to ride in one. Cross the technological sophistication of the "Concorde" and the grandeur of RMS Titanic
and you'll have some idea. Like the Titanic
and Concorde, it was the fastest way to cross the Atlantic in its day, making the journey in two and a half days. To give you an idea of how much people adored Zeppelins back then, you have to consider that the decadent $2.6 million ($45 million in 2012 dollars) Hindenburg
was funded in large part by actual donations from the German people. In the middle of the Great Depression.
Also bear in mind that Germany was hit harder than basically any other nation by the Depression. Flights were not affordable to everyone: a one-way transatlantic trip
on the Hindenburg
or $6,500 in today's money. Nevertheless, it was a steal compared to the other means of a similarly luxurious travel — a first class on the Titanic
was $2,500 ($70,000 in current money) or, if you preferred air travel, you'd have had to dish out $11,000 for the far less luxurious Boeing Clipper
. So it was great bargain for the money, but still cost as much as a small car to fly in! On the other hand, if you hop on a first-class transatlantic jet today, it still costs around $8,500.
On May 6, 1937, the ship was just about to complete its inaugural flight for the year, flying into Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Due to previous heavy weather conditions, the ship was already late, and Captain Max Pruss had kept in the air for a few additional hours longer than expected while waiting for a thunderstorm at Lakehurst to clear. At around 7 p.m., the Hindenburg
came into Lakehurst and attempted an midair mooring in heavy winds. Newsreel cameras were rolling and veteran radio newscaster Herbert Morrison of WLS was making a test recording (on special phonograph disks) of what he thought was going to be a routine landing with subsequent passenger interviews.
The world knows what happened next. With the Hindenburg
only a few feet from its mooring mast, it ignited. The gargantuan fireball was over a thousand feet high
, and the impact broke the skyscraper-sized airship's metal skeleton in half. The airship sank steeply, crumpling into the ground. Burning hydrogen rocketed up the axial catwalk and erupted from the bow as the rest of the airship was incinerated from within, the ship's fabric hull bearing the name Hindenburg
melting away from the skeleton. As the Zeppelin sank to the ground, people streamed from the windows of the passenger decks. Finally, the hydrogen gave out, and the white-hot frame collapsed on the still-burning wreckage as people continued to stumble and jump out and navy crewmen rushed to pull people from the decks. The horrified Morrison kept right on talking through all of this, describing exactly what was happening until he was overcome with smoke and emotion and had to step inside the hangar to recover himself. In total, the disaster claimed the lives of 35 people and a ground crewman, with 62 passengers surviving. The entire ordeal lasted thirty seconds. The whole crash was caught on film,
if you wish to see it.
Nobody is sure what happened that day. Inquiries held afterwards suggested everything from a lightning strike to deliberate sabotage, although most investigations indicate that, just like other disasters, it was an cascade of preventable events, like dominoes, that led to the crash. The most likely scenario is that a discharge of static electricity ignited a small amount of leaked hydrogen gas, which quickly grew into an unstoppable chain-reaction. Whatever caused it, the crash of the Hindenburg
is an iconic moment in the histories of aviation and broadcasting. It was the end of the use of airships for passenger flights for decades, until the 1990s, when the Zeppelin company went back into the airship business with their smaller "NT" semi-rigid tourism Zeppelins.
The Hindenburg and its horrific last flight is an example of the following:
- Airborne Aircraft Carrier: The Hindenburg was actually one of these. It had an airplane installed to expedite various duties such as mail and cargo transfers. However, during testing the airplane accidentally destroyed its own mooring and the system was uninstalled right before the final flight.
- Artifact of Death: The Hindenburg really, really shouldn't have used that five thousand kilograms of Duralumin. You don't even have to be superstitiously inclined to see that reforging that hunk of metal was a terrible idea, and in very poor taste as well. See Tempting Fate for the story behind it.
- Broadcasting In The United States: A historic moment remembered (and replayed) even today.
- Cool Airship: It remains the largest object made by man to ever fly.
- Technically, its sister ship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II was slightly larger, but, though completed, it was never used in any revenue-earning capacity.
- Food Porn: The Hindenburg prided herself on her four gourmet chefs, who prepared the finest German cuisine imaginable: fattened duckling, Bavarian style, served with savory potatoes and Madiera gravy; venison cutlets; and grilled sole with parsley butter and mushrooms. And of course there were sausages and cheeses galore. As for alcohol, it consumed roughly 250 bottles of fine wine, and hundreds of bottles of beer per voyage, not counting the other spirits served in the bar!
- Intrepid Reporter: Herbert Morrison is remembered as a hero by radio and television newscasters. He had a long and successful life and career. His assistant Charlie Nehlsen, who actually operated the disc recording machine, should also be remembered; he had the presence of mind to adjust the needle back onto the disc after the massive explosion had jarred it askew (you can hear this, right after Morrison says, "It burst into flames," if you listen carefully).
- Made of Explodium: Airships can use helium, which is very stable and nonflammable. But this was available only in and from the United States, which had imposed a ban on overseas sales for strategic reasons. The Germans used the less expensive (and extremely volatile) hydrogen gas instead. If that was not enough, the construction materials involved compounds commonly seen in incendiary weapons, though not in the proportions that would normally be volatile.
- Tragically, or ironically, the Hindenburg very nearly wasn't Made of Explodium. It was only the Nazi takeover of the Zeppelin company—and a subsequent panicked act of congress—to cause the Helium deal with the USA to collapse. Originally, the Hindenburg was designed to use nonflammable Helium, and it had to actually be converted to use Hydrogen. Helium, being very rare at the time, was to be carefully conserved- the Hindenburg was supposed to have small-volume Helium gas cells with large-volume Hydrogen cells contained safely within. The Hydrogen could then be vented off or burned in a fifth engine to compensate for fuel and ballast weight, instead of wasting Helium.
- Nazi Germany: The Hindenburg bore prominent swastikas, (originally, Hitler wanted the swastikas to be gigantic ones on the envelope itself, but this was tactfully bargained down to the ones on the rear fins by Dr. Eckner) Plus, many of the people involved with the Hindenburg were, of course, Nazis. Its first flights involved dropping leaflets to urge people to vote for Hitler for chancellor. However, manager Hugo Eckener, head of the Zeppelin company and longtime captain of the Graf Zeppelin, was an outspoken anti-Nazi. In fact he quickly named the airship "Hindenburg" after Germany's then-president, before the Nazis could name it the "Adolf Hitler."
- This worked both ways. Hitler hated airships, and Dr. Hugo Eckener, president of the Zeppelin company (and also an airship captain, politician, editor, explorer, reporter, engineer and doctor of psychology) was his polical rival for the Chancellorship. It was the Nazis' revenge-based takeover of the Zeppelin Company that caused the US to deny Helium to them in the first place, and directly caused the disaster. Needless to say, Herr Eckener and the Nazis were NOT on good terms.
- Dr. Eckener had always been an Americanophile and from the 1918 Armistice the operations of the Zeppelin Luftschiffbau company relied on American contracts, funding and publicity. The takeover of the airship business under the guise of the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei in 1935 was a great blow and sparked a furious quarrel between him and Hermann Göring. His reputation was so awesome Göring had to keep him as Chairman of DZR only to get the business running as usual.
- His right hand man and World War One veteran, Captain Ernst Lehmann, who died of wounds the next day after the crash, was sympathetic towards the Nazis though and sought to advance his career through them. They had quarrelled since the 1935 takeover over the fact that Lehmann rushed to satisfy any demand from the Reich government, regardless the cost or risk. Something says that that may have contributed to the disaster, and why he was overeager to get the airship landed even in less-than-safe conditions.
- Newsreel: Most people at the time saw the silent footage from the film cameras, or something like this. Morrison's audio recording was only dubbed onto these films many years later.
- No One Should Survive That: The incineration of the Hindenburg was extremely violent and took maybe 30 seconds. The flaming wreckage was a prison of imploding white-hot girders; burning, collapsing decks and rampant diesel fires. Yet somehow, sixty-two people survived. A lot of it was due to the way the decks were constructed and where people were on the airship, but some were just ridiculously lucky. An elderly woman was standing near the double grand staircase, and the pair of folding stairs on the lower deck for landing popped open when the Zeppelin impacted the ground. She simply walked out. One crewman was drenched when a ballast canister burst overhead, protecting him and clearing him a path to safety. It had also rained heavily in Lakehurst that morning, which may have contributed to the survival of all but one of the numerous ground crew who were standing beneath the ship when it exploded as their uniforms were thoroughly soaked.
- One passenger, Joseph Spah, happened to be a trained Vaudeville acrobat, and when he realised what was happening, he smashed the window with his camera, climbed out and hung outside, and when his part of the zeppelin was about 20 feet off the ground he dropped. He got away with nothing worse than a hurt ankle.
- No Ontological Inertia: Commercial Zeppelins had a perfect 37-year safety record, ever since their invention. Then the Hindenburg exploded, and that was the end of Zeppelins. Every single one worldwide was scrapped afterwards, even though blimps lived on quite successfully. There weren't any Zeppelin-made semi-rigid airships until the 1990s, and there is only one rigid airship left in the world, an experimental cargo airship undergoing flight testing.
- Oh, the Humanity!: Trope Namer. Morrison's emotional broadcast recording actually included the words "all the humanities, all the passengers". Humanity was a known Morrison-ism for any large group of people.
- The Operators Must Be Crazy: As Morrison and Nehlsen were about to leave, Morrison tried to call NBC News in New York. The switchboard operator at NBC refused to put his call through to the newsroom — didn't he know a terrible disaster had just taken place? Morrison identified himself, and she responded "What would a WLS reporter be doing in Lakehurst?" and hung up on him. Morrison took the discs back with him to Chicago, where they were played on WLS the following morning.
- Schizo Tech: To avoid any possible fire risk, the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin had no heating devices in passenger spaces (the only heating apparatus were in the electric galley) which proved rather unpleasant in winter months and limited the flight altitude with passengers to 800-1000 meters. By 1936, DZR had to bend itself to necessity and provide small electric radiators for the Hindenburg cabins (and presumably for the other 2 airships in operation).
- The airships themselves were considered Schizo Tech, even at the time, and they certainly were chock full of it as well. For example, the Hindenburg actually had an autopilot, which was absurdly advanced for the era, and yet the steering of the 800-foot sky vessel was also done by a spoked ship's helm.◊ The Hindenburg was one of the first airships, or any aircraft, to boast things like a double grand staircase, a piano, a bar, and a smoking room protected by a pressurized, hydrogen-proof airlock.
- Starship Luxurious: Although actually making very efficient use of space, the Hindenburg had staterooms, though they were windowless and rather reminiscent of a railway sleeping car compartment. Still, it was unprecedented luxury for an aircraft, with air conditioning, running hot and cold water, a call button for the steward service, a closet and a little desk. The first-class cabins on B deck were larger and had huge windows. But passengers were only supposed to sleep in their staterooms anyway; they were supposed to enjoy the spacious public facilities during the day.
- The Sky Is an Ocean: The Hindenburg was the ultimate example of this trope. Airships in general are full of nautical references, being essentially flying ships, complete with bows, sterns, ship's officers, actual spoked ship's helms, The Captain, and so on and so forth. The constant need to balance lift with ballast in order to maintain buoyancy means an airship operates like submarine in reverse. But the Hindenburg, as well as her sister ship Graf Zeppelin ll, were literal flying luxury liners, and were predictably even more nautical in styling than any other airship before or since. (So far as we know, however, the Hindenberg was never boarded by Sky Pirates.)
- Square/Cube Law: LZ-129 Hindenburg, LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin ll and especially the utterly gargantuan, unfinished stretch-limousine version of the Hindenburg-class Zeppelin, LZ-131, gleefully took advantage of the square-cube law to get away with exponential increases in lift with negligible weight penalties.
- Tempting Fate: There was once an airship called the R-101. Devised as a part of the British "Imperial Airship Scheme," the contract pitted two competing designs against one another- the exemplary Vickers-built R-100, and the government-built R-101. The materials, design, and capabilities of the R-101 were woefully inadequate in comparison to the R-100, to the point where the airship had to be lengthened so that it would have enough lift to fly- making it the largest airship in the world. More consideration was given to the incredibly spacious, opulent(and heavy) interior than airworthiness. Eager to get a lead on its rival, the government pulled strings to have flight and safety testing rushed through or neglected so that it could make a maiden voyage to India. Despite being warned of a vicious storm ahead, the captain decided to plunge straight into it. The R-101 never made it to India. The ship went down nose first, and the resulting crash and explosion killed 48 of the 54 people on board. Afterwards, the Duraluminum wreckage of the R-101 was collected. It was reforged into an airship, one of unprecedented size and exquisite luxury... called the Hindenburg.
- The Hindenburg was thought to be Tempting Fate at the time, as well. It was a very ostentatious symbol of Nazi Germany, proudly flying swastikas the size of a house on its tail fins. People thought it was vulnerable to sabotage or external attack. In reality, normal bullets and small arms fire wouldn't even register to something the size of the Hindenburg, and the cargo and passengers were kept under extremely tight control in case of bomb threats. But clearly, the Zeppelin company failed to properly account for the possibility of accidents...
- Urban Legends: In spades. The cause of the crash is still a mystery, and some of the theories include, but are not limited to:
- Two hard turns that Pruss ordered caused one of the bracing wires to snap, and slice open a gas cell. The leaking hydrogen was ignited by a spark flowing through the mooring ropes. An analysis of the disaster in a National Geographic Seconds from Disaster episode suggests that this is the closest to the truth, since such a theory would explain why ground eyewitnesses claimed they saw a fluttering effect in the skin near the rear of the airship, the point where the blaze started, just before the fire began. It also explains why the crew thought the airship was tail heavy and tried to rectify the problem by dumping water ballast;
- The rear port engine backfired and caught the envelope on fire;
- The ship was struck by lightning, ignited by St. Elmo's Fire, or suffered from the unusual electrical phenomenon of Ball Lightning
- Political factions sabotaged the ship with a bomb...
- It goes on and on. But there are some that are clearly myths, and are impossible as explanations. For instance, claims that the wreckage contained fragments of a bomb or a pistol are false, as are claims that the ship was painted in "Thermite" or "Rocket Fuel", and therefore, the hydrogen had nothing to do with the crash. Needless to say, this subject is major Flame Bait due to the sheer pervasiveness of the "exploding skin" myth in particular, as well as the fact that nobody knows for sure what happened. The Rule of Cautious Editing Judgement is in full effect here.
- What Could Have Been: The Hindenburg is often heralded as the turning point at which Zeppelins lost popularity, but people also claim that Zeppelins were going to tumble into obsolescence anyways. The reality is much more ambiguous. Nobody really knows what would have happened if the Hindenburg had obtained Helium as intended. On one hand, the DC-3 had challenged its monopoly on transatlantic flight, Zeppelins were never common at all, and the technology to make them safer and lessen their restrictive special infrastructure requirements- ground crew, masts, hangars- would not be invented for decades. On the other hand, the Hindenburg was the first Zeppelin to actually turn some profit, and Zeppelins massively outclassed passenger airplanes of the timenote in everything but speed and landing sites. They might have retained a "cruise ship" or similar niche, and even in light of the Hindenburg disaster, airships and aerostats were and are still used with great success(the ones that survived Development Hell, at least) by the military for surveillance and heavy cargo, theoretically proving their viability in the passenger market in the decades that followed the Hindenburg disaster.
- The Hindenburg made profit due to heavy initial investment from the state. In practice, airship operating costs were unjustifiable for other purposes than military or heavy lift cargo, since they were built with luxury in mind and never with any purpose of mass transportation - the 7 million cubic feet giant carried at best 70 paying passengers for a round trip cost higher than a small car. note It had been Fair for Its Day, as transatlantic trips by ship or aircraft were costly anyway and only for the upper classes, but since the advent of the modern large airliner and mass tourism in the late 1950s things have changed. Even modern cruise ship tickets are expensive, and they are tremendously cheap in terms of percentage of a working family's wages in the modern day compared to a ticket on an Art Deco age ocean liner.
- While not competitive with aircraft, large Zeppelins were not very competitive with surface ships, either. Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin needed 2 1/2 to 3 days for a transatlantic crossing, while SS Rex and SS Normandie took 4 1/2 to 5 days for the same trip.
- It's not disputed whether airships would have overtaken jet airliners for speedy mass transit- if nothing else, their dependence on special infrastructure ensured that never happened- but whether they would have continued their luxury transportation role. Using your example, prohibitively expensive ocean liners morphed into more affordable cruise ships when airplanes rendered them obsolete for mass transit as well. Until new luxury airships are built, we won't know exactly how it will work out in modern times.
- What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: The Germans had always used hydrogen in their airships. They were very experienced with it and believed they were taking adequate safety precautions. The Zeppelin Company and its precursor, the world's first airline, DELAG, had a perfect safety record. Not so much as a sprained ankle in the decades, millions of miles, and untold thousands of passengers carried. The Hindenburg had been flying back and forth for over a year with no problems. More significantly, the Graf Zeppelin had been flying for over a decadenote , and none of the other 120 airships built by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (it was called "LZ-129" for a reason) had spontaneously combusted. However, the majority of those Zeppelins were built for World War One, and the British invention of the Incendiary bullet meant that by war's end a whole third of them were shot down in flames. Another third were lost to various accidents or unknown causes, or literally got lost. Some civilian ships were also involved in accidents where no one was harmed, particularly in the very early days of DELAG.
- Zeppelins from Another World: The Hindenburg disaster is the ultimate reason why Zeppelins signal "not of this world" in modern media, though not the only reason, as it was simply the last and most spectacular of series of disastrous airship crashes—specifically, the R101, Akron, Macon and Shenandoah—in the 1920s and 1930s. The advent of commercial aircraft capable of crossing the Atlantic without massive government subsidies soon made Zeppelins obsolete anyway.
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