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Useful Notes / The Hindenburg

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The Sky Is an Ocean, and you're flying in the Titanic.

"Oh, the Humanity!"
Herbert Morrison, reporter and observer naming a trope

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, named after Paul Von Hindenburg, a famous German general during World War I and President of Germany at the time of the Weimar Republic until his death from natural causes in 1934. Because of his (unwitting) involvement in Adolf Hitler's rise to power, the Nazi Party, in power at the time of the airship's construction, named it after him. The gigantic airship itself 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, 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 windows set into the 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 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 cost $400, 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 $675 ($11,000 nowadays) for the far less luxurious Boeing Clipper. For context, a first-class transatlantic jet ticket still costs around $8,500 today.

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 a midair mooring in heavy winds. A crowd of enlisted US sailors assembled to pull the the big zep's handling lines. Newsreel cameras were rolling and veteran radio newscaster Herbert Morrison of WLS (a Chicago radio station) 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 into a gargantuan fireball over a thousand feet high. The airship sank steeply, crumpling into the ground, and the impact broke the skyscraper-sized airship's metal skeleton in half. 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. As panic set in on the ground, US Navy Chief Petty Officer Fred "Bull" Tobinnote  shouted, "Navy men, STAND FAST! We have to get those people out of there!" and led the sailors into the inferno. 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 sailors under CPO Tobin 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. (He was back out again in less than two minutes, continued his narration and assisted and interviewed survivors.) In total, the disaster claimed the lives of 35 people aboard the Hindenburg and one American sailor on the ground, with 62 passengers surviving. Captain Pruss survived the disaster, having remained on the bridge until the crash and managing to carry the radioman out with him, and then running back into the flames to assist other survivors until restrained by rescuers. The entire ordeal lasted thirty seconds. The whole crash was caught on film, if you wish to see it. However, Morrison's radio commentary was only dubbed in later, giving it the feeling of live TV coverage of the disaster.

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 a 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. Greek chemical engineering expert Konstantinos Giapis re-created a scale model of the ship's outer surface to determine how the static discharge happened. He thinks it started when the mooring ropes were dropped from the nose, connecting the ship to earth. Positive and negative charges caused the ship to act as a capacitor, which lit the flammable hydrogen for their ship, used because the United States, which at the time had the only sources of helium in the world, wouldn't sell any to Nazis. Whatever caused it, the crash of the Hindenburg is an iconic moment in the histories of aviation and broadcasting.

The Hindenburg disaster and subsequent World War marked the end of passenger airship flights for decades. It was not the first airship disaster, or even had the greatest death toll in such a disaster, but the fact it was entirely captured on film terrified the public into never setting foot on an airship again. Although large airships still saw military use until the 1960s, postwar airplane technology had advanced to the point that even the ocean liners that Zeppelins competed against were driven all but extinct. After the disaster, no more Zeppelins were built until the 1990s, when the Zeppelin Company went back into the airship business with their smaller "NT" semi-rigid tourism airships, which have replaced the traditional Goodyear blimps. More recently, they've collaborated with the American company LTA Research to create a modernized electric Zeppelin called the Pathfinder 1. Despite being less than half the size of the Hindenburg, it is still the current largest aircraft in the world.

On November 16, 2019, the last survivor of the Hindenburg disaster, Werner Gustav Doehner, died of pneumonia. He was 90.

References in media:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Pokémon: The Series referenced the Hindenburg disaster in the Orange Islands episodes "A Scare in the Air," "Poké Ball Peril" and "The Lost Lapras" when our heroes travel on a blimp, fashioned with a metal framework on the inside just like a zeppelin, and any time Ash orders Pikachu to use one of his electric attacks, Ash is warned not to do so, as Pikachu's electricity could ignite the gas and make the blimp explode. The blimp eventually does explode when crash-landing on an island in "The Lost Lapras," but our heroes miraculously survive. Rather hilariously, Giovanni admitted he hadn't maintained the blimp in decades, and that the only thing he kept in working condition was the insurance policy. He essentially sentenced Team Rocket to die on that deathtrap.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), Ed travels to a different world in the penultimate episode and sees an airship flying in the sky. In a subversion, the strange new world he's in? Is our world, just circa WWII.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! ZEXAL, Tobio Habara (Mayday Walker) uses a monster called Supercolossal Airship Giant Hindenberg (Indestructible Airship Hindenkraft). Despite its name, it doesn't get destroyed.

    Comic Books 
  • In a speculative Superman comic in which Superman is involved in The War of the Worldsnote , Lois Lane is reporting on the Martian invasion by telephone: "They set the train on fire! All those people! The humanity!" Since this takes place in 1938, Lois may actually be thought of as quoting Morrison.
  • The Don Simpson-illustrated six-issue "Monster Comics" adaptation of King Kong (1933) was originally to include a scene wherein Kong, at the top of the Empire State Building, encounters the Hindenburg flying overhead. He is described as becoming "instinctively enraged" by the Swastikas on it ("The symbol of Nazi tyranny!"), and punches it, causing it to crash. Simpson used photos of the actual crash for the panels depicting the Hindenburg's destruction. The scene, totaling two pages, was cut from the sixth and final issue of the comic after it was realized the scene was in poor taste. The deleted scene was included on separate "bonus pages" printed on green paper if you ordered all six issues from Simpson's website.
  • One of the differences in the Alternate History of Baker Street is that the Hindenburg never crashed, and remained in service for more than 50 years. A newspaper article reports it being retired to an aviation museum in 1988. Its success (and World War II not happening) resulted in airships becoming a major form of air transport, and a common sight in the series.
  • The 1980s DC Comics adaptations of The Shadow and Doc Savage both featured stories about what really happened on the Hindenburg, with the former using an alias for the airship.

  • In Glass Onion, Claire Debella likens Klear, Miles Bron's hydrogen-based alternative fuel, to the Hindenburg when she learns that it's so flammable and prone to leakage that it will inevitably cause gas explosions around the country if it goes public. This becomes the subject of a Brick Joke during the film's climax, with Claire fearfully muttering "Hindenburg..." when she realizes that Helen aims to destroy the Glass Onion by igniting the Klear pipelines.
  • The Hindenburg was a 1975 film based off a book about its last flight, with its plot centered around a fictional conspiracy to destroy the airship. It is notable for being one of the iconic disaster films in the heyday of that genre, and for having extremely accurate sets and depictions of the airship.
  • Bruce Conner's 1958 experimental film A Movie includes the Hindenburg as part of an extended montage of cars crashing, planes crashing, ships sinking, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsing.

  • An old, somewhat cruel joke, often used in politics, directed at right-wing commentators (Rush Limbaugh being the most common target):
    What's the difference between [right-wing commentator] and the Hindenburg? One's a flaming Nazi gasbag, and the other is a dirigible.


    Live-Action TV 
  • IMDb lists at least five documentary TV shows about the airship.
  • The MythBusters investigated whether the fire was due to the hydrogen, or to the combustible materials in the coating of the ship. They decided that both could have contributed. They also busted the notion that the ship was painted in thermite or rocket fuel, as the common myth goes. They lit a little swatch of fabric identical to the Hindenburg's. It was barely flammable at all, and took about a minute to burn, twice as long as it took the 800-foot behemoth to be destroyed. Later, they ignited scale models of the Hindenburg; one covered with the original doping but with no hydrogen, one with the original doping with hydrogen diffused inside, and a third coated in thermite (just for show, as they admitted the original Hindenburg would not have been covered in such a solution). The first scale model took over 2 minutes to burn, but the fire accelerated partway through the burn, suggesting that perhaps the components of the doping could potentially form thermite. Hydrogen was still determined to be the primary factor, however, when the second model burned in less than a minute, looking remarkably like the newsreel footage of the Hindenburg as it did so.
  • Seconds from Disaster also had an episode involving modern detectives trying to come up with a plausible theory for the Hindenburg disaster — not only how it burned, but how the fire started in the first place. The theory they ultimately arrived at was that the sharp turns the pilot made to line up for the landing, which were not standard operating procedure, caused one of the bracing wires to snap and whip backwards from the sudden release of tension, tearing a gash in one of the hydrogen cells. They further speculated that the after-effects of the thunderstorm not only wet the mooring ropes, but also generated static electricity that charged the Hindenburg's exterior. When the wet ropes were dropped, the charge from the metal frame would have been conducted through the ropes to the ground, while the less-conductive skin would remained charged. This differential, they speculated, would have caused static sparks, and hydrogen leaking from the damaged cell could easily have come into contact with one or more sparks, which would have been enough to ignite the highly-flammable gas. From this point on, their theory is largely in line with what MythBusters concluded: once a fire was sparked, it would have spread quickly through the hydrogen contained in the cells, causing a raging inferno.
  • The PBS series History Detectives were presented with mysterious looking instrument alleged to have come from the Hindenburg. They managed to determine that it was indeed an altimeter from the Hindenburg, but they cautioned that there are also a lot of phony Hindenburg artifacts out there, due to the robust market for souvenirs after the crash.
  • "Hindenburg" was a 2011 German made-for-TV movie featuring lots of good CGI and a romantic subplot extremely similar to that of Titanic (1997). Like The Hindenburg above, it is based on a fictional plot to sabotage the Hindenburg with a bomb. Unlike the 1975 film, it took quite a few liberties with the interior design of the airship.
  • The pilot episode of the time travel series Timeless centers on the crash. The villain's plan is actually to save the he can then crash it on its return voyage to Germany, carrying several VIPs. It features an intriguing theory on the cause of the crash, that the mooring lines weren't properly coiled, and their being dragged through puddles created a grounding for an electrical charge that ignited a hydrogen leak.
  • The famous early Thanksgiving Episode, "Turkey's Away!" in WKRP in Cincinnati spoofs the Hindenburg Disaster with the whole "Turkey Drop" particular, the way Les Nessman reports the disastrous publicity stunt....which parallels Morrison's report and a bit of comedic self-awareness....lampshades The Hindenburg disaster!....
    Les Nessman in 1978:"It's a helicopter, and it's coming this way. It's flying something behind it, I can't quite make it out, it's a large banner and it says, uh - Happy... Thaaaaanksss... giving! ... From ... W ... K ... R... P!! No parachutes yet. Can't be skydivers... I can't tell just yet what they are, but - Oh my God, Johnny, they're turkeys!! Johnny, can you get this? Oh, they're plunging to the earth right in front of our eyes! One just went through the windshield of a parked car! Oh, the humanity! The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement! Not since the Hindenburg tragedy has there been anything like this!"
    Herbert Morrison in 1937:"It's practically standing still now they've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) they've been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again; it's... the rain had (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from...It's burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It's fire... and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It's burning and bursting into flames and the... and it's falling on the mooring mast and all the folks betweennote , oh this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it's... [unintelligible] its flames... Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it... it's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke, and it's in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it – I can't even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It's... it... it's a... ah! I... I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it's just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. I... I... I'm sorry. Honest: I... I can hardly breathe. I... I'm going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that's terrible. Ah, ah... I can't. Listen, folks; I... I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed."


    Newspaper Comics 
  • The Garfield strip in which Odie is introduced has Garfield thinking (to paraphrase) "Odie... A car named Edsel, a ship named Titanic, a blimp called the Hindenburg, a dog named Odie".
  • A Dilbert Sunday strip involved a speaker doing his theme for an annual employee meeting on the Hindenburg without researching it. Alice picked it as a prank. Then he learned what the Hindenburg was.

  • Orson Welles' famous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds was so effective in part because the panicked narration of the initial Martian attack is based directly on Herbert Morrison's Hindenburg broadcast. Reportedly Frank Readick, who played Carl Phillips, listened to a recording of the broadcast several times to get into character.

    Video Games 
  • In Brütal Legend, the guitar solo "Bring it on Home" summons a giant flaming Zeppelin airship on top of the enemies, in reference to both Led Zeppelin's debut album and the Hindenburg disaster depicted on its cover. Occasionally, Eddie quips "Make an 'O' shape with your mouth so you can talk about the humanity!" after casting.
  • Pokémon Diamond and Pearl introduced the Ghost/Flying-type, Drifloon, and its evolution, Drifblim, styled after a child's balloon and a hot air balloon, respectively. The joke of naming one "Hindenburg" was fairly obvious and commonly done, thanks in part to them learning Explosion and having an Ability whose Japanese name is Detonation. Then the fifth generation of games, whose region is based on an American location (New York City and New Jersey) for the first time gave these Pokémon an Ability exclusive to them that grants a Status Buff while Burned. Oh yeah, and in this generation Drifblim now learns Explosion at level 56note , instead of 51...
  • Solatorobo: Red the Hunter's first level is aboard an airship named the Hindenburg. Of course, it crashes in a ball of flames, though this time, the culprit is Lares.
  • There's a custom map for Unreal Tournament in which there is an airship named the Hindenberg. The attackers are there to blow it up by setting charges on its engines and in the cabin. The actual burning and destruction come when they succeed, set to "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin.
  • The main character of the video game The Secrets of Atlantis: The Sacred Legacy is one of the people who designed it. It doesn't explode and he uses it to travel around the world.
  • In Evil Genius, starting the fire that crashed the Hindenburg is one of several major crimes attributed to the infamous criminal mastermind, Lord Kane.
  • A random event in Hearts of Iron IV determines whether or not the Hindenburg explodes or lands safely due to the leak being spotted and rectified ahead of time. If it survives, Rudolf Hess will use it to make his famous flight to Britain.
  • Metal Slug 4: The Brave Guerrier is a blimp modeled after both the Hindeburg and the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin. It's fought as the first boss of the game. The still burning aircraft reappears later, providing support to the Sea Satan submarine during the boss battle in Mission 5.


     Web Video 
  • Max Miller of Tasting History made a video where he cooked a dessert served on the Hindenburg and discussed the zeppelin, its historical context, and its death with an emphasis on how quick it was and how about two thirds of the passengers survived.

    Western Animation 
  • Parodied on Family Guy:
    Peter: To the Hindenpeter! *boards an airship with his face on the nose, which instantly crashes into Joe's lawn*
  • On The Simpsons, Barney takes the controls of the Duff Beer blimp and crashes it in a spectacular fireball, causing nearby Kent Brockman to exclaim "Oh the humanity!"
  • An episode of The Critic featured characters traveling Hindenburg Airlines, whose motto is "Oh The Humanity!"
  • DuckTales (1987) managed to combine this airship with the Titanic in one episode. Another episode has Scrooge and Magica, currently chasing each other through time and going through one disaster after another, ending up on the "Zeppelburger" moments before it exploded.
  • Robot Chicken includes it in a montage of sports bloopers for whatever reason.
  • 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 find a blimp, which causes Gumball to ask why the universe got rid of them, since he thought it was pretty cool. Cue it exploding.
    Gumball: Oh, right.
  • In the Infinity Train episode "The Crystal Car", Tulip mentions a film that is clearly meant to be Titanic (1997) on the Hindenburg.
  • Rocko's Modern Life: In a past life, Heffer was a passenger aboard the Hillenburg zeppelin. His attempt to reach to the snack cart at the tail of the blimp caused a severe weight shift that ended up crashing the aircraft.

Alternative Title(s): Hindenburg