Hindenburg and the dramatic end of the Airship Era (photos)
While the airship is better remembered for the fiery Hindenburg disaster of 1937 than for its many technological achievements, it was the fastest and most comfortable way to cross the Atlantic in its day.
Hindenburg: A pioneer of transatlantic air service
At 803 feet in length and 135 feet in diameter, the infamous German passenger-carrying rigid airship, the Hindenburg (LZ-129) was the largest aircraft ever to fly, a symbol of technology and luxury in transportation.
The commercial flights of the Hindenburg, along with the lessen known Graf Zeppelin, pioneered the first transatlantic air service before she burst into flames over Lakehurst, N.J., at the end of the first North American transatlantic journey of its second season of service.
She carried hundreds of passengers and traveled thousands of miles before being destroyed in a tragic fire on May 6, 1937, at Naval Air Station Lakehurst. Join us for a trip through Hindenburg's history:
Passengers are seen here enjoying cocktails aboard the Hindenburg during the maiden journey to America. The bar was reportedly well stocked with German apperatifs, but less so with typical American beverages.
Passenger Pauline Charteris is said to have improvised a kirschwasser cocktail, a fruit brandy traditionally made from double distillation of morello cherries, after the ship ran out of gin for martinis.
The Pauline Charteris Hindenburg Cocktail as re-created by Airships.net:
3 oz kirschwasser
A tad less than 1/2 oz dry vermouth
A splash of Grenadine
(*A peel… just the oily skin… not a “twist” with the bitter white pith.)
Shake with ice, enough to make cold, but not enough to dilute too badly.
Named after the late Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who was the president of Germany from 1925 until his death in 1934, construction of Hindenburg began in Friedrichshafen, Germany, in 1931 and was completed in 1936.
The Hindenburg made 17 round trips across the Atlantic Ocean in 1936, traveling more than 191,000 miles, with tickets costing around $400 for a one-way flight. The Hindenburg left Frankfurt, Germany for Lakehurst, N.J., on the evening of May 3, on its first round trip flight between Europe and North America in 1937.
You might be surprised to learn that an airship filled with hydrogen had a smoking room. To prevent any of the hydrogen gas from getting near the lit pipes, cigars and cigarettes, the room was kept pressurized.
Earlier in the century, when interest in lighter than air flight was booming, the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst became the center of airship activity in the United States.
The first major facility at Lakehurst was Hangar No. 1, seen here, which was a gigantic structure built in 1921 to house the huge helium-filled dirigibles. Hangar No. 1 measures 961 feet long, 350 feet wide and 200 feet high. At each end are two pairs of massive steel doors, mounted on railroad tracks.
An abrupt end to the world's love affair with airships
Despite a long list of previous airship accidents including the British R-101, on which 48 people died, or the USS Akron, on which 73 were killed, the public was unwaveringly enamored with the high-tech dirigibles.
There was one difference between these other crashes and the Hindenburg: these other ships crashed at sea or in the darkness of night, far from witnesses or cameras.
The crash of the Hindenburg was a very public event. It was captured on film, broadcast on the radio, and millions of people around the world saw the dramatic explosion that consumed the ship and its passengers, putting an abrupt end to the world's love affair with the airship.
An airship the size of almost three football fields
The oxygen and hydrogen fire was so intense that it took less than a minute to destroy an airship the size of almost three football fields, but remarkably some sections of the covering never burned at all.
The actual cause of the fire remains unknown, a variety of hypotheses including sabotage and static electricity have been put forward for both the cause of ignition and the initial fuel for the ensuing fire.
Some experts would later theorize that a sharp turn during landing preparations overstressed the ship, causing an internal bracing wire to snap and slash one of the gas cells, allowing hydrogen to mix with air to form a highly explosive combination.