Hindenburg Explosion

Eric Benton CP Physics Period 6

Sequence of Events

The Hindenburg over the city of New York

The Hindenburg took off for its 63rd flight on May 3rd, 1937, from the Frankfurt Airfield. By noon of May 6th, the airship reached Boston, and by 3 PM it was over the streets of New York City. The Hindenburg reached the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey at about 4:15 PM, but had to delay landing due to poor weather conditions. Once the weather cleared at approximately  6 PM, and by 7 PM the airship went in for landing. At 7:21, the forward landing ropes were dropped. A few minutes later, a member of the landing party claimed to see a wave-like fluttering of the outer cover on the port side, which seemed to point to a gas leak. At 7:25 PM, the first visible external flame appeared from the Hindenburg. Witnesses claim that it came from either the top of the hull just forward of the vertical fin or between the rear port engine and the port fin. The Hindenburg took only 32 seconds to be completely engulfed in flames.

Facts and Figures

Despite the massive fireball that quickly engulfed the Hindenburg, there were more survivors than casualties. Of the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crew members) 35 of them died from the disaster (13 passengers and 22 crew members) as well as one worker on the ground. Many of the survivors of the disaster were able to survive by jumping out of the promenade windows. Those who were deeper inside of the ship, however, generally died in the fire.

What Was to Blame

The Hindenburg as it is catching on fire

Many theories as to what caused the Hindenburg to catch on fire have come out since, such as sabotage and the material of the fabric covering the airship. However, years of scientific research has come to the conclusion that an electrostatic discharge caused the leaking hydrogen to catch fire. The Hindenburg was originally going to use helium, which is less flammable than hydrogen, to float the airship. However, the United States had a monopoly on the world's helium supply, and prohibited Germany from having any of it.

Science Behind the Failure

The reason that hydrogen is so flammable is because it is close to a noble gas configuration (by either gaining or losing an electron), which means that it will react with almost any oxidizing element. When the hydrogen gas began to leak out of the Hindenburg, it started mixing with the oxygen outside of it. The combination of those two gases is highly flammable and only needs a small spark to ignite, such as a static spark. The product of this reaction is water (H2O) which is much more stable, meaning that a lot of energy was given off in the reaction. This is why the Hindenburg caught on fire so quickly.

Result of Disaster

The Hindenburg after it was completely engulfed in flames

Despite many other zeppelin disasters happening prior to this, the public was still willing to use them as a way of traveling. The one difference of this incident, however, was that it was filmed. The Hindenburg disaster brought an end to the era of airships, along with the development of safer and economical transatlantic airplanes. Afterwards, the United States agreed to supply helium to Germany until their annexation of Austria in 1938. Modern-day airships now use helium instead of hydrogen due to helium being inflammable.

Works Cited




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