“It burst into flames!…Get out of the way!… Get out of the way!
“Get this Charley! Get this Charley! It’s burning and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible!
“Oh my, get out of the way please… It’s burning, bursting into flames and it’s… and it’s falling on the mooring mast… and all the folks agree that this is terrible…
“This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world.”
That’s the way Herbert Morrison of Chicago’s WLS Radio described the arrival of the zeppelin “Hindenburg” from Frankfurt, Germany, as it burst into flames while landing at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey.
It was just after 7 in the evening. Ground crews manning the mooring ropes hanging down from the aircraft raced for safety, and horrified visitors screamed as fire engulfed the tail section.
Within seconds, the airship plunged down — its tail a blazing inferno hitting the ground first.
The outside fabric immediately disappeared, revealing the metal skeleton silhouetted against the white-hot fireball.
“And oh, it’s…burning, oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky. It’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. The smoke and the flames now… and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast.”
People were jumping out windows to possible death rather than face certain death in the flames.
Morrison could barely continue his broadcast — his voice choking with emotion:
“Oh, the humanity and all the passengers screaming around here. I told you. It’s… I can’t even talk to people whose friends were on there. It… It’s....I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen…
“Honest, it’s completely a mass of smoking wreckage. And everybody can’t hardly breathe. It’s hard, it’s crazy. Lady, I …I…I’m sorry. Honestly, I…I can hardly breathe.
“I…I’m gonna step inside where I cannot see it.
“Charley, that’s terrible. I…I can’t… Listen folks, I… I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice.
“This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Morrison’s emotional live report wasn’t broadcast immediately. The recording was aired in Chicago that night and to the rest of the nation the following day.
His voice account was also added to newsreel reports.
The New York Times headline the following day read:
“Hindenburg Burns in Lakehurst Crash; 21 Known Dead, 12 Missing; 64 Escape.”
Sub-headlines gave more details:
“Great Dirigible Bursts Into Flames as It Is About to Land: Victims Burn to Death: Some Passengers Are Thrown From the Blazing Wreckage, Others Crawl to Safety.”
Remarkably, 62 of the 97 passengers and crew on board jumped out of the flaming airship and survived, though many were severely injured. Others didn’t survive the fall.
It was May 6, 1937 — a day forever etched in the history of aviation.
It was just the previous year that Hitler decided to use the Hindenburg for propaganda purposes. He ordered that swastikas be painted on the tail assembly fins, and for the airship to fly in tandem with smaller sister airship Graf Zeppelin over the stadium during the Olympic Games in Berlin to showcase Germany’s aviation prowess, technology and power.
How could it all have happened?
On that fatal day, there was a storm over Lakehurst, so the Hindenburg flew around New York City while waiting for the storm to pass before making a landing.
Excited passengers crowded the windows, enjoying the view below.
When the weather conditions changed at Lakehurst, the Hindenburg headed for a landing. There was still a light rain. Flying slowly toward the docking tower, the airship was about 200 feet above the ground, and the crew dropping mooring lines.
Suddenly the fire erupted.
In 37 seconds, the entire airship was a blazing inferno.
It was the end of an era in aviation history.
It’s still unclear what caused the fire — maybe static electricity, St. Elmo’s Fire, the airship’s exterior covering, sabotage or some other unproven cause.
The Hindenburg was named after German President Paul von Hindenburg, and built by the Zeppelin company in Germany to be the world’s biggest airship — almost three football fields long at 803 feet, 10 inches.
It could carry up to 72 passengers in 1st class luxury, plus about 60 crew members.
Passengers paid $400 each way, equivalent to about $7,200 today.
The airship was designed to be held aloft by the relatively rare and expensive but safe helium — only available from the U.S. Germany however couldn’t buy any due to an embargo on sales to foreign countries under the Helium Control Act of 1925.
Highly flammable hydrogen was plentiful and cheap.
Nevertheless, construction of the Hindenburg continued, the Germans hoping the Americans would lift the embargo. They didn’t, so the ship’s design was changed to use 16 bags filled with hydrogen.
The Hindenburg’s interior super-structure was made of duralumin circular ribs held together with lateral beams the length of the ship. Duralumin is an alloy of aluminum, copper and several other metals.
The Hindenburg was “fatter” than its predecessor Graf Zeppelin, which made it structurally stronger.
Four 16-cylinder 850-h.p. diesel engines powered the propellers driving the ship at a cruising speed of 85 m.p.h. — crossing the Atlantic in two and a half days, compared to five days by the fastest ocean liners.
Passenger accommodations were luxurious and food excellent. Large windows that could be opened provided good viewing. The only smoking allowed was in a well-insulated room, with the steward holding the only cigarette lighter on board.
Birth of ridged gas-filled airships started in 1874 with retired German Army officer Count Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August von Zeppelin.
In 1900, he made the first successful zeppelin flight near Friedrichshafen in southern Germany. The flight lasted 20 minutes before the 420-foot airship crashed while landing.
A string of airship mishaps followed, but by World War I, Germany had perfected them enough to build a fleet of them to bomb Britain, causing 500 deaths. The British called the airships “Baby Killers.”
After the war, both Britain and the U.S. began designing and building zeppelins (also called “dirigibles”).
With war clouds gathering after the Berlin Olympics, Hitler was flexing his muscles to rally support from the German people. Upon completion in 1936, the Hindenburg’s first mission was to drop propaganda leaflets across the nation, urging support for a referendum on Germany’s re-militarism.
For four days and three nights, the huge airship dropped the leaflets, while large loudspeakers mounted on board blared martial music, slogans and speeches.
The Germans believed the zeppelins were operating safely. They’d flown more than 2,000 flights over 30 years, carrying tens of thousands of passengers over a million miles without a single injury.
The Hindenburg may not have lasted much longer anyway. Newer and faster airplanes were about to take over air transportation.
Two years after Hindenburg, Pan American began transatlantic air service with Boeing 314 seaplanes that could make the crossing in about 28 hours. And it was much cheaper — $375 one way, equivalent to $6,739 today — starting a new era of air transportation.
On July 8, 1938, the Yankee Clipper inaugurated Pan Am’s service on the northern route across the Atlantic, carrying 17 passengers to England. On board was Betty Trippe, wife of PanAm president Juan Trippe.
“At dinner,” she wrote, “everyone was in high spirits and we enjoyed gay and interesting conversation. The tables were set with white tablecloths. The dinner was delicious and beautifully served.
“Captain (R.O.D.) Sullivan came down from the control room to smoke a cigarette and visit with the passengers. He was a grand person and inspired real confidence by his cool cheerful manner.”
Sixty-three days later, Hitler invaded Poland.
The Hindenburg’s duralumin framework had been salvaged and shipped back to Germany to be recycled into military aircraft to fight in World War II.
During the war, Allied bombers destroyed the Zeppelin factory, bringing to an end the building of the big airships.
In 2001 however, the Germans made a small 250-foot one for sightseeing excursions, using helium.
There’s still talk about a new zeppelin era, with monster cargo carriers a mile and a half long, carrying 20,000 tons of cargo.
They’d be pollution-friendly, and circle the globe every 16 days flying west-to-east on the high-altitude jet stream, and using very little fuel, predicts Julian Hunt at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.
Sounds like a good idea.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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Hear the broadcast…
Listen to Herb Morrison’s dramatic 1937 radio broadcast of the Hindenburg disaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXO7mdBcA48
Unwieldy and dangerous…
“From the safety perspective, there were always problems with airships,” said airship historian Dan Grossman. “They are big, unwieldy and difficult to manage. They are very affected by the wind, and because they need to be light, they are also quite fragile. On top of that, most airships were inflated with hydrogen, which is a very dangerous and highly flammable substance.”
The art deco spire on the Empire State Building was originally designed to serve as a mooring mast for Zeppelins and other airships, but the plan was abandoned when it was discovered that high winds made that impossible.
Deadlier then the Hindenburg…
The deadliest zeppelin accident was the helium-filled USS Akron, a U.S. Navy airship, crashed off the coast of New Jersey in a severe storm on April 4, 1933, killing 73 men, with only three survivors. Next deadliest was the 1930 crash of the British military airship R101, with the loss of 48 lives.
A walk inside the airship…
“On each airship, an internal gangway extended from near the nose, where the passengers boarded, along the bottom of the hull to the passenger and crew accommodations, to the fins, to the very tail where a lookout position was placed. In addition there was a two man winching position at the very tip of the nose, with a bow lookout 20 feet back to oversee the mooring approach and process. A ladder up the center of the ship opened to a hatch to allow access to the top of the hull, from whence sextant navigation sightings were made.”
— Long Branch Mike, Reconnections
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Invitation to readers…
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Popcorn History stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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