A Niche in Time: “One of the Worst Catastrophes in the World”

The Hindenburg on its first test flight.

Part 2 of 5

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For 8-year old Werner Doehner, everything about the airship that floated over the field at Frankfurt looked humongous. The Zeppelin before him stretched 245 meters (803.8 feet) from nose to tail – longer than some of the ocean liners that sailed the North Atlantic. Even the propeller blades on the airship’s four reversible Daimler-Benz diesel engines and the rubber tires on the control car looked enormous to the young boy.

Werner had been on ocean liners before, but this would be his first trip on an airship. He and his family were returning to their home in Mexico City by way of the United States. His father, Hermann, was the general manager of Beick, Felix y Compania, a successful German wholesale drug company that had established operations in Mexico. Werner’s mother, Matilde, and two of his three siblings — Walter, 10, and Irene, 14 — would also make the trip.

Taking an airship across the Atlantic had been Hermann’s idea. Four years earlier, he had flown aboard the Graf Zeppelin from South America to Germany by way of the United States. He had enjoyed the trip so much he wanted his entire family to have the same experience.

Although his wife Matilde was nervous about traveling by air, Hermann assured her that it was the safest and most luxurious way to cross the Atlantic. In decades of operations, German Zeppelins had never experienced a catastrophic accident or serious passenger injury on a passenger flight. It was a safety record that executives in the airline, railroad and automotive industries could only envy.

Hindenburg dining room

The Zeppelin’s two decks, contained within the hull near the front of the vessel, included cabins with berths for 72 passengers, a dining room, public spaces, a lounge and a writing room. There was even a smoking room with negative pressure so a stray spark didn’t ignite any of the 200,000 cubic meters (7,062,000 cubic feet) of hydrogen aboard. Long slanted observation windows ran the length of decks, providing passengers with spectacular views as they flew over cities, countryside, mountains, shorelines and icebergs.

Unlike ocean liners that often battled the rough seas of the North Atlantic, Zeppelins were remarkable stable in the air. They were also fast. While a typical ocean liner might take five days to cross the ocean, an airship could make the flight in about three days. And sometimes less. In 1936, the Hindenburg had made it to America in just under 53 hours. Its quickest return flight to Germany took only 43 hours.

Hindenburg lounge

All this luxury and speed came at a steep price. At $450 ($7,648 in 20017) apiece, passage for the family of five set back Hermann Doehner a whopping $2,250 ($38,240 in 2017 dollars). This was at a time when first-class passage on a German ocean liner could be booked for as little as $157 ($2,668 today). A third-class ticket could be purchased for a mere $82 ($1,394 today).

Young Werner Doehner and his family board the Hindenburg on the evening of May 3, 1937, with 31 other passengers and 61 crew members for what they expected to be a pleasant and uneventful voyage to America. The flight didn’t go exactly according to plan. The Hindenburg‘s arrival was delayed first by strong headwinds crossing the Atlantic, and then by a line of spring thunderstorms passing over New Jersey.

It wasn’t until 7 p.m. on May 6 — about a half a day late — that the Hindenburg was able to approach the U.S. Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ. Matilda and her children sat at a dining room table watching the landing operations through the observation windows while Hermann returned to the family’s cabin to retrieve another roll of film for his camera.

Landing lines were dropped out of the ship’s nose to a ground crew down below. All seemed normal, but then —

Hindenburg explodes

The rear part of the Hindenburg suddenly burst into flames. The ship rocked violently as the nose first rose higher into the air and then began to sink rapidly toward the ground. Smoke and heat filled the dining room as panic gripped the passengers. “Suddenly the air was on fire,” Werner would later remember.

Matilde dropped Walter and then Werner through an open observation window to a ship steward who had already leaped the ground. Irene was too big for Matilde to pick up, but she was too scared to jump. Instead, she panicked and ran back into the airship to find her father. Matilde jumped from the burning ship and landed hard, breaking her hip.

Matilde and her sons would survive the inferno with burns on their bodies. Rescued from the flaming wreckage, Irene died in the hospital the next morning. Hermann’s body was recovered from the smoldering remains of the great airship.

Werner had suffered serious burns to his face, hands and right leg. He would spend eight months in the hospital undergoing skin grafts before being released in January 1938. Today, he is the last survivor of the fatal flight.

The Beginning of the End

The entire accident had taken about 30 seconds. Thirty seconds to end the lives of 35 passengers and one member of the ground crew. Thirty seconds to destroy the pride of German aviation and a powerful symbol of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.

But, even more was lost in that half minute of horror. The era of passenger airships came to an abrupt and tragic end on the field at Lakehurst that day. The question is why.

As tragic as it was, the Hindenburg disaster was the only accident involving civilian fatalities in the Zeppelin Company’s long history. Compared with other forms of transportation, the company’s airships were extremely safe. In 1937, nearly 38,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents in the United States alone – a death toll more than 1,000 times higher than that of the Hindenburg tragedy.

Transatlantic ocean liner service didn’t end when the Titanic sank with the loss of more than 1,500 lives a quarter century earlier. Nor did people stop traveling by train despite the horrendous safety record of the early railroads.

So, why would a single accident have ended the airship era?

A Very Fragile Program

The first thing to understand is just how fragile the German airship program was at the time. The loss of the Hindenburg instantly destroyed half the Zeppelin fleet. The only other one in service was the 9-year old Graf Zeppelin. The first of the Hindenburg‘s two sister ships, the Graf Zeppelin II, was under construction at the time. However, it would not take to the skies for 16 months after the tragedy at Lakehurst.

The disaster was a public media spectacle captured by still and newsreel cameras. This was in sharp contrast to the loss of the USS Akron, which claimed twice as many lives but had crashed off the New Jersey coast out of range of the cameras with a US Navy crew that  understood the risks. The Hindenburg disaster had claimed the lives of civilians on a ship that was supposed to be safe.

The photos and film were soon distributed to newspapers and movie theaters around the world. Herbert Morrison’s dramatic commentary as he watched the tragedy unfold before his eyes (“Oh, the humanity!”) made the disaster all the more real to millions of people. (Film of the accident was not show publicly in Germany until after World War II.)

The result was a collapse in the public’s confidence in the safety of hydrogen-filled airships. Few people were going to set foot on ships filled with the flammable gas.

And herein lies the irony of the tragedy. The Zeppelin company had originally designed its Hindenburg-class airships to operate on helium. If the company had used it, the tragedy would never have happened.

But, it didn’t have any. The United States had a monopoly on the large quantities of helium needed to fill Germany’s giant airships. And the nation had tightly controlled exports of the rare and strategically valuable gas since 1925.

Unable to obtain helium for the Hindenburg, the Germans filled the airship with hydrogen and relied on their decades of experience in working with the volatile gas to keep passengers safe. It wasn’t enough.

The only hope for keeping the Zeppelin program alive was convincing the United States to export the gas. While that effort was pursued through diplomatic channels, Germans bid a sad auf weidesen not only to those lost on the Hindenburg but to the ship that had revived Zeppelin passenger service nine years earlier.

Graf Zeppelin

The day after the Hindenburg exploded at Lakehurst, the Graf Zeppelin arrived at Friedrichshafen after completing a round trip flight to Brazil. It was immediately grounded and taken out of service. Six weeks later, it made its 590th and final flight to Frankfurt, where it was deflated and turned into a museum.

The Graf Zeppelin would have required extensive and expensive modifications to fly with helium. Although much safer, helium was also more expensive and had about 8 percent less lifting capacity than hydrogen. Using it would have raised operating costs while cutting the amount of cargo the airship could haul.

Not that there was any helium coming from America. In 1938, the U.S. government refused to export the gas to Hitler’s Germany as Europe lurched toward war. While the Nazi regime had saved the Zeppelin Company from bankruptcy, the government’s aggressive expansionist policies ultimately doomed its rigid airship program.

Joseph Goebbels (Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-17049 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

That made the career of the Hindenburg‘s sister ship extremely short. The Graf Zeppelin II, was launched in September 1938 using hydrogen. The airship made a mere 30 flights over the next 11 months before it was grounded for good on Aug. 20, 1939. Eleven days later, Hitler began World War II by attacking Poland.

In April 1940, Aviation Minister Herman Goring ordered workers to scrap both Graf Zeppelin ships and components of a third unfinished Hindenburg-class airship. The Luftwaffe needed the metal to build fighter planes and bombers. The Zeppelin hangars at Frankfurt were blown up.

Dinosaurs of the Sky

Let’s indulge in a bit of alternative history here: what if Germany had convinced the United States to export helium. Would Zeppelins have had a future?

Probably not. There are a number of reasons for believing they would soon become as extinct as the dinosaurs.

For one, the age of the airship was already passing. Germany was the only nation still flying rigid airships, and it only had two in service when the Hindenburg explodes. Great Britain, France, the United States and other nations had all abandoned their programs years earlier after number of accidents.

Zeppelins were massive, expensive and time consuming to build. The Graf Zeppelin took two years to build; the Hindenburg took five years, an effort interrupted by the bankruptcy of the company. The ship was only completed when Hitler’s new Nazi regime saw the propaganda value of Zeppelins.

United Airlines DC-3

Compare that to the DC-3 airliner, which began commercial service the same year as the Hindenburg. These planes could be rolled off the assembly line in large numbers. A total of 16,079 aircraft of all DC-3 variants would be produced, including more than 10,000 of the C-47 and C-53 military versions. Some of the aircraft continue to fly today more than 80 years after the DC-3 debuted.

The DC-3 would revolutionize air travel due to its speed, range, versatility and reliability. It was a huge commercial success for the Douglas Aircraft Company, in no small part due to the military demand for them resulting from the world war that Hitler would soon launch.

The DC-3 didn’t have the passenger capacity or the range of Zeppelins. However, the success of the plane and the lessons learned from it led to larger and more capable aircraft that, in the post-war era, would be able to make non-stop flights across the Atlantic routine.

Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat

In fact, as the Graf Zeppelin II was making its final flights in the summer of 1939, Pan Am launched regular service between New York City and Europe using the Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat. The airplane replicated some of the attractive features of the Zeppelins, including passenger cabins and a lounge, while getting passengers to their destination faster.

The economics of rigid airships were complicated. The Hindenburg was capable of carrying only 72 passengers, more than airplanes of the day but far less than the thousands of people carried by the larger trans-Atlantic ocean liners. The airship needed 50 to 52 crew members for each flight, a crew-to-passenger ratio far higher than on most aircraft and passenger ships.

All of these factors made Zeppelin ticket prices high. Despite the income earned from flying people, the real money was in hauling the mail between Europe and North and South America.

Although Zeppelins had been used in World War I, they would have been easy targets for the much more advanced fighters that would battle over the skies of Europe in the Second World War. Giant airships would have been useless for bombing most targets and largely limited to transportation and reconnaissance in secure territories that Allied fighters could not reach.

Even if the United States had approved the export of helium to Germany in 1938, it would almost certainly have cut off supplies the following year after Hitler invaded Poland, overran much of Europe, and threatened to invade America’s close ally, Great Britain.

The bottom line is that by by 1937, there were only two German airships that catered to the top 1 percent of the population, carried a relatively small number of people, and served only two Trans-Atlantic routes. And their continued existence owed in large part to Hitler finding them to be useful to promote his regime.

The loss of the Hindenburg and the inability to obtain helium were a one-two punch that put a premature end to the German Zeppelin program. But, by then rigid airships were  already living on borrowed time. A single spark was all that was needed to end it.

The Series

Part 1: Behemoths of the Sky
Part 2: “One of the worst catastrophes in the world”
Part 3: “Lock the doors”
Part 4: One Chute
Part 5: First Flight

  • Zeppelins (as well as airplanes and ships) are simply a technology to achieve a goal: move people and stuff from Point A to Point B. I’m glad that airships had their chance, and have their niche (Goodyear anyone?) just as I like for all technologies to have their shot at proving their worth.

    Rockets are simply a technology for moving people and stuff from the surface of the earth to some point in space. Should a rocket have wings, no-wings, land sideways, land upright, on land or sea, be disposable, reusable? I don’t know, but I’d like each technology to get its shot at proving their worth. As long as the need is there, people will keep trying different ways to achieve it.

    Should airplanes have propellers or jets, should they land on water or land, should they have the wheels in the front or the back, should they be made of aluminum or composites? It’s easy to answer these questions now with 100 years of experience. This entry in the series actually makes me think of the Concorde… even when you HAVE a good concept, if it’s ahead of its time (technologically OR economically) then you STILL have to wait for the world to catch up!

  • ThomasLMatula

    Interesting that you mention Good Year as they retired their last blimp and are switching to semi-rigid dirigibles (Zeppelins!) to replace it. But blimps served well in WWII and until 1960 for anti-submarine and picket duty with the U.S. Navy.

    https://consumerist.com/2017/03/14/goodyear-officially-retiring-its-last-real-blimp-in-favor-of-zeppelins/

    Goodyear Officially Retiring Its Last Real Blimp In Favor Of Zeppelins

    But MetLife is sticking with blimps for now, in a new paint scheme.

    https://consumerist.com/2016/10/20/metlife-cutting-snoopy-mascot-loose-after-three-decades/

    MetLife Cutting Snoopy And The Peanuts Gang Loose After Three Decades

  • Thomas Gerlach

    A very good and insightful post! Congratulations on the whole series. I think you’re exactly righ concernin technological dead ends. Only one small thing (sorry, I‘m german…;)): it‘s not „auf weidesen„, it‘s „auf Wiedersehen“… Cheers!