On this day in 1937, LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed while attempting to land in New Jersey. What’s perhaps most amazing about the whole thing is that only 35 of the 97 people on board died. Look at the video below. It’s hard to believe that anyone (besides Robert Clary) had survived.
I’ve always assumed that the Hindenburg disaster was just waiting to happen. After all, the Germans had used hydrogen instead of helium for it. And hydrogen is just ridiculously explosive. But I learned that this was not a decision they made willingly. Helium was extremely expensive — when you could get it. And mostly, you couldn’t get it, because the United States was about the only country that produced it (it comes from natural gas mining, if you care to capture it). The US refused to export it. And given that construction of the Hindenburg was started in 1931, this probably had nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazis.
Before I always thought that the designers of the Hindenburg were at fault. But now I don’t. In fact, they took great precautions to make the ship as safe as possible. And that brings up the other amazing thing about this disaster: we don’t know what the cause was.
At the time, most people thought it was sabotage. There is even a theory that Hitler called for the Hindenburg to be destroyed because the great old man of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (builder of the Hindenburg), Hugo Eckener, was an outspoken critic of the Nazis. It seems a bit indirect to me.
I tend to think that it was just an accident. Hugo Eckener thought it was a spark from built up static electricity. One of the crew members suggests that the landing maneuver caused sparks. But there are lots of other theories. In fact, this is one of the cases that is just going to get more confusing as time goes on.