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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:
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Cocktails aboard the Hindenburg

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

3 oz kirschwasser A tad less than 1/2 oz dry vermouth A splash of Grenadine Lemon peel*

(*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.

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Hindenburg framework under construction

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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Navy Lakehurst Historical Society
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Construction of control car

The control car, seen here under construction, housed the control room and bridge, navigation room, and an observation area.

Instruments such as the altimeter, inclinometer and gas-cell-pressure gauges were monitored here, along with toggles to release hydrogen gas and water ballast.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Navy Lakehurst Historical Society
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Viewing promenade

The promenade provided passengers with a spectacular view of the earth below. The adjacent dining area could accommodate all fifty passengers in one sitting.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Navy Lakehurst Historical Society
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Passenger cabins

Hindenburg was originally built with 25 double-berthed cabins, measuring just 78 x 66 inches, and later 9 more cabins were added to Deck B, accommodating an additional 20 passengers.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Navy Lakehurst Historical Society
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The lounge

The lounge was decorated with a mural by Professor Otto Arpke depicting the routes and ships of the explorers Ferdinand Magellan, Captain Cook, Vasco de Gama, and Christopher Columbus.

A lightweight Bluthner baby grand piano made of aluminum and covered with pigskin, was provided for the passengers' entertainment.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Navy Lakehurst Historical Society
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Hindenburg reading and writing room

In the reading and writing room, passengers could write letters from their travels on special Hindenburg stationery.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Navy Lakehurst Historical Society
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Hindenburg crew quarters

A view of the bunk-style crew quarters located toward the rear of the airship.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Navy Lakehurst Historical Society
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Captain Max Pruss at the helm

Captain Max Pruss was at the helm as the airship began landing procedures in Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937.
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Gas Board and Echolot Indicator

The gas board controlled the ship’s lifting gas and allowed officers to release hydrogen to increase the static weight of the ship.

Toggles controlled the ship’s 14 maneuvering valves, and could be used to release gas from the ship's 16 individual cells.
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The smoking room

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.
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The dining room

Unlike its predecessor, the Graf Zeppelin, passenger areas on the Hindenburg were heated, using forced-air warmed by water from the cooling systems of the forward engines.
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Lakehurst's Hangar No. 1

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.
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Final flight

Hindenburg on its way to Lakehurst on May 6, 1937.
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Flames quickly engulfed the airship

Hindenburg approached the field at Lakehurst from the southwest shortly after 7 p.m. at an altitude of approximately 600 feet.

At 7:25 p.m., the first visible external flames appeared and quickly engulfed the airship.
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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.
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Gas Cells 9 and 10

The structure imploded between cells 9 and 10, with cell 11 collapsing in, causing another blast as the ship fell to the ground. Both cracks appeared during the first few seconds of the fire.
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The fire quickly spread

The fire quickly spread and soon engulfed the tail of the ship, but the ship remained level for a few more seconds before the tail began to sink and the nose pointed upward to the sky
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Hydrogen flames shoot through the bow

Hydrogen flames are see shooting through the bow, while the surrounding covering has not yet ignited.
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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.
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Smoldering wreckage

Within seconds, the Hindenburg laid smoldering on the ground.
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The cause of the fire remains unknown

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.
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