Friday, June 3, 2011

The Crash of the Hindenburg

 ***This article appeared in the May 2011, HSP monthly email publication, "History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania." For a free subscription, simply click here to enter your email address.***

The Hindenburg, a German airship built from 1931-1936, met disaster 74 years ago this month in Lakewood, New Jersey.  Once celebrated as a milestone in flight, the aircraft is now remembered as a tragedy and the end of an era for airships.    

U.S. Navy airship photograph 
The U.S. Navy also built airships similar to the Hindenburg.
The most remembered of these commercial passenger-carrying airships is the German D-LZ 129 Hindenburg, built by the Zeppelin Company.  German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917) pioneered the development of rigid airships, such as the Hindenburg, in the early 20th century.  Zeppelin Company chairman Dr. Hugo Eckener named the airship after German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), who was the president of Germany from 1925 to 1934.  Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wanted the airship to be named Adolf Hitler, which Eckener refused, although its rudder would eventually bear the swastika.  More than 803 feet in length, the mammoth dirigible called for a crew of 40 people, including 10 to 12 cooks, and provided berths for 72 passengers.  
Hindenburg Greets William Penn, newspaper front page 
"Hindenburg Greets William Penn,"  
August 9, 1936.

On March 4, 1936, the Hindenburg made its maiden test flight and would go on to complete 17 round trips across the Atlantic in that same year, carrying both passengers and freight.  The airship would occasionally fly over Philadelphia, as recorded in photographs and newspaper accounts across the city, especially in the now defunct Philadelphia Record.  Commanded by Captain Ernst Lehmann, the Hindenburg flew on August 8, 1936, for almost one full hour over Philadelphia, floating low in altitude over City Hall, William Penn's statue, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the dome of the Philadelphia Inquirer building.  
Unfortunately, disaster would strike.  On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg burst into flames while landing at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey.  The crash killed 35 of the 97 individuals on board.  News coverage and radio accounts made this one of the most famous air disasters in history and led to the end of the use of rigid airships for commercial passengers.  The cause of the explosion of the Hindenburg has been debated for decades and has never been determined.  Some have considered sabotage, engine failure, and even a lightning strike.  The story of the disaster has become the subject of many books and movies, including the 1975 American film, The Hindenburg.  The airship's legacy is noted in the name of the famed hard-rock group Led Zeppelin, whose first album cover displayed a picture of the Hindenburg in flames.

As early as 1782, French forces had proposed the use of balloons to transport troops over British fortresses during war.  Later, during the American Civil War, an American aeronaut named T.S.C. Lowe utilized balloons in several military campaigns for reconnaissance missions and as bombers.  Eventually, these balloons, now called airships, blimps, or dirigibles, were not only employed during times of war, but also for civilian transportation.  


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