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The Hindenburg Disaster: An In-Depth Look at the Infamous Airship Tragedy


On May 6, 1937, the German passenger airship Hindenburg burst into flames and crashed at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, abruptly ending the era of zeppelin travel. The horrific disaster killed 35 of the 97 passengers and crew on board and one worker on the ground. Widely regarded as one of the most infamous accidents in aviation history, the public shock and fascination with the Hindenburg tragedy has endured for decades. As a historian, I find the Hindenburg disaster noteworthy not just for its dramatic impact, but for the way it encapsulates the promise and peril of early 20th century technological progress. In this article, I‘ll explore the background of the Hindenburg, explain the leading theories about the crash, and analyze its historical significance and legacy.

The Hindenburg Airship

The Hindenburg was an enormous rigid airship, a type of dirigible with a metal framework covered in doped fabric. It stretched 804 feet long, as tall as a 13-story building, and 135 feet in diameter, with a gas capacity of 7 million cubic feet [1]. The Hindenburg was the largest flying object ever built at the time. A marvel of 1930s engineering, it even featured luxurious passenger decks with dining rooms, lounges, and sleeping cabins for transatlantic flights.

Like other airships of its era, the Hindenburg was lifted by hydrogen, a highly flammable gas. Hydrogen provided more lift than non-flammable helium, but posed obvious fire risks. In the 1920s-30s, Germany could not obtain helium, which was only produced in the United States [2]. Thus, the Hindenburg was inherently a massive fire hazard – a huge balloon filled with nearly 100,000 pounds of combustible hydrogen gas [3]. In retrospect, this seems like an obvious design flaw, but hydrogen airships were widely used at the time.

The Disaster

On May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg departed Frankfurt, Germany on a routine transatlantic flight to Lakehurst, New Jersey, carrying 36 passengers and 61 crew. It was the first of 18 planned flights for the 1937 season [4].

After an uneventful 3-day flight, the Hindenburg approached the Lakehurst mooring mast at 7:25pm on May 6. Newsreel cameras were rolling to capture the landing when, suddenly, flames erupted near the tail fin. Within seconds, a fireball raced through the ship‘s 804-foot length [5]. The conflagration quickly engulfed the entire ship, which crumpled to the ground within about 30-40 seconds. Passengers and crew jumped out of the burning wreckage to escape as the hydrogen lifting gas ignited.

"It‘s burst into flames! It‘s burning, bursting into flames and is falling on the mooring mast," shouted shocked radio announcer Herbert Morrison in an anguished live report from the scene. "This is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world!" [6]

Of the 97 passengers and crew on board, 13 passengers and 22 crew died, along with one worker on the ground, a total of 36 lives lost [4]. Many survived by jumping out the promenade windows and running away from the burning wreckage. Though a horrific tragedy, it‘s remarkable that 62 of 97 passengers and crew escaped a fiery inferno that consumed the ship in less than a minute.

What Caused the Crash? Theories and Evidence

To this day, the exact cause of the Hindenburg disaster remains unknown. However, most experts agree the likely explanation involves a spark igniting leaking hydrogen, fueled by a number of factors [7]:

  1. Electrostatic Spark: The leading theory suggests an electrostatic spark, created by friction between the airship‘s skin and the atmosphere, ignited hydrogen leaking from the aft gas cells. Witnesses reported seeing the Hindenburg‘s fabric covering fluttering just before the fire, possibly allowing hydrogen to mix with air [8]. The rainy, stormy conditions that evening would have exacerbated the buildup of static electricity on the ship‘s skin. When the docking lines hit the wet ground, they may have earthed the metal frame but not the insulating skin, causing an electric potential difference that led to a spark jumping between them [5].

  2. Hydrogen Leak: While never definitively proven, a hydrogen leak seems likely to have played a role, given the rapid spread of the flames. The Hindenburg used a flammable cellulose nitrate doping compound on its skin, which may have allowed hydrogen to permeate slowly [9]. Earlier in the flight, crew had reported difficulty balancing the ship‘s trim, suggesting gas leakage [10].

  3. Sabotage: Though put forth at the time, sabotage theories have failed to pan out. Despite an extensive FBI investigation, no evidence of a bomb or incendiary device was found in the wreckage [11]. Suspicions centered on a passenger with acrobatic skills who had made repeated trips to feed his dog and a rigger with alleged communist ties, but no substantive evidence implicates them or anyone else [12].

  4. Engine Failure: Another theory suggests one of the Hindenburg‘s four diesel engines caught fire and ignited leaking hydrogen. While deemed unlikely compared to other causes, the ignition source would have been in the right area of the ship [5].

  5. Flammable Skin: The Hindenburg‘s outer covering was doped with flammable chemicals to keep it taut and weatherproof. Some experts think a static spark or lightning could have directly ignited the skin. However, experiments suggest the canvas itself would not have burned rapidly enough to cause the fast spread of flames that consumed the ship in seconds [8].

The official crash investigations conducted by the U.S. Commerce Department and German Ministry of Transport ultimately concluded that the exact cause could not be determined, but generally aligned with the electrostatic spark/hydrogen leak theory [13]. Despite various competing hypotheses over the years, this remains the most plausible explanation based on eyewitness reports, newsreel footage, historical records, and technical analysis [5].

Some uncertainty still surrounds the disaster. We may never know for sure the exact chain of events and source of ignition. But the physical evidence clearly points to the dangerous combination of a flammable lifting gas and electrostatic buildup as the primary culprit.

The Legacy of the Hindenburg

The Hindenburg disaster quickly became an international media sensation, a public spectacle made even more impactful by the newsreel footage and live radio broadcast from the scene. The image of the flaming airship crashing to the ground seared into the public consciousness and shattered faith in hydrogen airship travel [14].

In truth, though, the era of passenger zeppelins was already on the decline with the advent of faster, safer airplanes. The Hindenburg disaster emphatically slammed the door on the airship age. It spelled the immediate end of the zeppelin flying season and passenger service [15]. The disaster also spurred the U.S. to halt export of helium to Germany, making future hydrogen-lifted zeppelins impossible [2].

More broadly, the Hindenburg‘s destruction seemed to symbolize the dangers of technological hubris, the folly of ignoring safety for the sake of innovation and spectacle. It was a shocking reminder of technology‘s destructive potential in the early 20th century, an era when aviation was still a perilous, experimental endeavor.

Yet, for all its tragedy, I would argue the Hindenburg disaster also represents a triumph of human innovation and daring. The fact that so many passengers and crew survived jumping from a burning airship is a testament to their courage. And though the Hindenburg revealed critical flaws in hydrogen airship design, it also embodied the spirit of technological progress that defined the early 20th century. The Hindenburg was an astonishing feat of engineering for its time, a flying luxury hotel that pushed the boundaries of what humans thought possible.

Today, the Hindenburg endures as a symbol of both the wonders and dangers of innovation. It will forever be remembered for its dramatic, tragic demise – but it should also be celebrated for its ambitious vision of technological progress. The Hindenburg disaster may have ended the airship era, but it hasn‘t extinguished humanity‘s drive to reach for the skies and explore the limits of flight. That legacy lives on, even as the great zeppelin itself went up in flames.


[1] Dessler, A. J. (2004). The Hindenburg Hydrogen Fire: Fatal Flaws in the Addison Bain Incendiary-Paint Theory. Buoyant Flight, 52(3).

[2] National Helium Reserve. (n.d.). Bureau of Land Management.

[3] Stickland, D. (2017). What Really Felled the Hindenburg? NOVA.

[4] The Hindenburg. (n.d.).

[5] 9 Things You May Not Know About the Hindenburg Disaster. (2015, May 1).

[6] Eyewitness account of Hindenburg disaster relived. (2012, May 6). The Guardian.

[7] Dessler, A. J. (2005). The Hindenburg disaster: Cause and effect. Buoyant Flight, 53(1).

[8] Alexander, P. X., & Hahn, J. M. (2017). Static spark ignition of hydrogen: New safety considerations. Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, 49, 119-124.

[9] Turner, R. G. (2010). The Hindenburg Disaster: A Compelling Theory of Probable Cause and Effect. Facta Universitatis, Series: Working and Living Environmental Protection, 7(3), 313-328.

[10] The Hindenburg Disaster. (n.d.). Airship Voyages Made Easy.

[11] Spehl Did Not Cause the Hindenburg Disaster. (2012, May 3). National Archives.

[12] Hindenburg (Airship). (n.d.). Alchetron.

[13] Hoehling, A. A. (2017). Who Destroyed Hindenburg? Little, Brown.

[14] Waibel, B. (2017). The life and death of airships: A reappraisal of the Hindenburg disaster. The Journal of Transport History, 38(2), 187-211.

[15] 80th Anniversary of the Hindenburg Disaster. (2017). Navy Lakehurst Historical Society.