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Hindenburg Incendiary Principle

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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 helium. In fictionland, all dirigibles are filled with combustible gas.

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Dirigibles and even blimps in real life are generally more difficult to injure than their depiction in fiction - that is, something like a very large party balloon - would suggest. Compartmentalisation of the envelope, for one, and, for military vehicles, armour for another. During WWII, blimps - typically belonging to the US Navy - were frequently tasked with protecting supply convoys on the Atlantic. The blimps were not expected to actually engage in battle (though they did carry depth charges), but rather to serve as a form of airborne early warning, being able to spot enemy warships from much father away than a surface vessel. No convoy with a blimp escort was ever sunk by U-Boats.

One other point worth mention is that most airships in real life aren't actually pressurised. We're used to balloons full of pressurised gas, which burst and leak when they get the tiniest hole, because party balloons are made of rubber which only holds its shape when inflated. Most large rigid airships (including the Hindenburg) however were made of thin sheets of metal supported by an internal framework. They held their shape without having to be inflated, so there was no pressure difference between the inside and outside, and as a result a single puncture won't burst it - even huge holes aren't necessarily fatal if there's a suitable landing site nearby.

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It's also worth remembering that even zepplins filled with hydrogen are difficult to ignite. The ones bombing London were next to impossible to bring down until specialist ammunition was developednote , and even then took multiple runs to actually set aflame.

One thing that can afford a zeppelin a measure of protection from this 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.

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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.


Examples:

Anime & Manga

  • Blown up in Hellsing, through really excessive use of firepower.
Film: 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.

Film: 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 Indie 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.
  • The movie Zeppelin, about a WW1-era German special ops mission carried to Britain in a zeppelin. It burns and crashes in the end.
  • 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 has two blimps 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.

Literature

  • 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 Steam Punk 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.

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.
  • 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 - Kirov is very tough and the Soviet 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 has an episode where Barney Gumble pilots a blimp and crashes it. In an apparent reference to the Hindenburg crash, Kent Brockman says "oh, the humanity!"
  • 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.
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