FLYING Magazine

On May 6, 1937, the age of airships—the ocean liners of the sky—came to a violent end with the destruction of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey. 

Monday marks the 87th anniversary of the event. NBC reporter Herb Morrison was on location to cover what had become almost routine—the docking of the German airship for the newsreels.

That day the ship carried 36 passengers and 61 crewmembers. As the newsreel cameras rolled, the ship approached, and while attempting to attach to the mooring mast, a fire broke out along the dorsal fin. Kept aloft by highly flammable hydrogen, there was no stopping the fire. The burning airship rapidly fell 200 feet to the ground.

Of the 97 on board, 62 survived. Among the dead were 13 passengers, 22 crew, and a member of the ground crew.

The public did not see the newsreel images of the event until a few days later as the film had to be developed and copied for distribution to movie houses. Morrison’s emotional description of the event included the phrase, “Oh, the humanity!” The audio was added to the film in postproduction.

Then, as now, there was an investigation into the cause of the accident—and it is still debated. One of the most commonly held beliefs is that static electricity along the airship’s skin ignited the hydrogen. Some believed the ship was destroyed in an act of sabotage, as it was a symbol (to some) of Nazi power and intimidation because of its sheer size and the swastikas emblazoned on the tailfins.

About the Ship

The airship, designated LZ-129, was walked out of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin factory in 1936. Measuring 804 feet nose to tail, it was larger than the record-setting LZ-127, the Graf Zeppelin, commanded by factory manager Hugo Eckner. The Graf Zeppelin flew around the world, setting speed records, and was often the subject of newsreel features as it visited exotic places.

Eckner was a German national hero for his work with zeppelin and did not like the Nazis. As such, he refused to name the new ship after Adolf Hitler, who came to power in 1933, when he was named chancellor by German President Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg’s death in 1934 paved the way for the expansion of the Nazi Party.

The Nazi Party, aware of Eckner’s criticism, had him blacklisted and refused to allow his name to be printed in newspapers.

The U.S. shared Eckner’s concerns about the rise of the Nazi Party, and fearing helium would be used for military purposes, refused to export it to Germany. Although it had been designed to use helium, the Hindenburg was converted to hydrogen use. The Graf Zeppelin also used hydrogen.

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Hitler did not see the Hindenburg as a military asset. However, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels did, and he made use of both the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin, which he saw as symbols of Nazi power. They were used for propaganda, which included dropping pro-Nazi leaflets, broadcasting patriotic messages from a sound system, and most famously, flying over the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

The Hindenburg made several trips between Berlin and New York. To travel on it was luxurious. Meals were served on fine china. People dressed for dinner. Unlike airliners of today, you could walk around and stretch out in the passenger cabin. For entertainment, there was a piano made from aluminum to save weight. Because fire was a real danger, passengers were not allowed to carry lighters or matches, but there was a smoking room that was lined with metal and had a special pressure door and a lighter secured to the wall. A crewman handed out cigars to passengers who wished to smoke.

At the time any air travel was glamorous, fascinating, and impressive. The airships were frequently photographed, with one of the most impressive being a black-and-white picture of the airship over New York City. People would pull off to the side of the road to watch it fly over, and basically everything would stop as people looked up to see the engineering marvel.

One of those was my father, who as a little boy was playing in a creek in New Jersey when a shadow fell over the water. Dad looked up, and there was the Hindenburg. A man wearing a white cap and a blue coat with three gold stripes on the sleeve leaned out of the gondola and shouted down to Dad in heavily accented German, “How is the fishing?”

This would not be my only connection to the Hindenburg. During a ground lesson at my first flight instructor’s home, I noticed a set of metal plant stands in the kitchen made from what looked like triangular girders. His name was Dutch Werline, and flight instructing was a second career for him. I remarked that they looked like something from an airship—and it turns out they were. His father was part of the Navy’s rigid airship program in the 1930s, and the tables were made from unairworthy scrap parts. During the Great Depression, when he did not have much money, he crafted them as a Christmas present for his wife.

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Werline’s father is one of the Navy men who was on hand to help the Hindenburg moor that day. He survived. His son, then an infant in his mother’s arms, was also there that day and was mentioned in the local press coverage as being the youngest person to be present.

The destruction of the Hindenburg resulted in a loss of public confidence in travel by airship. The Graf Zeppelin would remain in use until the beginning of World War II, when it would be dismantled and its components melted down or repurposed for the war effort.

U.S. Navy and Rigid Airships

The U.S. Navy experimented with rigid airships. In 1922, the first American-built airship, the USS Shenandoah, began assembly in Lakehurst. Its design was based in part on a German ship, L-49, that was captured in France during World War I. Unlike the German ships, the Americans’ were designed to be filled with helium. That didn’t prevent them from having accidents, however, as the airships were vulnerable to weather.

In 1925, the Shenandoah was making its 57th flight when it was caught in a storm over Ohio. The strong up-and-down drafts overstressed the ship, tearing it apart. It crashed in three pieces: bow, stern, and control car—all coming down near Caldwell, Ohio. The stern section sank rapidly and the control car crashed to the ground, while the remaining bow section turned into a free balloon. The crew in the bow were able to release the helium in such a manner that they were able to land it. Fourteen of the crew of 43 died in the crash.

The loss of the Shenandoah did not deter the military. The United States had received LZ-126 as part of WWI reparations, and in 1924 it was flown by Eckner and a crew to the U.S., where it was redesignated ZR-3 and renamed the USS Los Angeles.

The USS ‘Los Angeles’ (ZR-3) moored to USS ‘Patoka’ (AO-9) off Panama during Fleet Problem XII, circa February 1931. [Courtesy: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command]

In 1931, a photo was taken of the ship attached to the mooring tower and up on its nose as the tail was caught by a gust of wind. The men inside held on for dear life until the tail came back down. The Los Angeles took part in military exercises as an experiment.

The Navy had two other rigid airships, the Akron (ZRS-4) and the Macon (ZRS-5), that were designed to be flying aircraft carriers. They had internal hangar decks and sort of a trapeze attachment to capture scout aircraft. Both met similar fates as they crashed offshore in storms. 

The Akron went down in 1933 off the coast of New Jersey, killing 73 of the 76 crew on board. One of them was Rear Admiral William Moffett, the first chief of the Bureau of Navy Aeronautics. Moffett Field, the home of Hangar One and now Google in Silicon Valley California, was named for him.

The Macon crashed in a storm off the coast of California in 1935. Of the 83 crew on board, only two were killed because the ship had emergency gear for water landings. The loss of both ships prompted Congress to suspend the Navy’s rigid airship program.

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