In the 1930s, Zeppelin airships were a modern marvel and a huge advancement in commercial travel. The Hindenburg was one of the best examples of how extraordinary these airships could be. The ship was kept afloat by several million cubic feet of hydrogen and allowed passengers to get from Europe to the USA in roughly half the time it would have taken them to arrive by boat. And in 1936, the Hindenburg set a record - completing a round-trip flight between Frankfurt and Lakehurst in 98 hours and 28 minutes of total flight time.
But on May 6, 1937, disaster struck. The Hindenburg was attempting to land in Lakehurst, New Jersey when it burst into flames. The accident brought commercial airship travel to a screeching halt. According to airships.net, the Hindenburg disaster was caused by a spark that ignited leaking hydrogen gas. Over 80 years of scientific testing and research has been done and it supports the conclusion that was reached by the original American and German accident investigations. There were 97 people on board the Hindenburg during its final voyage and 62 people managed to make it out. 13 passengers and 22 crew members did not, and a worker on the ground also met his fate.
While a lot of information is commonly circulated about the Hindenburg tragedy, there are a lot of amazing facts about the airship that go unknown. Here are the top 25 unknown facts about the Hindenburg.
25 A One-Way Ticket for a Trip on the Hindenburg Cost as Much as a New Car
In 1936, a one-way ticket from Frankfurt to Lakehurst, NJ cost $400. This was roughly the cost of a car at the time. A round-trip ticket saved passengers $80, bringing the cost down to $720. The price of tickets continued to rise over the years, eventually reaching $450 for a one-way trip.
This was incredibly expensive compared to crossing by sea, the most common form of intercontinental travel at the time. According to airships.net, first-class passengers on German ocean-liners could cross the North Atlantic for between $157 and $240. Third class passengers would pay as little as $82 for the journey. Because of these prices, airship travel was truly for the elite.
24 The Hindenburg Had to Use Hydrogen because of Strict U.S. Laws
Helium is considerably less flammable than the hydrogen gas that the Hindenburg used to fly. And helium is what was originally intended to be used in the Hindenburg. After the crash of the airship R101, which was using hydrogen and caused a massive inferno when it crashed, the Hindenburg's designers wanted to use helium to prevent such tragedies in the future. But at the time, the USA was largely in control of the world’s helium supply.
According to the History Chanel, the U.S. government actually feared that other countries around the world might use helium for dangerous military purposes, so they banned the export of the natural gas. After the Hindenburg crashed, Americans vocally supported a change in these laws so that helium could be used to power the next Zeppelin in Germany, the LZ 130. The law was finally amended, allowing helium to be exported if it was for nonmilitary use. But the final contract was never signed due to the political climate in Germany at the time.
23 It Made an Unexpected Trip Over NYC Hours Before the Disaster
There was a large and dangerous thunderstorm in the path of the Hindenburg's final flight. Because of this, it was forced to take a detour over New York City. Thunder and lightning were particularly dangerous to zeppelins, so extra precautions needed to be taken to ensure their safety.
This was a fairly unusual sight for residents of Manhattan, as the Hindenburg didn't typically fly over the city on its journey. According to newspaper reports, people took to the streets and followed the enormous airship, trying to keep it in sight for as long as possible.
22 There is No Video Footage of the Initial Explosion
The Hindenburg disaster was widely covered by news crews, but there isn’t actually any video footage of the moment the flames broke out. Camera crews were present, but most of them were focused on the efforts of the ground crew at the moment the initial explosion set the Hindenburg on fire.
The fact that there is no footage of these crucial moments means there is a lot about the disaster that we may never know. Despite there being many eyewitness accounts of the crash, none of them are able to provide the exact detail and timing that video footage would be able to give.
21 There was Mail Onboard the Hindenburg when it Crashed - and Some of it Was Delivered.
Zeppelins were a popular and convenient way to deliver transatlantic mail. The Hindenburg frequently carried thousands of letters and parcels on every journey it made. It was much faster than sending letters via ocean liner, and people on both sides of the Atlantic were happy to have quicker lines of communication.
On its final voyage, there were over 17,000 pieces of mail onboard. When the Hindenburg crashed, most of this mail was lost to the inferno. But there was a protective safe storing around 150 parcels that survived. These letters were postmarked and delivered to the recipients shortly after the crash and are now valuable pieces of history.
20 The Famous Radio Broadcast Wasn’t Live
At the time, radio was the quickest way for people to hear up to the minute news from around the world. Because of this, there were several radio reporters present at the time of the Hindenburg disaster. And many people are familiar with the emotional radio broadcast from Chicago station WLS.
Herbert Morrison was assigned to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst and now his famous account of the disaster is known around the world. But it wasn’t actually broadcast in real time. In Chicago, it was heard later on in the evening and it was released nationwide the next day. Later, media outlets used the radio broadcast with video footage of the accident, immortalizing it in its place in history.
19 There’s a Hindenburg Memorial in Lakehurst
The Hindenburg crashed at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst. The site of where the gondola landed is now home to a large memorial. The pad is outlined with a chain and there is a bronze plaque.
According to airships.net, the Hindenburg was supposed to be kept in Hangar No 1 on the Station, and that building has now been listed as a Registered National Historic Landmark since 1968.
18 It was the First Airship to Offer Transatlantic Service
In the 1930s, transatlantic travel wasn’t for the faint of heart. While all you need today is hop on a plane for several hours, most travelers looking to cross the ocean were in for a long and tedious journey on a ship.
Transatlantic service on the Hindenburg began in May 1936. While it was well above the price range of most people, it offered a fast and comfortable alternative to the 5-7 days most people had to endure on an ocean liner.
17 It was Nearly the Size of the Titanic
The Hindenburg was absolutely massive. At 803.8 feet long and a diameter of 135.1 feet, the airship was nearly the size of the Titanic, which was 882.5 feet long. To put this into perspective, a Boeing 747 is only about 250 feet long
And the Hindenburg’s designers put the enormous size to good use. There was a full kitchen that was used to produce high-quality German cuisine. A fully stocked bar kept guests entertained with cocktails, and several promenades provided guests with places to gather.
16 There Were Two Other Zeppelin Disasters That Aren’t as Famous but Were Actually Much Worse
There’s no doubt that the Hindenburg is the most famous zeppelin disaster of all time, but there were several other tragic incidents involving airships - and two of them claimed more lives.
The USS Akron was a US Navy Airship that utilized helium to fly. On April 4, 1933, it got caught in a storm just off the New Jersey coast and crashed. The accident claimed the lives of 73 people, leaving only 3 survivors.
The R101 was a British military airship that didn’t complete its maiden voyage on October 5, 1930. 48 of the 54 people on board perished in the disaster. Amongst the passengers that didn’t make it out was the founder of the Zeppelin program, Air Minister Lord Thomson, airship designers from the Royal Airship Works, and several government bureaucrats.
15 Artist Otto Arpke Decorated the Ship’s Interior with Scenes from Around the World
The creators of the Hindenburg wanted to provide passengers with the very best, right down to the artwork. To provide a true feeling of comfort to guests, original artwork depicting scenes from around the world was commissioned.
The primary artist chosen was the German illustrator Otto Arpke. Arpke was famous for his work on the German film Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and for creating North German Lloyd shipping line posters.
14 There was a Smoking Room Under the Hydrogen Gas Storage Space
It goes against all modern logic to allow smoking on a zeppelin that relies on hydrogen gas, but The Hindenburg actually had a room entirely dedicated as a smoking lounge. The airship did take precautions, and the smoking quarters were located in a pressurized room that prevented any hydrogen gas from entering the area.
Passengers could buy cigarettes and Cuban cigars here and were provided with a special electric lighter. There was a guard posted at the door of the smoking room at all times, ensuring that everything was extinguished and disposed of properly before any passengers went back to the rest of the airship.
The smoking room was located at the very bottom of the ship, and since hydrogen is light, if any gas leaked it would have gone up and away from the smoking room to prevent accidents. Personal lighters and matches were prohibited.
13 There was a Custom Grand Piano Onboard
Entertainment was important on a long journey and the German zeppelin transport company knew it. They commissioned Julius Bluthner, one of the most respected piano manufacturers of the times, to create a custom grand piano that would meet the strict weight restrictions of the Hindenburg.
It weighed less than 400 pounds, compared to average grand pianos that weigh nearly 1,000 pounds. It was only on board throughout the first year, so it wasn’t ruined in the crash. It was constructed primarily of aluminum alloy and covered in yellow pigskin.
12 Passengers Were Able to Open the Windows In-Flight
Unlike modern airplanes that require pressurized cabins, passengers aboard the Hindenburg were able to open promenade windows while the aircraft was in flight. This has led to some captivating photos of passengers peering out of open windows while high above the city.
While it might sound extreme to modern travelers to include this as a feature on a zeppelin, it’s important to remember that Hindenburg passengers were confined to that space for days at a time. Unlike on ocean liners, they were unable to just take a walk on the deck to get some fresh air.
11 Many People Managed to Escape the Disaster
After all was said and done, 62 people aboard the Hindenburg managed to escape the worst. As the airship approached the ground, many passengers and crew members jumped out of the windows and were able to run away from the flames.
While 13 passengers and 23 crew members still lost their lives in the tragedy, the number of lives lost could have been far greater if it wasn’t for the quick thinking of people on board. The Hindenburg didn’t actually catch fire until it was close to landing, so it was not terribly far off the ground which allowed many people to escape relatively unscathed.
10 It’s Maiden Voyage Was a Propaganda Mission
There’s no doubt about it - the Hindenburg was an impressive aircraft. Because of its size and technological advancements, the Hindenburg was seen as an undisputed symbol of power and the Germans wanted to use it to advance their cause.
So Goebbels decided that its maiden flight would be part of a 4,100-mile journey throughout Germany alongside the Graf Zeppelin to gather support and rally German citizens. The two airships took to the skies for 4 days and played patriotic songs and announcements blaring down from a specially-designed speaker system. They even dropped pamphlets and flags from the sky, each fitted with its own mini-parachute.
9 Humans Weren’t the Only Passengers
The size and speed of the Hindenburg made it an incredibly efficient mode of transportation. Most passengers on transatlantic flights were wealthy people who wanted to travel in luxury. But that wasn’t always the case.
It wasn’t totally uncommon for passengers to bring their dogs along on flights. The dogs weren’t allowed to roam the airship and needed to be properly kenneled while in flight. Occasionally, even more unusual animals were transported on the Hindenburg- like the antelopes that were brought overseas to make their new home at an American zoo.
8 We May Never Know Exactly What Started the Fire
While we know that a spark of some kind likely ignited the highly flammable hydrogen gas, there still isn’t a real solution as to what caused the spark. There have been a lot of theories considered and witnesses aboard the ship each seemed to have their own idea.
Robert Buchanan was a member of the ground crew and working the mooring lines during the accident. He says he saw an engine backfire during the landing which could have started the fire while another crew member claims to have seen the leaking hydrogen. Dan Grossman, an airship historian, says that the nearby thunderstorm is the most likely source of the electrostatic discharge, but the cause of the leaking hydrogen is still unknown.
7 The Crash was the Subject of Many Conspiracy Theories
It’s not uncommon for famous disasters to generate conspiracy theories and the Hindenburg is no different. Despite investigators determining that the accident was the result of a spark igniting the gas, many believed that it was intentional. The reasons why and the guilty party changes from theory to theory.
The most common speculation is that a vigilante group orchestrated the disaster to damage German reputation. But investigators have never found this theory to have any credibility, consistently coming to the conclusion that the accident was caused by an unfortunate and unplanned incident.
6 It was a Star at the Olympic Summer Games Opening Ceremony in Berlin
The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is always a chance for the host country to show its best to the rest of the world. Since the Hindenburg was the largest airship of the time and a symbol of how advanced German engineering was, Germans authorities decided it would be the perfect addition to the ceremony.
Unfortunately, the 1936 games were not without controversy. Several countries threatened to boycott the Olympics that year due to the tense political climate. This tends to overshadow the outstanding athletic performances in multiple sports and the genuine celebration of traditional German culture displayed over the course of the games.
5 The Hindenburg Was Named After a leader
Much is said about the Hindenburg and its tragic end, but little attention is paid to its namesake. Paul von Hindenburg led Germany in 1925 after an impressive career as a Generalfeldmarschall and statesman throughout WWI.
But the Hindenburg would have had a very different name if Goebbels had his way. Thankfully, Eckener, the airship designer, refused to name it after Paul von Hindenburg's infamous successor.
4 It Made Many Successful Flights Before its demise
The Hindenburg’s last flight is by far it’s most famous, but the airship actually made many incident-free trips before meeting its end. Despite being kept afloat by flammable gas, the airship was considered a safe and reliable form of travel that could get people where they needed to be.
Before the disaster, it was well known for being a fast and luxurious form of travel. Passengers trusted airships to get them safely from point A to point B. The Hindenburg made more than 10 successful round-trip transatlantic flights, as well as many other domestic trips before the disaster in Lakehurst.
3 The Walls of Passenger Cabins Were Made of Lightweight Foam and Covered with Fabric
Because the Hindenburg was kept afloat by Hydrogen gas, strict weight restrictions were in place to ensure the safety of passengers and to keep the airship operating smoothly. Because it was going to be full of passengers and their belongings, designers attempted to cut as much weight from the construction of the cabins as possible.
The walls of passenger cabins were constructed from lightweight foam board and covered with fabric for decoration. In addition to this, passengers were provided with an envelope containing a single cloth napkin for use during the flight. Cutting weight wherever they could be allowed to put more people on the airship and provide better food service.
2 The Captain was a Hero
Much is said about captains that go down with their ship and attempt to save every life on board. The captain of the Hindenburg is a prime example of such heroics. Captain Max Pruss was amongst the survivors who managed to jump out of the ship before it hit the ground. But despite sustaining some serious injuries, he didn’t run to safety and insisted on rushing back to the wreckage to look for survivors.
When First Officer Captain Albert Sammt found Pruss, he had sustained serious burns but fought to go back and help anyone he could. His injuries left him hospitalized for several months as he recovered. Pruss later returned to Germany and served as commandant of Frankfurt Airport.
1 It Took Less Than a Minute for the Fire to Engulf the Ship
Hydrogen Gas is incredibly flammable, and as a result, it took nearly no time at all for the flames to totally destroy the airship. Some witnesses say it only took 32 seconds from the time flames broke out until it crashed on the ground.
Most accounts put the first appearance of flames at 7:25 pm and it took less than a minute for them to spread and consume the airship. Despite the quickly moving inferno, the gas was above where the passengers were, which is why so many still had time to escape through windows
References: airships.net, The History Channel, BBC, NPT