Rigid zeppelins used to carry the rich and well-to-do across the Atlantic Ocean in style. But after the Hindenburg disaster—in which a German airship caught fire and crashed in New Jersey on May 6, 1937—the industry went belly up. Here are a few things you might not know about the ill-fated flying machine.
1. The Hindenburg was built using metal from an airship that had exploded.
Construction on the 804-foot-long LZ-129 Hindenburg began in 1931. The Friedrichshafen, Germany-based Luftschiffbau Zeppelin Company purchased Duralumin from the remains of Britain's R-101 hydrogen airship, which had crashed in October 1930, and used the material (a light but hard alloy of aluminum, copper, and other metals) to make parts for the Hindenburg.
2. The Hindenburg was partially funded by the Nazis.
Hugo Eckener—the long-serving president of the company that manufactured the Hindenburg—had well-known disagreements with the Nazi Party. Still, when construction of the Hindenburg lagged due to the effects of the depression, he accepted money from the Nazis to fund its construction in 1934. It wouldn't be the Nazi regime's last contribution, either: An even bigger injection of funds would soon follow, which resulted in the company being split into two companies: the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin Company, responsible for building airships, and the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, responsible for operating them. The ship was completed in 1936.
3. The Hindenburg was named after a former German president.
The name was a tribute to Paul von Hindenburg, a distinguished general who became Germany’s second president during the Weimar Republic era and appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933. He died in 1934.
4. The Hindenburg was supposed to be filled with helium—but hydrogen was used instead.
Hydrogen-powered airships didn’t have the best safety record, so the Hindenburg’s designers planned to fill it with non-flammable helium gas. However, America had a corner on the helium market, as well as a law on the books declaring that “no helium gas shall be exported from the United States” without approval from the president and various cabinet officials. So German engineers had no choice but to pump the Hindenburg full of flammable hydrogen—a switch that had horrific consequences.
5. The Hindenburg made an appearance at the 1936 Olympics.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was behind the initial Nazi contribution to the Hindenburg's construction. According to Airships.net, Goebbels was "aware of the potential symbolic value of LZ-129 as a showcase for German strength and technology." After its completion, the ship was used to help promote Adolf Hitler’s interests. On August 1, 1936, the Hindenburg flew over the Reichssportfeld complex in Berlin to kick off that year’s Summer Olympic games. By then, swastika flags had been painted on the tail fins.
6. The Hindenburg made many trips across the Atlantic.
During the 1936 flight season, it finished 17 round-trip crossings of the ocean, and even set a new record that July by flying across the Atlantic—and back—in just five days, 19 hours, and 51 minutes. At the time, this was the fastest double-crossing of the Atlantic ever carried out.
7. The Hindenburg's fares weren't cheap.
Among the people who died in the Hindenburg disaster was American Burtis J. Dolan, who bought a one-way ticket on the ill-fated flight for 1000 Reichsmarks. During the Great Depression, that was the equivalent of roughly $450. Thanks to inflation, Dolan’s ticket would cost around $8000 today.
8. The Hindenburg flew over New York City in its final hours.
Thirty-six passengers boarded the Hindenburg in Frankfurt on May 3, 1937. The ship's ultimate destination was Lakehurst, New Jersey, which took them right over New York. One passenger would later remark that “in the mist the skyscrapers below us appeared like a board full of nails.” They also interrupted a baseball game.
8. The Hindenburg disaster unfolded in less than a minute.
At 7:25 p.m., around 180 feet above the ground, the Hindenburg suddenly caught fire. Within 40 seconds, the inferno stripped away the airship's fabric covering and the metal framework crashed down to Earth.
9. The death toll of the Hindenburg disaster was surprisingly low.
When the Hindenburg was incinerated, there were 97 passengers and crew on board. Sixty-two survived—including its captain Max Pruss and professional acrobat Joseph Spah (who escaped through a window). Most bystanders were likewise unscathed, although one ground worker was killed by the falling ship. In total, 36 people died.
10. What caused the Hindenburg to catch fire is a mystery.
Even now, scientists are unsure about what set the Hindenburg ablaze. According to a 1937 investigation, the trouble started when some of the ship’s hydrogen leaked into the electrically charged atmosphere. At some point, an “electrostatic discharge” ignited the gas, dooming the zeppelin. Conflicting eyewitness accounts and incomplete camera footage have only deepened the mystery.
11. A retired NASA scientist blamed the Hindenburg disaster on paint.
In the 1990s, Addison Bain put forth a theory that the Hindenburg was covered in paints which chemically resembled rocket fuel. He believed that this—and not the hydrogen containers—was the main culprit behind the raging fire. However, those skeptical of the theory think that if the paint had behaved like rocket fuel, the ship’s outer canvas would have burned much faster than it actually did [PDF]. (Bain also sought to restore hydrogen's good name and advocated the use of hydrogen as an aerospace fuel.)
12. Herb Morrison's voice is distorted on his famous recording recounting the Hindenburg disaster.
Herb Morrison was working as a reporter for a Chicago-based radio station when he witnessed the Hindenburg disaster firsthand. His narration of the tragedy was replayed across the country, becoming almost as famous as the event itself. But the recording of Morrison’s report—complete with the now-iconic line “Oh, the humanity!”—artificially distorted his voice, making it sound a lot higher than it really was.
13. The Hindenburg and the Titanic had many similarities.
Though they went down 25 years apart, both ships will be forever linked in the public mind thanks to their tragic and well-documented ends. Both were mail ships, both were luxurious, and both boasted the top technology of their day. And it turns out they had similar dimensions. The Titanic was lengthier, measuring about 882 feet long from bow to stern. But while that passenger ship was only 92.5 feet across at its widest point, the Hindenburg had the impressive width of 135 feet. When it came to maximum occupancy, there was no contest. The Hindenburg could only accommodate 72 passengers (at most), the Titanic had room for around 2500.
14. Werner G. Doehner, the Hindenburg disaster's last survivor, passed away on November 8, 2019.
The German-born Doehner was just 8 years old when he, his two siblings, and his mother and father boarded the Hindenburg. His father and sister were killed in the crash. Doehner would go on to become an engineer for General Electric; he died at age 90.
15. The Hindenburg was the largest craft to ever fly.
More than three times longer than a Boeing 747, the Hindenburg (and its sister ship, which never flew a regular passenger route) was the largest craft to fly. It had a top speed of 84 mph and a cruising speed of 78 mph.