LAKEHURST, NEW JERSEY — The downing of the Hindenburg airship in New Jersey on May 6, 1937 marked the beginning of the end of airship travel.

LAKEHURST, NEW JERSEY — In the early 1900s, rigid airships, also known as dirigibles or zeppelins, were hailed as the transportation method of the future. The skies were dominated by airships, the most famous of which was the Hindenburg LZ 129.

The Hindenburg was a 245-meter-long conventional zeppelin that had a maximum speed of 135 km per hour and a cruising speed of 126 km per hour.

In 1936, the Hindenburg inaugurated commercial air service across the North Atlantic by carrying over 1,000 passengers on 10 scheduled round trips between Germany and the United States.

On May 6, 1937, headwinds delayed the airship’s journey, and its scheduled arrival in Lakehurst, New Jersey at 6:00 a.m. was postponed to 6:00 p.m. In the meantime, the captain decided to take the passengers on a scenic tour. By noon, the ship had reached Boston, and by 3:00 p.m. the Hindenburg was sailing past the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Reports said the large vessel flying past the city created such a sight that people ran out into the streets to see it.

When the aircraft was finally cleared to land, it returned to Lakehurst, approaching the field shortly after 7:00 p.m. at an altitude of approximately 600 feet. The captain initiated a wide left turn to fly in a descending pattern around the north and west of the field, to line up for a landing into the wind to the east.

During the landing, hydrogen was valved and three drops of water ballast were ordered in an attempt to keep the ship in level trim. When these efforts failed to level the vessel, six crewmen were ordered to go forward in the ship to add their weight to the bow. The vessel was set to make a high-altitude landing, which meant dropping an anchor from a greater height than it normally would be. This required fewer ground crew members, but the process would take longer.

In an attempt to land quickly, the captain reportedly executed a tight S-turn to change the direction of the ship’s landing. This was when things went wrong.

Some experts later theorized that this sharp turn overstressed the ship, causing a bracing wire to snap and slash a gas cell. This allowed hydrogen to mix with air to form a highly explosive combination.

Witnesses claimed they saw a flutter on top of the airship, which indicated gas leaking from the vessel. A fire soon broke out, although accounts of where it started varied.

The flames reportedly quickly burned through the logo on the side of the ship before consuming the rest of the vessel.

In the end, 36 people died, but a remarkable number of people survived.

Faith in the industry plummeted following the Hindenburg disaster. The event was captured in numerous photographs and in footage, which was broadcast across the globe. The airship industry never recovered.

However, dirigibles were losing public favor even prior to the Hindenburg’s downing. Three months before Hindenburg first took flight, Pan American Airways’ M-130 China Clipper made its first scheduled flight across the Pacific. Between the high cost of infrastructure and crew, safety issues, and competition with better technology, passenger airships may have been on their way out even before the Hindenburg disaster took place.


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