Here's How The Hindenburg Disaster Changed Aviation History

Hindenburg

76 years ago, on May 6, 1937, Nazi Germany’s prized LZ-129 Hindenburg airship crashed and burned in Lakehurst, New Jersey, creating this iconic photo.

The disaster, which was caused by static electricity, claimed 36 lives and proved embarrassing for the Nazis, who used the ship as an example of their engineering skills and a propaganda machine.

But it had a more significant impact: The Hindenburg disaster led directly to the end of the era of the airship.

Named after German President Paul von Hindenburg, the airship was huge — three times the length a modern Boeing 747.

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For the Nazis, it was not just a feat of engineering, but a propaganda vehicle — the country had just began to occupy the demilitarized Ruhr Valley when the ship made its debut in 1936.

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After just a few test flights, Nazi propaganda boss Dr. Joseph Goebbels ordered the airship to fly to every major German city to drop Nazi campaign pamphlets and to blare patriotic music.

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In 1936, the Hindenburg made many transatlantic flights.

Its passengers were affluent, and the airship offered great luxury.

Rigid airships had been used since the turn of the century, but few had matched the grandeur of the Hindenburg.

At this point, Germany completely dominated the airship industry.

That all changed in New Jersey on May 7, 1937, when the airship caught fire and exploded in mid-air.

Somehow, a fire started on the ship as it was due to land.

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In March 2013, a team of researchers in Texas recreated the disaster, and determined that the flames were sparked by static electricity.

Crucially, the airship was filled with flammable hydrogen, rather than the safer helium, as the gas was easier for Germany to get hold of.

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It took just 34 seconds for the entire ship to catch ablaze. 35 of the 97 people on board lost their lives, and one crew member on the ground was killed.

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Some still suspect that the disaster could have been an act of sabotage, and the Nazi investigation covered that up to save face.

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The disaster became notorious, at least partly due to radio reporter Herbert Morrison, who witnessed the fire and gave a dramatic report.

There had been numerous airship disasters in the past (including some with higher death tolls), but something about this disaster captured the public imagination.

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Germany grounded its fleet of hydrogen-filled airships after the disaster, but was never able to replace them as the USA was the only country with substantial helium resources.

Within a few years transatlantic aeroplane flight became economical and safe, and airships were consigned to history.

The age of the airship was over.

Now see the story of the jets that replaced airships.

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