2/23/99 Essay

The Hindenburg Disaster
Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin and his crew operated their first airship nearly one
hundred years ago. Airships are big controllable balloons, also known as dirigibles. There
are three classes of airships, rigid, nonrigid and semirigid. Rigid airships (zeppelins) use
framework in the interior to keep their shape. Semirigid airships are a combination of
framework and gas pressure to maintain their shape. Nonrigid airships (blimps) rely solely
on air pressure to keep their form. They are all propelled with engines, use rudders and
elevator flaps for steering and have a gondola where passengers travel. The pride of the
zeppelin works was a rigid airship which was one of the more than one hundred airships
and she was the most efficient. She had returned a profit to her operators her first season
of eighteen round trip Atlantic Crossings. Her name was the ?Hindenburg?. It was the
largest airship ever built, it was 245 meters(804 feet) long and a gas capacity of 190, 000,
000 liters(6, 710, 000 cu. ft.).

Its is Thursday, May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg was ten hours behind schedule.
Winds over the Atlantic caused her to slow down. In the afternoon after a low flight over
Manhattan and Newark the Hindenburg reached Lakehurst. But the weather again caused
more delays for the airship. The captains set course for Asbury Park. When it reached the
seaside it turned again southward and cruised along the shore waiting for weather that was
appropriate to land in. At 5:00pm the whistle sounded for the ground crew at the air
station. At 7:00pm the Hindenburg was ten minutes away from landing at Lakehurst.
was 200 ft. up and her forward line where in the hands of the crew. A crew member,
Navy Airshipman Vincent Sheridan noticed something wrong with the Hindenburg.

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The Hindenburg passed through the western boundary, gas was valved from the
rear of the ship. It seemed light due to runoff of rain water and drying of the fabric. All
the people waiting for the ship to arrive including photographers and reporters were all
glad the wait was over. Between 7:12 and 7:20 the Hindenburg moved eastward
weighting off slightly. Gas had been released from her nose to correct this imbalance and
the engines where placed on idle. As she was being brought down she still drifted forward
because of winds even though the propellers were still in reverse. The wind shifted
suddenly southwest at about 8 knots. The rudders where turned so the nose went into the
wind and the ground crew followed the ships every move trying to stay with it. The
spectators on the ground noticed the ships change in direction. The crew fastened the
lines to what where called guy lines these made for stronger and better control. At 7:21
PM the ship almost brought into the mooring mast, everything seemed fine. Then at
7:23pm the stern of the ship caught fire and two very large explosions enveloped the ship.
She burst into flames and dropped to the ground. Witnesses said it blew apart as if it had
been paper. They also stated that the fabric burned away in just a few second. One
witness said he didn’t see any life on the ship from the minute. There had been thirty or
more ambulances prior to the disaster. People desperately tried to save the people after
the ship hit ground. There where many notable people aboard this ship, people like
merchants, students and professional men.
Experts said that the explosion was caused by the use of hydrogen and not a
structural problem. Major General Oscar Westover, Chief of the Army Air Corps pointed
out that the United States had begun using hydrogen in place of helium. Helium is
produced in large amounts in the United States. They also planned to build two helium
ships. In doing this they are trying to influence the Germans to discard hydrogen for
helium in their airships. Sabotage by anti-nazi citizens was also thought of, but later ruled
out.

Present day people are still asking about what actually happened to the
Hindenburg. The destruction if this ship affects the way people look at hydrogen and the
use of the gas as a power source. Hydrogen has taken the blame for the disaster since it
happened over sixty years ago.NASA has been conducting extensive research on the
accident. They analyzed original wreckage from the Hindenburg and talked to the few
remaining survivors. Observations of the Hindenburg disaster show evidence that doesn’t
match what would have happened if it had been a hydrogen fire that caused the ship to go
down. The Hindenburg did not explode, it burned very quickly in many different
directions. It also stayed up in mid air after the fire had ignited, this means that if gas had
been burning it would have crashed much faster than it actually did. Pieces of the fabric
that had been used on the Hindenburg still burned as they fell some 200 feet from the
burning ship and they did not go out, but continued to burn. This gives the idea that the
fabric had to be highly flammable. Finally, the color of the flames on the Hindenburg
where a bright orange, this again suggests that it was not gas. Hydrogen makes no visible
flame and could not be seen. When the ship was being constructed, the scent of garlic was
added to the hydrogen so that a leak could easily be found. The method of landing the ship
was poorly chosen. Thunderstorms had been over Lakehurst that very day and lighting
could still be seen in the distance during the Hindenburg’s landing. Also when the lines
had been drooped and the ship was fastened to the ground and mad an electrical ground
almost immediately after a storm had just passed.
Addison Bain was the scientist who conducted all this research. He took two
samples of fabric from the ship and brought them to the NASA Materials Science
Laboratories. In the lab the first piece of fabric was subjected to flame, and it burnt up in
seconds and still flammable after six decades. The second piece was shocked with
electricity duplicating what the weather was like on May 6, 1937. It only burnt a hole in
the fabric, but when it was mounted the same as the ship was the electric shocks ignited
the fabric and it was gone in seconds.
The fabric was found to be a ?cotton substrate with an aluminized cellulose acetate
butyrate dopant?. I myself am not to sure what this is but it states a fact that it was an
aluminum based fire. The brightness of the flames are similar to that of the space shuttle’s
rocket boosters which are an example of aluminum based combustion. It turns out that it
was in fact the flammability of the fabric and not a fire caused by the gas used to lift the
ship.

There where files from the Zeppelin Archives in Friedrichshafen, Germany, they
confirm what Bain found in his studies. There where several letters written and when they
where translated into German proved what Bain uncovered. An electrical engineer wrote
on June 28, 1937 that the actual cause of the fire was the extreme easy flammability of the
covering material brought on by electro magnetic impulses.
In conclusion, since the destruction of the Hindenburg, airship use has been limited
to nonrigid type of craft. In 1938 all military blimps in the U.S. were placed under navy
jurisdiction, with the Naval Airstation at Lakehurst as center of operations. During
W.W.II, blimps where employed for patrol, scouting, convoy and antisubmarine work. A
private commercial firm in the U.S. developed several small nonrigid airship that have
been use to provide aerial television views of sporting events and for advertising purposes
without the fear of catching fire from the gas used nor the fabric used for the covering.


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