On 5 October 1930, British rigid airship R101 crashed, killing 48 people. The German airship company, Zeppelin Company, purchased 5 tons of the wreckage, which they used to build their Hindenburg class airships, LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin and LZ 129 Hindenburg.
LZ 129 was initially supposed to use helium, as it’s not flammable. However, it’s more expensive as it’s only available through the United States. So hydrogen, which is cheap and easy to produce, was used instead.
On 4 March 1936, LZ 129 made it’s first test flight. Even though the name was already selected for the airship, only it’s formal registration number (D-LZ129) and the five Olympic rings (in support of the 1936 Olympics being held that August) were painted on it’s hull for the first six flights. When he heard that the name of the airship was Hindenburg (named after former German president Paul von Hindenburg), Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbelswas angry, and demanded that the airship be renamed Adolf Hitler, but was refused. Three weeks later, the name Hindenburg was painted onto the side of the airship in six foot high letters.
On 26-29 March 1936, Hindenburg made it’s public debut with a propaganda flight over Germany. After this, it made it’s first transatlantic flight on 31 March. In 1936, Hindenburg made ten round trip flights to North America. Although designed to be a passenger airship, Hindenburg was first used for Nazi propaganda by the Air Ministry.
The following year, in late March 1937, the airship made it’s first round trip to South America of the season. After it’s return, Hindenburg left Frankfurt for Lakehurst, New Jersey. On board were 36 passengers and 61 crew members. It was the first flight to North America of the season.
Because of strong headwinds, the trip was slowed down. The crew knew they had to be on time, as the return trip was already booked solid and the passengers were going to the coronation of King George VI, which was to take place on 12 May 1937.
On 6 May 1937, the airship reached Lakehurst, but was delayed due to a line of thunderstorms in the area. Around 7pm, they were given clearance to land. Landing an airship is a precise procedure, and the captain noticed that the rear of the airship was drooping. He had the crew drain water from the back to level out the ship. But the ship was still leaning slightly, so he had several crew members come from the back to the front to shift some of the weight around.
After a couple of sharp turns, the captain ordered the landing lines to be dropped. After t he handlers on the ground had grabbed the lines and was starting to lower the ship, the tail end burst into flames. In 37 seconds, the entire ship was engulfed in flames and came crashed down, most of the passengers and crew jumped out as the ship was coming down. 13 passengers and 32 crew, as well as one person on the ground, were killed.
Because of the publicity surrounding the arrival of the airship, the incident was well documented. The image of the ship exploding is perhaps one of the most famous images in history.
After the destruction of Hindenburg, airships lost their appeal, and they were discontinued. It’s sister ship, Graf Zeppelin was dismantled in 1940, never to be used as a passenger airship.
Below is a news reel of the disaster.