Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Long Trip Ended Very Badly

by Connie Cortright

After reading last week's post, you probably wish you could have lived back in the early 30s so you could travel by airship. It looks very appealing, except for one small problem. When airships had accidents, the results were bad for almost everyone on board.

Flying over NYC
The crash of the German made Hindenburg airship on May 6, 1937 was the most publicized crash in the country. The Hindenburg had flown to Brazil and back before it's first scheduled flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey. After flying over the city of New York, it approached it's landing location on the evening of the third day of the trip.

The weather wasn't very cooperative that day. The airship had to delay its landing by several hours waiting for a thunderstorm to pass over New Jersey. It circled over New York City while waiting for the storm to pass. Captain Pruss then headed west to New Jersey to prepare for the landing at the mooring location at Lakehurst Naval Air Station.

Between 7:00 and 7:15 PM Captain Pruss maneuvered the airship to a lower altitude preparing for the high landing at the naval station. This meant that the airship would be tethered to the mooring mast with it's ropes and cables and winched down to the mooring mast. This practice was common in landings in the US, but the German airship commander was not used to this type of landing.

As the ship got closer to the ground, the stern of the ship dipped lower. Captain Pruss ordered several of the water tanks to be dumped to lighten the ballast of the tail. This didn't help the problem so several crewmen were sent forward to level the airship.  By 7:21 the mooring lines were dropped and one was connected to a post on the ground. A light rain started again as the ground crew tried to assist the mooring of the ship.

At 7:25 eye witnesses noticed flames coming out of the back of the Hindenburg. It quickly spread over the ship and shot out the elevated front nose. Within seconds, the tail of the ship was engulfed in flames and crashed to the ground with gas tanks bursting in the flames. The nose pointed upward after the explosion, but ignited shortly after and crashed to the ground within 30 seconds of the first spotted flames.

Of the 97 people on board there were 35 fatalities. This included 13 passengers and 22 crewmen. The majority of the victims died in the explosion with a few fatalities caused by jumping out of the airship at too great a height. Several deaths were caused by burns, including one ground crewman who was assisting in the landing.

There are many theories about the Hindenburg disaster including lightning strike, sabotage, and an engine spark that ignited the hydrogen. The most likely reason for the fire was that a spark, caused by the electrical charge between the surface of the ship and the surrounding air, ignited a hydrogen leak. Some witnesses mentioned that they spotted a fluttering of the ship's outer cover near the tail just before the fire ignited. It is generally accepted that the speed of the fire was caused by the hydrogen gas igniting in the gas cells.

The national publicity this story received stemmed from the fact that this was the first flight of the airship from Germany to the US. The journalists were gathered at the landing site to catch the event for the media. When the landing event turned into a disaster, cameras and videos caught it all in real time. The news was quickly broadcast nationally .

The demise of the Hindenburg was not the worst or only airship crash that happened. In fact, the US Navy built three rigid airships of which all three crashed before 1935.  With that type of record, the use of airships declined rapidly in the late 30s. If we knew that airplanes had a 100% chance of crashing to the ground at some point, I don't think there would be so many people flying around the world today either.

Information taken from Wikipedia-Hindenburg disasterAirships.net/hindenburg disaster, and This day in history/the Hindenburg disaster.

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