What Caused the Hindenburg Disaster?

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 14034

It was the biggest airship ever to fly. It crossed the Atlantic twice as fast as a cruise ship. It had luxury cabins, a piano lounge, and a bar. But it went down in flames in seconds. What happened?


World, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Before learning about the Hindenburg disaster and the theories about what caused it, try answering the question below.

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The Hindenburg disaster shocked and saddened people worldwide.

It was not the first time that an airship had been destroyed, nor did it cause the most significant death toll.

The difference was that this disaster was the first to be captured on film, so many people became witnesses to the devastating scene.

Thirty-six passengers and crew members died. Those who were not burned up immediately by the flames jumped to the ground. Some survived the jump, and some did not.

  • What could have caused the devastating fire on an airship with a spotless safety record?

As you probably guessed, the terms zeppelin, airship, and dirigible all mean the same thing.

Watch a portion of the video below to learn more about these flying cruise ships.

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After the Hindenburg fell in flames, theories about what had happened to it started flying.

Below is a summary of experts from The Hindenburg Disaster. While reading, consider which arguments you think are valid and which are not. You'll evaluate them in the next section.

Theories of Sabotage

Immediately following the Hindenburg disaster, speculations of sabotage emerged. Some theorized that the airship had been intentionally sabotaged to undermine Hitler's Nazi regime. These theories suggested the possibility of a bomb or other forms of sabotage being planted aboard and triggered either during the flight or by someone among the crew. Commander Rosendahl from the Department of Commerce supported the notion of sabotage, as indicated in documents from the FBI.

A memorandum addressed to the FBI Director dated May 11, 1937, revealed that Captain Anton Wittemann, the Hindenburg's third-in-command, disclosed being forewarned about a potential incident alongside Captain Max Pruss and Captain Ernst Lehmann. However, Wittmann was instructed by FBI Special Agents not to reveal this warning to anyone. Despite these claims, there is no evidence to suggest that they were thoroughly investigated, and no further substantiation of sabotage arose.

Possible Mechanical Failure

Some individuals suggested a potential mechanical failure. During the investigation, as noted in interviews by the FBI, numerous ground crew members expressed the view that the Hindenburg was approaching the landing site at an excessive speed. It was believed that the airship had to engage in complete reverse to decelerate.

Speculation emerged that this abrupt maneuver might have triggered a mechanical malfunction, resulting in a fire that ignited the hydrogen and led to the explosion. This hypothesis finds some support in observing the fire originating from the tail section of the airship. However, there is limited evidence to substantiate this theory beyond this observation. Given the exemplary safety record of zeppelins, there is scant additional evidence to bolster this speculation.

Was It Shot From the Sky?

Another theory, though widely considered far-fetched, posits that the airship was deliberately shot down. The investigation focused on reports of tracks discovered near the rear of the airfield in a restricted area. However, given the large crowd gathered to witness the Hindenburg's landing, anyone could have made these footprints.

Notably, the Navy apprehended some boys who had trespassed into the airfield from that direction. Additionally, there were accounts of farmers firing at other dirigibles passing over their farms. Some individuals even suggested that thrill-seekers were responsible for shooting down the Hindenburg.

Most people dismissed these allegations as unfounded, and the formal investigation failed to substantiate the claim that the Hindenburg was shot down.

Hydrogen and the Hindenburg Explosion

The prevailing theory, widely embraced as the most plausible, revolved around the presence of hydrogen aboard the Hindenburg. Given hydrogen's highly flammable nature, it was commonly believed that some event ignited the gas, resulting in the explosion and subsequent fire.

Initially, speculation during the investigation suggested that static electricity generated along the drop lines might have triggered the blast by transmitting it back to the airship. However, the ground crew chief refuted this notion, clarifying that mooring lines did not conduct static electricity.

A more credible explanation emerged, proposing that the blue arc observed at the airship's tail just before the eruption of flames was lightning, which consequently detonated the hydrogen. This theory found support in reports of lightning storms occurring in the vicinity.

The hydrogen explosion theory gained widespread acceptance as the primary cause of the disaster. It led to the cessation of commercial lighter-than-air flight and cast doubt on hydrogen's reliability as a fuel source. Many questioned why helium, a non-flammable gas, was not utilized instead.

Intriguingly, a similar incident involving a helium dirigible occurred the year prior. Thus, the actual cause of the Hindenburg's demise remained debated.

Addison Bain, a retired NASA engineer and hydrogen expert, challenges the conventional wisdom, asserting that while hydrogen may have contributed to the fire, it was not solely responsible. He presents several pieces of evidence to support his argument.

  1. The Hindenburg did not explode but burned in multiple directions.
  2. The airship remained airborne for several seconds after the fire ignited, with some witnesses claiming it did not crash for 32 seconds.
  3. Burning fabric descended from the airship to the ground.
  4. The fire did not exhibit typical characteristics of a hydrogen fire, as hydrogen flames are typically invisible.
  5. No leaks were reported; the hydrogen was infused with garlic to produce an odor for easy detection.

After extensive years of travel and research, Bain claims to have unraveled the Hindenburg disaster's mystery. According to his findings, the airship's outer covering was composed of highly flammable cellulose nitrate or cellulose acetate, incorporated to enhance rigidity and aerodynamic performance.

The skin was coated with aluminum particles akin to rocket fuel to reflect sunlight and prevent the hydrogen gas from overheating and expanding. This coating also protects the skin from environmental wear and tear.

Bain contends that while these substances were necessary during the airship's construction, they ultimately precipitated the Hindenburg catastrophe. He argues that an electric spark ignited the flammable skin material, initiating a fire.

The released hydrogen acted as a fuel, exacerbating the blaze. Thus, Bain attributes the root cause of the disaster to the airship's outer covering.

Ironically, historical records from the Zeppelin Archive suggest that German zeppelin manufacturers were aware of this vulnerability as early as 1937. A handwritten letter in the archive explicitly acknowledges, "The actual cause of the fire was the extremely easy flammability of the covering material brought about by discharges of an electrostatic nature."

  • Do you have any conclusions about the Hindenburg?

Go to the Got It? section now.

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