It was colossal, awe-inspiring, and luxurious. It was a symbol of intercontinental airship travel, but also of Nazi Germany. And its name, of course, was “Hindenburg.”
Fixed-wing, heavier-than-air technology, although evolving by the end of the 1920s, was still insufficiently mature to permit long-range, transatlantic, commercial flights, leaving its lighter-than-air counterpart to be used for this purpose. The Zeppelin Company of Germany, having carried more than 50,000 passengers on 2,300 flights between 1910 and 1927, fully exploited this realm.
Designated LZ 129 for “Luftschiffbau Zeppelin,” the Hindenburg stretched 803.6 feet and its 135.1-foot diameter gave it a cavernous envelope of hitherto unimaginable proportions, providing a gas volume of 7,062,000 cubic feet. In sheer appearance, it was the largest, most impressive, and most magnificent airship ever conceived.
Its internal framework was built up of 15 main frames or rings, each comprised of 18 diamond-shaped trusses arranged end-to-end in a circle and positioned 49.2 feet apart, as well as four larger-diameter frames separated by 54.1 feet. Two light, intermediate, unbraced rings, positioned between each pair of main frames, reduced longitudinal bending loads and provided support for the outer cover. Eighteen longitudinal girders connected the main rings at the junctions of the diamond trusses, while another 18 tied their apices together. An axial girder, to which the rings’ steel guy wires were stretched, ensured both strength and shape integrity and served as a central, bow-to-stern gangway, thus providing interior access.
The airship’s 367,000-square-foot envelope was comprised of sun-reflecting, aluminum dope-treated cotton panels, while its lifting gas was stored in 16 translucent bags, each located in an individual, framework-formed cell and collectively tended by three duty riggers.
On either side of the keel, which equally extended from the bow to the stern along the bottom, were crew quarters, freight rooms, fuel oil supplies, and water ballast tanks. Two 30-kilowatt diesel-powered generators were housed in an equal number of electrical rooms.
Tapering at its extreme tail, the dirigible sported horizontal stabilizers, with deflectable elevators, to control its longitudinal, or pitch axis, while both dorsal and ventral, vertical fins, measuring 135 feet high, almost 100 feet long, 50 feet thick, and 11 feet at their bases, provided vertical, or yaw axis, control.
Power was provided by four side-attached, tandemly-arranged, 16-cylinder, V-type, 1,320-hp Daimler-Benz diesel engines, each weighing 4,320 pounds; driving a four-bladed, 20-foot, reversible-pitch, aft-mounted propeller in pusher (versus tractor) configuration; and housed in 20-foot-long, aerodynamic, strut- and suspension wire-attached engine gondolas accessed by amidships and aft lateral gangways. Average cruise speed was 77 mph.
A forward, ventral control gondola, attached to, but not an integral part of, the airship’s underside structure, featured wrap-around windows for visibility and was subdivided into a forward control room, a mid-chart section, and an aft navigator room. A swivel-able landing wheel, mirrored by the identical one attached below the tail, extended below the cab. Two large, circular steering wheels provided longitudinal and vertical axis control, that of the left actuating the elevators and that on the right deflecting the rudders.
Unlike the tiny, cramped cabins of fixed-wing aircraft, the Hindenburg offered spacious, dual-deck passenger accommodations, the equivalent of ocean liner opulence inside. It was an integral portion of the lower hull structure.
The A deck, flanked on either side by 100-foot-long promenades with six, 45-degree-angled, Plexiglas windows to permit inflight, downward views, featured a 34-foot-long lounge with an aluminum piano and a 16-foot-long writing room on the right side, and a 50-by-15-foot dining room on the left, configured with 11 lightweight aluminum tables and chairs partially enclosed by inner, cotton fiber walls. Tables were formally set and adorned with white linen tablecloths, silver, ivory porcelain, and fresh flowers, permitting 34 to dine per sitting. Menus featured extensive wines and multi-course German and French provenance cuisine. Separated only by the narrow promenades, diners always had views through the sloping windows.
Between the dining room and the lounge/writing room were four banks of 25 windowless, double passenger cabins, accessed by narrow corridors and sporting light blue, gray, or beige walls. Small, but functional, they contained two, single-person bunk beds, a foldable writing table, a foldable washbasin with hot and cold running water, and a very narrow closet. All furniture and walls were of fire-resistant leather.
The Hindenburg accommodated 50 passengers, between 40 and 45 crew members, and more than 13 tons of baggage, cargo, and mail.
Despite its impressive dimensions, however, the commodity around which it was designed—helium—was not available because of the United States’ 1927 Helium Control Act, which prohibited the precious gas’s export and the US possessed the world’s only significant supply of it. Resultantly, Germany’s Zeppelin Company was forced to employ a more flammable gas for lift — hydrogen.
The Transatlantic Crossing
Boarding of the massive, yet somehow graceful, silver-coated, lighter-than-air ship, sporting the name “Hindenburg” in red gothic script above its control cab and swastikas on its vertical tails, on May 3, 1937, followed passport and customs controls and dual security checks.
Leaning out of the control cab’s window, Captain Pruss yelled, “Schiff hoch!”—“Up ship!”—and the ground crew released the mooring lines, followed by nose cone disconnection from the mooring mast. Releasing several tons of water ballast and employing the buoyancy principle, the massive Hindenburg, somehow transformed into a feather-light balloon, gently ascended toward the overcast at 20:00, the ground slowly decreasing in size. Paradoxically—and characteristic of lighter-than-air travel—there was no sound, no internal vibration, and no sensation of motion.
Pursuing a great circle course that took it along the Rhine River to Holland, across the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean, to Cape Race off of Newfoundland, west of Yarmouth in Nova Scotia, over Boston and Providence, across Long Island Sound, over Manhattan, and down the Hudson River, it proceeded to Naval Air Station Lakehurst in New Jersey.
A weather report, sent at 17:12 local time, advised that a thunderstorm was moving over Lakehurst and that westerly surface winds were blowing at 16 knots and gusting to 21. It was followed by a message transmitted 23 minutes later which stated, “…recommend delay landing until further word from station…” whereupon Captain Pruss responded that he would await Lakehurst’s report of improved conditions.
Pursuing a northeasterly heading, it passed over the station’s south fence at 19:04 local time while at 600 feet and maintaining a 73-knot airspeed before overflying its targeted landing circle. Tracing a long arc to the west, it commenced a southerly, final approach, valving hydrogen gas seven minutes later, which induced a descent down to 590 feet.
The captain commanded, “All engines idle, ahead.” Despite the gas release, it still maintained a nose-high, tail-heavy attitude, remedially necessitating another 15-second release, but from the forward cells.
Passing over the field’s west fence and failing to correct its imbalance, the dirigible shifted weight by requiring, as ordered by the captain, six off-duty crew members to position themselves in the bow.
Releasing 1,100 pounds of water ballast, it inched toward the mooring mast, upon which Captain Pruss ordered, “All engines full astern,” at 19:19. Motion ceased 200 feet short of it.
The forward, starboard yaw line was released to the awaiting ground crew at 19:21 and was quickly followed by the port one.
According to witnesses, the outer cover behind the aft, port engine suddenly began to flutter, as if gas had escaped through it, and a flash of yellow-orange flame erupted through it, burning the fabric which rained down into the hull, before a second, airship-shattering detonation occurred. The tail fell to the ground.
Like acid, fire ate away the outer skin with voracious, blanketing speed, peeling it away and revealing the Hindenburg’s aluminum, fleshless, skeleton-resembling framework. Lurching forward, the structure settled toward the field at a bow-high angle, while the hydrogen-fed fire shot skyward.
Impressed into the annals of aviation history are the famous words of radio reporter Herbert Morrison, “Oh, the humanity,” as he recorded the account that was broadcasted by WLS Chicago the following day.
It was concluded that atmospheric condition-created electrical discharge from the Hindenburg’s moist outer covering—which, by means of the extended mooring lines, was now grounded—ignited its outer, flammable, aluminum paint-doped cotton skin, creating a reactive sequence of explosion which entailed the flammable paint itself, the fabric’s carbon, the gas cells’ hydrogen, and the air’s oxygen. Thirty-five, including one on the ground, succumbed to the crash.
The accident signaled the death knoll to all commercial, hydrogen-buoyed, rigid airship travel. In early-1940, Air Minister Reichsmarschal Herman Goering abruptly ordered the destruction of both the original, LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin and the succeeding, LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II, with the ostensible reason that their metal was needed for World War II aircraft production.