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Hindenburg Incendiary Principle

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So the Duff Blimp is actually a zeppelin?
Whenever a movie includes a Zeppelin or similar airship, the odds are, it's going to go down in flames. It might be fun to say that in fiction, zeppelins first tend to go up in flames before going down in flames.

But why? There is the stereotype of: "If airships using lighter-than-air gas are present in a fiction, the gas will be flammable."

Why flammable gas? Look no further than The Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg only used flammable hydrogen because Nazi Germany was under an embargo on inert helium. In fictionland, all dirigibles are filled with combustible gas that reacts like nitroglycerin, exploding at the slightest jostle or puncture.

Dirigibles and blimps in real life are vastly safer than their reputation would suggest. On all but small blimps, lift gas was contained in a number of separate cells, like the watertight compartments of a ship, rather than a single big balloon. Large holes and tears happen sometimes, due to accidents such as throwing a propeller blade, but these were very gradual issues, and often fixed in-flight. During WWII, the peak of airship usage, Navy blimps used helium, and although they occasionally suffered from gasoline fires like any other piston-driven aircraft, their fatal accident rate was 1.3 per 100,000 hours. That means that they were safer than the most common modern helicopter, the Robinson R44, although in fiction that isn't saying much.

It's a common misconception that airships are pressurized and elastic like the latex balloons we're used to, which burst or leak when they get the tiniest hole. Inflatable blimps aren't elastic, and they're only kept at the pressure necessary to retain their shape, which is extremely low. Most large airships (including the Hindenburg) are made fabric or metal supported by a fully rigid internal framework. They hold their shape without having to be inflated, so there was no pressure difference between the inside and outside, and as a result, gas only leaks out of any punctures very slowly.

Even zeppelins filled with hydrogen were difficult to ignite, because hydrogen requires oxygen to burn, and the gas inside them was kept pure for exactly that reason. The zeppelins used in the Great War to bomb the Entente powers were next to impossible to bring down for the opening years of the war, which had led to untrue rumors that the Germans had discovered a nonflammable lift gas, helium being unknown on earth at the time. The British had to develop special incendiary ammunition to ignite leaking hydrogen, and usually a few whole drums of it were necessary to bring one down, concentrating fire on a single spot. That's what made the Hindenburg disaster so shocking in 1937; up until that point, not a single passenger had ever died in the Zeppelin airlines since they started carrying passengers nearly thirty years before.

One thing that can afford a zeppelin a measure of protection from this fiery fate is if it's only there to show that the story takes place in an alternate universe. This protection applies most strongly to background zeppelins that exist solely for that purpose; a zeppelin that plays a large role in the plot takes its chances like everyone else, especially if it belongs to a villain.

See also Oh, the Humanity!. For other objects that are introduced into the narrative solely to be destroyed spectacularly later on, see Ashes to Crashes, Carrying a Cake, Doomed Supermarket Display, Fruit Cart, Priceless Ming Vase, and Sheet of Glass. See also Every Car Is a Pinto, which is about cars exploding when they shouldn't.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Blown up in Hellsing, through really excessive use of firepower.
  • Pokémon: The Original Series: The episode "Pokéball Peril" referenced this when Team Rocket captures Ash and Misty aboard a blimp, and when Ash orders Pikachu to use a Thunderbolt attack on Team Rocket, they warn him that the blimp is basically "a giant flying inflammable gas tank," and that they'd "go Pika-boom!" if Pikachu did so. In the next episode, "The Lost Lapras", the now- unmanned blimp Ash and Misty are sleeping on due to Jigglypuff's singing, explodes when crash-landing on an island. Fortunately our heroes aren't hurt.

    Comic Books 
  • The Simpsons Futurama Crossover Crisis: In the first miniseries, after Homer spits out the anti-gravity gum keeping their car in the air when said gum loses its flavor, the car falls through the sky... only to safely land on top of the Duff blimp. Bender says their good luck calls for a "celebratory smoke", and despite Leela warning him not to, Bender lights his cigar, and the blimp predictably bursts into flame (revealing a rigid metal framework similar to a zeppelin), causing the car to resume falling. Fortunately, Professor Frink and Farnsworth come to the rescue on a flying motorcycle.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the airship the villain intends to use to carry the crystallized Princess Kida out of Atlantis (which looks more like a conventional hot-air balloon with propellers) is destroyed by The Dragon, Helga Sinclair, firing a flare gun at it.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Disney's The Island at the Top of the World. The French dirigible Hyperion is set on fire when a Viking fires a burning arrow at it.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, set in an alternate timeline, has multiple Zeppelins from Another World. The zeppelin Hindenburg III arrives safely in New York, but when Dr. Totenkopf's robots attack Sky Captain's base, the zeppelins moored overhead are set aflame by enemy attack.
  • Averted in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy and his father escape from it because they were about to caught, but the zeppelin itself is never in danger. Ironically, the Zeppelin is implied to be the Hindenburg itself.
  • Zeppelin (1971) about a WW1-era German special ops mission carried to Britain in a zeppelin. At the end of the movie it crashes into the ocean off the coast of Holland, but after the protagonists swim to the shore the whole lot goes up in flame. There's a discussion earlier in the movie about the need for special incendiary bullets (which have not yet been perfected) to shoot them down as ordinary bullets and shrapnel have little effect.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The Fantom leads a raid on a Zeppelin factory in Berlin to kidnap some scientists. During the attack he fires an incendiary missile into some zeppelins and ignites their hydrogen cells, leaving them in flames.
  • Wings (1927) has two German observation balloons get shot down and blown up.
  • One mission in Flyboys has the Lafayette Escadrille deploy to bring down a German zeppelin en route to bomb Paris. A more realistic example here, as German zeppelins were filled with hydrogen, and even then the squadron commander says that it can take hundreds of incendiary rounds to bring one down. It ends up being the mortally wounded flight leader ramming the airship that does it. It's probably the most accurate scene in the movie, all things considered.
  • In Southland Tales, the Treer MegaZeppelin is introduced late in the film. During the Mind Screw Gainax Ending, nearly the entire cast is on board the thing when a rocket destroys it, killing them all.
  • At the end of The Rocketeer, Jenny fires off a flare gun in the cockpit, and the zeppelin the Nazis intend to escape in goes up in flames.

  • Leviathan mostly takes place on the titular airship, a World War One-era living dirigible that uses hydrogen to keep aloft (hydrogen can be produced organically, but helium cannot). Naturally, they're very stringent about averting this. 'Hydrogen sniffers' (mixes between dogs and spiders) are constantly on the lookout for leaks, people wear boots with rubber soles, no-one is allowed to smoke, all the firearms were actually air guns, and they mostly use glow-worms instead of electricity. This pays off and the Leviathan never catches fire, but a less-careful German zeppelin hunting the Leviathan does play this straight.
  • In book 3 of The Pendragon Adventure Bobby must blow up the Hindenburg or else the US will end up losing WWII. Even knowing the consequences he can't bring himself to do it, so another Traveller does it for him.
  • In Heartless, various small blimps catch fire when Madame Lefoux goes on a rampage with an octopus-like Steampunk device to take her son back from the vampires who kidnapped him.
  • In Johannes Cabal the Detective, the plot takes place aboard a luxury Zepplin which naturally ends up crashing (due to sabotage), with few survivors.
  • In Destroyermen, Japanese-designed zeppelins are frequently used en masse by the Grik to drop bombs. In response, Alliance pilots have grown quite adept at shooting the "zeps" down. It's not clear if they're using regular or incendiary ammo, but a few hits are usually enough to set a zeppelin aflame, which is partly justified by them using hydrogen.
  • In The Lost Regiment, the Merki start using nuclear-powered airships against the Republic. Eventually, the Republic manages to start producing some (conventionally-powered) airships of their own. However, they're more balloons than zeppelins, so the danger is more from falling than blowing up. Regular musket balls are usually enough to bring an airship down by putting enough holes in the bladder.
  • Invoked in More Information Than You Require, when John Hodgman names his airship the Hubris.

    Video Games 
  • Arcanum: The game begins with your character on board a luxurious airship, which is attacked by orcs in steampunk fighter planes. It crashes, setting off the story since a witness believes you're fulfilling a prophecy.
  • Warcraft 2: In a cutscene, a footman uses an Orc catapult to destroy a goblin zeppelin (catapults can't hit air units in-game). This scene is replayed for a Credits Gag in Warcraft 3.
  • Eddie's final guitar solo in Brütal Legend is called "Bring it on Home" and summons a flaming zeppelin that zeroes in onto the summoner's location, devastating everything in wide radius on impact. This is obviously a reference to Led Zeppelin's first album cover (even though their cover of the song "Bring it on Home" first appeared on their second album), which, in turn, depicted the original Hindenburg disaster.
  • Averted in the Command & Conquer: Red Alert series, which features Zeppelins from Another World - the Kirov is very tough and the Soviet's ultimate air to ground weapon.
  • In Borderlands 2's "Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep" expansion, the first quest Mr. Torgue gives you is to blow up the airships protecting the town (for no reason other than Rule of Cool). You suffer no consequences, he's banished to the stocks.
  • Discussed in Bioshock Infinite. When trying to escape Columbia, Elizabeth mentions that the airship they are on flies because of the Lutece particle mechanism. Booker asks why don't they use Hydrogen gas. Elizabeth then responds that the previous airship did use Hydrogen gas cells, but it was taken down in flames by the bullet of a Vox Populi sniper.

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 
  • From Family Guy, the Hindenpeter.
  • The Simpsons:
    • The episode "Lisa the Beauty Queen" has Barney Gumble pilot the Duff Blimp and crash it into a radio tower, where it spectacularly bursts into flame in an apparent reference to the Hindenburg crash. Kent Brockman even exclaims "Oh, the humanity!"
    • In "Funeral for a Fiend," an episode of The Itchy & Scratchy Show entitled "Spherical on 34th Street" has Itchy inflate Scratchy with hydrogen gas to the size of a blimp, resulting in him floating through the air amongst the balloons in a Thanksgiving Day parade. Then Itchy grabs a bow and arrow from another mouse dressed as a Native American on a Thanksgiving feast-themed float, sets the arrow alight with a candle, and fires the arrow at Scratchy, causing him to explode and turn into a huge fireball. As his body parts rain down on the float and the other mice feast on them, Itchy comments dressed as a radio reporter, "Oh, the hilarity!"
  • Subverted in the episode "Skytanic", of Archer. A Zeppelin's maiden voyage is threatened by a bomb threat and ISIS is on the case. Archer is paranoid that the zeppelin is going to explode, despite the fact that everyone explains to him that helium, what this zeppelin uses, isn't flammable unlike hydrogen which is what the Hindenburg used. At the very end of course they manage to save the zeppelin from the bomb in a close call that wouldn't even have happened if not for the usual ISIS bumblings.
  • In one episode of Bruno the Kid, during a firefight, the villain turns to his henchman and carefully asks if their zeppelin is filled with helium or hydrogen. In answer, the zeppelin explodes.
  • In one episode of TaleSpin, the villain specifically mentions that his fleet of zeppelins currently holding the city hostage is filled with highly explosive hydrogen, and therefore attempting to shoot them down would destroy the town as surely as not meeting his demands would.
  • The CatDog episode "CatDogPig" had a blimp advertising job interviews keep appearing in the sky as a Running Gag. In the end, it crashes into the pile of people CatDog detached from themselves and blows up, sending them all flying in the explosion.
  • DuckTales (1987) had "The Hindentanic" dirigible in one episode.
  • The Rocko's Modern Life episode "Feisty Geist" has Heffer learn about his past lives when getting his fortune told, and in one past life he was a hungry passenger aboard the airship Hillenburger (referencing creative director Stephen Hillenburg), where his heavy body weight when running to the back of the zeppelin caused it to descend to the ground in a fiery crash.
  • In The Amazing World of Gumball episode "The Void," Gumball, Darwin, and Steve Mall discover the titular void, which is where the universe sends what it deems a mistake. Gumball and Darwin lands on a zeppelin, prompting this...
    Gumball: I don't know why they got rid of these. They're pretty cool! (zeppelin explodes into flame) Oh, right.
  • Daffy Duck had this in mind in The Looney Tunes Show episode "Eligible Bachelors", when Granny is telling him about a heroic deed she performed in World War II and is flying off in a Nazi blimp, Daffy interrupts the story with "Did the blimp explode? Did it explode into a million pieces?! It exploded and killed you, didn't it?!" It didn't, to which Granny asks him, "You're not very bright, are you?"
  • The SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Band Geeks" had the scene where Squidward leads his band students in a march throughout town. He commands the two flag twirlers to spin faster, leading to them spinning so fast that they propel themselves into a blimp that explodes spectacularly.


Video Example(s):


To the Hindenpeter!

Well, with a name like "Hindenpeter" it's bound to end up in an explosive crash...

How well does it match the trope?

4.87 (23 votes)

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Main / HindenburgIncendiaryPrinciple

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