The most opulent airship of its day, the Hindenburg was destroyed when it burst into flames without warning and crashed in New Jersey on May 6, 1937.
When the Hindenburg was first launched in Friedrichshafen, Germany in March 1936, it was the largest rigid airship ever constructed. It measured a staggering 804 feet long — just 80 feet shy of the doomed British passenger liner Titanic — and could reach a maximum speed of 84 miles per hour. It was, in short, a marvel of air travel.
But the Hindenburg had one major disadvantage: It was filled with highly flammable hydrogen. Granted, it was meant to be filled with helium, but export restrictions imposed on Nazi Germany by the United States made it difficult for Germans to procure it. In the end, this flaw would prove fatal.
On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg burst into flames over Manchester Township, New Jersey. The aircraft had taken what was supposed to be a routine transatlantic journey from Germany to the United States and was just about to land. Instead, this trip ended in tragedy when the airship was destroyed by the fire and crashed into the ground tail-first, killing 36 people.
The disaster was ruled an accident, likely brought on by atmospheric conditions on that day. But the exact cause of the fire remains unknown, sparking theories that have ranged from lightning to ground crew negligence to anti-Nazi sabotage to an “act of God.” See some of the most shocking photos before, during, and after the Hindenburg disaster in the gallery below, then read more about the history behind the doomed airship.
A Brief History Of German Zeppelin Airships
In the late 19th century, a German military official named Ferdinand, Graf von Zeppelin dreamed of creating an airship that could be used for commercial purposes and also by the military. He even retired from the military in 1890 to pursue this dream, but he struggled for years to make it a reality.
Things looked up for Zeppelin on July 2, 1900, when he launched the LZ-1 near Lake Constance. The flight wasn't a total success, but it garnered enough attention for Zeppelin to receive donations to fund further research.
Just six years later, Zeppelin launched a successful 24-hour flight of one of his airships. According to Britannica, this helped land him a government commission for an entire fleet. The airships came to be known as Zeppelins.
About a decade later, as World War I swept across the European continent, over 100 airships were utilized by the Germans for military operations, particularly aerial bombing campaigns in London and Paris.
And what Zeppelins lacked in destructiveness and speed when compared to airplanes, they more than made up for it by being a frightening presence.
When World War I came to an end, German engineers shifted their focus and began working to develop Zeppelins for long-distance passenger transportation. The first transatlantic flight occurred in 1919, just two short years after the original airship's creator died, but the vessels weren't quite ready to carry passengers for frequent commercial travel just yet.
Then, in 1928, construction was completed on a massive airship dubbed the Graf Zeppelin. With the ability to carry dozens of people, it seemed as if the Graf Zeppelin would truly usher in an era of commercial airship travel, and its around-the-world tour in 1929 left a strong impression on many.
In 1931, the Graf Zeppelin began making regular flights between Germany and South America, but it would be nothing compared to the Hindenburg, an opulent German zeppelin that would eventually meet disaster.
The Beauty And The Tragedy Of The Hindenburg
In 1936, Germany unveiled the LZ 129 Hindenburg, the largest rigid airship the world had ever seen. Stretching 804 feet long, the impressive aircraft was soon carrying hundreds of passengers across the Atlantic Ocean. In total, it made 10 successful round trips between Germany and the United States and seven between Germany and Brazil. It amazed witnesses on the ground.
The airship was a striking silver color, with Nazi swastikas on its tail fins. Inside, there were 25 two-passenger cabins, a restaurant, a bar, and, ironically, a smoking lounge — pressurized to keep flammable gases out.
On May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg prepared for yet another transatlantic crossing, departing from Frankfurt, Germany. It was bound for the Naval Air Station Lakehurst, in Manchester Township, New Jersey.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, however, the trip did not go as planned.
Most of the journey over the Atlantic was uneventful, but once the Hindenburg reached the New York area, it was met with fierce thunderstorms and strong winds that forced the airship's captain, Max Pruss, to change course. As the Hindenburg turned back out toward the Atlantic to wait out the storm, it passed over Manhattan and sent news agencies scrambling to capture photos of the Titanic-sized airship soaring overhead.
Captain Pruss had initially intended to land the Hindenburg early in the day on May 6, 1937, but the storm had delayed the landing by several hours. It wasn't until 6:22 p.m. that the storm had passed, and Pruss felt confident enough to get the airship back on course to Manchester Township.
The Hindenburg did make it to Manchester Township, but tragically, by the time it reached the ground, it was engulfed in fire. Numerous photos and videos captured the flaming mass as it veered off course, fell, and crashed tail-first, but none managed to capture the moment of the ignition itself.
Eyewitness reports and photographs indicate that the fire started somewhere near the tail of the airship, but as the Hindenburg fell to the ground, the flames traveled through the aircraft and eventually burst through its nose. In total, the disaster lasted about 40 seconds.
There were 97 people aboard the Hindenburg at the time of the disaster. But remarkably, only 35 of those onboard were killed in the fire and only one person was killed on the ground — for a total of 36 fatalities.
And when the Hindenburg met its end, cameras captured the disaster as WLS Radio's Herb Morrison broadcast the events, uttering the infamous words, "Oh, the humanity!" as the airship rained down in a ball of fire.
The Aftermath Of The Hindenburg Disaster
Following the tragic demise of the Hindenburg, the days of transatlantic airship travel were effectively numbered. The tragedy itself cannot entirely be blamed, however. Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, the German company that produced airships, built one final model following the fire since it was already commissioned. But that one wasn't in the air for long.
"It was the Graf Zeppelin 2, the Hindenburg's sister ship. At the end, they flew it along the British coast, to test British Radar systems before the war. But they took it down in 1937," said Tom Crouch, a curator for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Crouch also explained that countless theories surfaced following the disaster, as experts and amateur sleuths alike tried to pinpoint what had caused the fire. According to History, some of the most popular theories involved lightning, ground crew negligence, and an "act of God." Considering the political tensions of the era, some also suggested anti-Nazi sabotage.
Interestingly enough, Nazi leaders were quick to write off the possibility of sabotage and deemed the disaster as "God's will." One author, Alexander Rose, has a fascinating theory as to why: "If the Hindenburg had been blown up by evildoers, it would indicate that Hitler was not universally beloved, undermine the image of Germany as a placid and law-abiding society under Nazi rule, and give the enemies of the Reich, like the Jews and the Communists, hope that the regime was vulnerable."
Another theory from former NASA rocket scientist Addison Bain suggested that the airship's canvas skin had been unintentionally doped — effectively painted with rocket fuel — ahead of the fateful crash.
"It was rainy, misty, dismal day," Crouch said, "and a large, ungrounded ship moving through the sky builds up quite a static charge. That's why, before landing, they always dropped the ropes to the ground, made sure they touched the ground first, to dissipate the static."
This static buildup, combined with the potentially "doped" balloon and the hydrogen inside it, may have started the fire. In the end, though, investigations from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Navy couldn't determine an exact cause, simply stating instead that the disastrous fire was the result of the "mixture of free hydrogen and air."
And as World War II loomed on the horizon, more advanced technologies — particularly high-speed airplanes — effectively rendered airships obsolete. The Hindenburg disaster, like the tragedy of the Titanic, marked a notable and unfortunate point in history, forever going down as one of the most remarkable vessels of all time, and one of the most unforgettable tragedies.
After looking at these photos from before, during, and after the Hindenburg disaster, see the crash unfold in front of your eyes by watching this unbelievable video footage. Then, check out previously unseen footage from the disaster, which was released 75 years after the airship exploded.