Engineering Disasters: Hindenburg (1937)

  • Was the Hindenburg just a sitting duck when you consider the highly flammable gases used and numerous ignition opportunities?
  • As we approach the 90th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster why is there no definitive explanation of the crash and resulting fireball? Conspiracy theories aplenty!
  • Were we all a little quick to write off airships? Over the last few years a number of hybrid vehicles have arrived on the market using safer materials. Is it time to try again?

What really happened to the Hindenburg?

A German passenger airship called The LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and crashed during its attempt to dock in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, just after completing a transatlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany three days earlier. The incident shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and marked the end of commercial passenger airships. 36 people were killed in the accident, with 62 survivors.

A variety of hypotheses have been put forward for both the cause of ignition and the initial fuel source for the ensuing fire. Arguments have been made for sabotage, static spark, lightning, engine failure, incendiary paint, hydrogen leak and engine fuel leaks as primary causes of the subsequent fire. Although many theories have been promoted, some more feasible than others, the root cause of the disaster has never been determined.

The Hindenburg

Back to the drawing board

The initial reaction to the accident was to stop using large airships altogether. Later design options avoided the use of flammable or explosive gases and tended towards the use of helium and other inert lighter than air gasses. Helium dirigibles were used extensively in WWII. However, with the advent of jet engines during the latter part of WWII and the growing ability to engineer and design larger commercial aircraft, the use of airships as a viable commercial option ground to a natural economic halt.

However, recently they have been re-born with a number of “hybrid” airships emerging as an alternative to fuel guzzling mainstream planes – will they ever catch on?



1 thought on “Engineering Disasters: Hindenburg (1937)”

  1. A detailed study was done and the blame for the very hot fire was put on the fact that the paint of the hull was celluloid. When Hindenburg was built this new paint was not clearly understood but it seemed to offer highly desirable characteristics for the protection for the fabric covering of the Hull.

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