1937: The Hindenburg Disaster


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The airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built and the pride of Nazi Germany, bursts into flames upon touching its mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crewmembers on May 6, 1937. After opening its 1937 season by completing a single round-trip passage to, Brazil, in late March, the Hindenburg departed from, Germany, on the evening of May 3, on the first of 10 planned round trips between Europe and the United States that were scheduled for its second year of commercial service. Except for strong headwinds that slowed its progress, the Atlantic crossing of the Hindenburg was otherwise uneventful. Although carrying only half its full capacity of passengers and crew for the flight, the Hindenburg was fully booked for its return flight. The airship was hours behind schedule when it passed over Boston on the morning of May 6, and its landing at Lakehurst was expected to be further delayed because of afternoon thunderstorms. Advised of the poor weather conditions at Lakehurst, the Captain charted a course over New York City, causing a public spectacle as people rushed out into the street to catch sight of the airship. After finally being notified at 6:22 p.m. that the storms had passed, the airship headed back to Lakehurst to make its landing almost half a day late. At the time of the disaster, sabotage was commonly put forward as the cause of the fire, but in order to make up for the delay of more than 12 hours in its transatlantic flight, the Hindenburg passed through thunderstorms with high humidity and high electrical charge. Although the mooring lines were not wet when they first hit the ground and ignition took place four minutes after, it was theorized that the lines may have become wet in these four minutes. When the ropes, which were connected to the frame, became wet, they would have grounded the frame but not the skin. This would have caused a sudden potential difference between skin and frame and would have set off an electrical discharge – a spark. Seeking the quickest way to ground, the spark would have jumped from the skin onto the metal framework, igniting the leaking hydrogen, causing the explosion.

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