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Modern Mysteries

What caused the Hindenburg to catch fire ?

By T.K. Randall
May 23, 2017 · Comment icon 7 comments

The inferno was unstoppable. Image Credit: Nationaal Archief @ Flickr Commons
80 years on from the disaster, the exact cause of the inferno that destroyed the airship remains unclear.
One of the 20th century's most infamous disasters, the destruction of the Hindenburg - a large German passenger airship - occurred following its arrival at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in Manchester Township, New Jersey in May 1937.

The huge hydrogen-filled airship was carrying 97 passengers at the time of which 37 lost their lives when the vessel inexplicably burst in to flames and crashed to the ground, bringing with it any remaining confidence in airship travel in general.

Although it is obvious that the gas inside the ship provided the fuel for the blaze, the exact reason why the airship went up in flames in the first place has remained a topic of debate for decades.

One of the most popular theories suggests that the fire started when the buildup of static electricity on the airship's exterior came in to contact with a special type of 'dope' ( a mix of iron oxide and aluminum-impregnated cellulose ) that had been painted all over the canvas.
It wouldn't have taken much of a fire to set the hydrogen inside burning and for the blaze to consume the whole ship.

A second theory, which also takes in to account the flammable exterior of the Hindenburg, suggests that a steering cable at the back may have come loose and started to flail around, creating sparks which could have easily set off the fire.

Whatever the case though, the disaster proved so catastrophic for the airship industry that it was abandoned entirely soon afterwards, paving the way for the airplane.

The Hindenburg's sister ship, the Graf Zepplin 2, was the last great rigid airship of its day.

It flew 30 flights between 1938 and 1939 before eventually being scrapped in 1940.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine | Comments (7)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #1 Posted by docyabut2 7 years ago
Comment icon #2 Posted by thedutchiedutch 7 years ago
Wasn't it electrostatic discharge that ignited leaking hydrogen ?
Comment icon #3 Posted by Buzz_Light_Year 7 years ago
Yes it was a electrostatic discharge but it ignited the covering on the airship that had about the same ingredients as rocket fuel. Thermal imaging indicated that the hydrogen was a secondary fire. Well it's what a PBS show had to say about it and I don't remember which one it was. Static lines were used on the airships to discharge the static buildup but I guess it didn't work that time.
Comment icon #4 Posted by Nonentity 7 years ago
My favorite part of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series is that it is set in an alternate universe where dirigibles and the like are the main mode of air travel. 3 Every time I see the Good Year or MetLife blimps here in town, I always wish I could go for a ride. 
Comment icon #5 Posted by Hammerclaw 7 years ago
All that was needed was a jet of leaking hydrogen and an ignition source, a spark, open flame or a crewman or passenger smoking where they should have not. 
Comment icon #6 Posted by Hammerclaw 7 years ago
 The Hindenburg disaster occurred at 7:25 PM eastern time on May 6, 1937, at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey. 23 passengers and 39 crewmembers survived the accident. 13 passengers, 22 crewmembers, and one civilian member of the ground crew were killed. Yahoo Answers   Curious that more survived than perished.
Comment icon #7 Posted by Calibeliever 7 years ago
I've watched this footage a thousand times in my life and what still astonishes me, is that of the 97 people passengers aboard, 60 of them actually survived! 

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