May 6 – The Hindenburg Ends the Age of the Airship

Posted on May 6, 2014
They were called airships...
...even blimps!

These airships have giant envelopes (or balloons) filled with hydrogen or helium, which are lighter than air and which cause the entire ship to rise into the sky. Unlike hot air balloons, the airships have engines that propel them through the sky.

Airships traveled majestically across the sky and over the Atlantic Ocean for more than 30 years. By the 1930s, they were making regular runs across the Atlantic, traveling round trip from Germany to the U.S. and Brazil. Airships could carry far more passengers than could the airplanes of the day, and although they were slow by modern air flight standards, they were faster than ships traveling on the water.

This is an actual photo of the dining car of
the Hindenburg.
They were posh, too. By the 1930s, Zeppelins featured private cabins and observation decks. Of course there were dining rooms, but there were also passenger lounges, writing rooms, and smoking lounges. 

Crossing the ocean via the Hindenburg, “Queen of the Airships,” was THE most elegant way to travel of its time.

(Of course, they said that about the Titanic, too, didn't they?)

The Golden Age of Airships is considered to be from July 2, 1900, until this date in 1937. Of course there have been blimps and Zeppelins since May 6, 1937there are some still! But the popularity of this form of travel came crashing down...

...when the Hindenburg came crashing down.

What happened?

On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg had made it safely across the Atlantic and was about to dock with its mooring mast at an air station in New Jersey.

But then a spark of static electricity started a small fire on the Hindenburg—and hydrogen is VERY flammable!— and there were 16 huge bags full of hydrogen filling the “envelope” of the airship. In little more than a second, the small fire became a big fire, and in less than a minute,  the ship was destroyed.

The worst air disaster of its time, the fiery crash killed 13 passengers, 22 crew members, and 1 person on the ground. Still, more than half of the people aboard the Hindenburg somehow survived – and that seems more surprising to me than the death toll!

But, just like that, the industry airship travel was pretty much over!

Does that seem strange to you?

There had been a few other airship accidents before the Hindenburg. And there have been and continue to be accidents with airplanes and automobiles—including the recent tragic disappearance of a Malaysian airplane and the 239 people aboard—and we still fly on planes and ride in cars. Why would this one accident and 36 deaths spell the end of the entire industry?
I think it may be because people were not used to seeing disasters on film yet. The Hindenburg was flown during the first half century of motion-picture history, and television broadcasting had not yet begun. People hadn't seen the sorts of things I've seen over and over: the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

It just so happened that this journey of the Hindenburg was the first of the season, and quite a few journalists were on hand to cover the event. There were five newsreel cameras with their operators and at least one spectator with a movie camera, all ready to film what they assumed would be the safe landing of the airship and the happy debarkation of the passengers. When the Hindenburg burst into flames, none of the cameras happened to be running—but the camera operators hurriedly turned them on and captured the horrifying event. Soon the newsreel of the disaster was being viewed in movie theaters all over the world. Also, radio broadcaster Herbert Morrison's horrified reaction to the disaster was aired and listened to by equally horror-struck citizens.
It's apparently one thing to hear that there had been an accident and that people had died – and it's an entirely different thing to actually see what the disaster looked like!

Why on earth did the Hindenburg use hydrogen?

Some people think that scientists of the early 1900s just didn't know that hydrogen was so flammable, and that it would be much safer to use helium, which is incredibly stable and doesn't burn.

But scientists did know all of that. The engineers who were crafting the airships wanted to use helium, and they designed the Hindenburg to use helium.

However, helium is rare and very expensive to produce, whereas hydrogen is extremely common and therefore much cheaper. The U.S. was one of the few places in the world that had quite a bit of helium—and the Americans refused to sell it to Germany, probably because the two nations had so recently fought against each other in World War I. So the engineers had to redesign the airship to use hyrdrogen.
To learn more about airships in general, check out this earlier post

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