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Hindenburg Disaster

The tragedy that ended lighter-than-air passenger travel in rigid dirigibles.

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The Hindenburg burning on May 6, 1937.

The Hindenburg burning on May 6, 1937.

This picture is in the public domain.
The suddenness of the disaster was shocking. At 7:25 p.m. on May 6, 1937, while the Hindenburg was attempting to land at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, a flame appeared on the outer cover of the rear of the Hindenburg. Within 34 seconds, the entire airship was consumed by fire.

Take-off

On May 3, 1937, the captain of the Hindenburg (on this trip, Max Pruss) ordered the zeppelin out of its shed at the airship station in Frankfurt, Germany. As was usual, when all was ready, the captain shouted, "Schiff hoch!" ("Up ship!") and the ground crew released the handling lines and gave the giant airship a push upward.

This trip was the first of the 1937 season for passenger service between Europe and the United States and it wasn't as popular as the 1936 season. In 1936, the Hindenburg had completed ten successful trips (1,002 passengers) and was so popular that they had to turn away customers. On this trip, the first of the 1937 season, the airship was only partially full, carrying only 36 passengers though it was equipped to carry 72.

For their $400 ticket ($720 round trip), the passengers could relax in the large, luxurious common spaces and enjoy fine food. (Picture) They could play, sing, or just listen to the baby grand piano on board or just sit and write postcards. With 61 crew members on board, the passengers were well accommodated. The luxury of the Hindenburg was a marvel in air travel. Considering that passengers were not taken across the Atlantic in heavier-than-air crafts (airplanes) until 1939, the novelty as well as the luxury of traveling in the Hindenburg was astonishing.

The smoothness of the ride took many of the Hindenburg's passengers by surprise. Louis Lochner, a newspaperman, described the trip: "You feel as though you were carried in the arms of angels."1 There are other stories of passengers waking up after several hours aloft questioning the crew as to when the ship was to take off.2 On most trips across the Atlantic, the Hindenburg maintained an altitude of approximately 650 feet and cruised around 78 mph; however, on this trip, the Hindenburg encountered strong head winds that slowed it down, pushing back the Hindenburg's arrival time from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on May 6, 1937.

The Storm

A storm was brewing over the Lakehurst Naval Air Station (New Jersey) on the afternoon of May 6, 1937. After Captain Pruss had taken the Hindenburg over Manhattan, with a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, the airship was nearly over Lakehurst when they received a weather report which stated that winds were up to 25 knots. In a lighter-than-air ship, winds could be dangerous; thus, both Captain Pruss and Commander Charles Rosendahl, the officer in charge of the air station, agreed that the Hindenburg should wait for the weather to improve. The Hindenburg then headed southward, then northward, in a continuing circle while it waited for better weather.

Family, friends, and newspapermen waited at Lakehurst for the Hindenburg to land. Most had been there since the early morning hours when the airship was first scheduled to land.

At 5 p.m., Commander Rosendahl gave the order to sound Zero Hour - a loud siren beckoning the 92 navy and 139 civilian ground crew personnel from the nearby town of Lakehurst. The ground crew were to help the airship land by handing on to mooring lines.

At 6 p.m. it began to really rain and soon after began to clear. At 6:12 p.m., Commander Rosendahl informed Captain Pruss: "Conditions now considered suitable for landing."3 The Hindenburg had traveled perhaps a little too far and was still not at Lakehurst at 7:10 p.m. when Commander Rosendahl sent another message: "Conditions definitely improved recommend earliest possible landing."4

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