why was the hindenburg filled with hydrogen

Share Print One of the most famous images of the 20th Century was that of the giant German airship Hindenurg engulfed in flames. The explosion was blamed on hydrogen gas but Dr Karl reckons it can't be so. By Karl S. Kruszelnicki
Back in the middle 1930s, if you were wealthy enough to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, there were two choices - noisy, small and cramped aeroplanes, or quiet and spacious airships that got their lift from huge bladders filled with hydrogen gas. Back then, it was still an even bet as to which technology would win in the long run - the faster and noisy aeroplanes, or the slower and more relaxed Lighter-Than-Air airships. The answer was settled in favour of the aeroplanes in 1937, when the enormous Nazi hydrogen-filled airship, the Hindenburg, slowly maneuvered in to dock at a 50-metre high mast at the Lakehurst Air Base, in New Jersey. This was its 21st crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly, there was a spark on the Hindenberg, and then flames. Newsreel film crews captured the sudden disaster as the Hindenburg burst into enormous plumes of red-yellow flames, and collapsed to the ground. Over thirty of the 97 people on board died. The disaster was blamed on the extreme flammability of the hydrogen lifting gas that filled most of the airship. This bad reputation of hydrogen still bothers car manufacturers today, as they explore the use of hydrogen as a safe, non-polluting alternative to fossil fuels for powering cars. But it turns out that the extreme flammability of hydrogen is a mythconception. The Hindenburg was the largest aircraft ever to fly - longer than three football fields (about 250 metres long). It was powered by four enormous 1,200 HP V-16 Mercedes-Benz Diesel engines that spun 6-metre wooden propellers. It cruised at 125 kph (faster than ocean liners and trains), and when fully loaded with fuel, had a range of some 16,000 km. It was opulently and almost decadently luxurious - each of the 50 cabins had both a shower and a bath, as well as electric lights and a telephone.

The clubroom had an aluminium piano. The public rooms were large and decorated in the style of luxury ship - and the windows could be opened. It might be a little slower than the aeroplanes of the day - but it was a lot more comfortable. The Hindenburg was painted with silvery powdered aluminium, to better show off the giant Nazi swastikas on the tail section. When it flew over cities, the on-board loudspeakers broadcast Nazi propaganda announcements, and the crew dropped thousands of small Nazi flags for the school children below. This is not surprising, because the Nazi Minister of Propaganda funded the Hindenburg. At that time, the US government controlled the only significant supplies of helium (a non-flammable lifting gas), and refused to supply it to the Nazi government. So the Hindenburg had to use flammable hydrogen. As the Hindenburg came in to Lakehurst on May 6, 1937, there was a storm brewing, and so there was much static electricity in the air - which charged up the aircraft. When the crew dropped the mooring ropes down to the ground, the static electricity was earthed, which set off sparks on the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg was covered with cotton fabric, that had to be waterproof. So it had been swabbed with cellulose acetate (which happened to be very inflammable) that was then covered with aluminium powder (which is used as rocket fuel to propel the Space Shuttle into orbit). Indeed, the aluminium powder was in tiny flakes, which made them very susceptible to sparking. It was inevitable that a charged atmosphere would ignite the flammable skin. In all of this, the hydrogen was innocent. In the terrible disaster, the Hindenburg burnt with a red flame. But hydrogen burns with an almost invisible bluish flame. In the Hindenburg disaster, as soon as the hydrogen bladders were opened by the flames, the hydrogen inside would have escaped up and away from the burning airship - and it would not have not contributed to the ensuing fire.

The hydrogen was totally innocent. In fact, in 1935, a helium-filled airship with an acetate-aluminium skin burned near Point Sur in California with equal ferocity. The Hindenberg disaster was not caused by the hydrogen. The lesson is obvious - the next time you build an airship, don't paint the inflammable acetate skin with aluminium rocket fuel. Tags:, Hindenburg was a masterpiece of zeppelin design. Equipped with four 1200 hp Mercedes Benz engines, having 245 m in length, about 41 m in diameter and almost 212000 cubic meters of gas volume, she still holds the record of the largest airship ever built and flying. She can be truly called the Titanic of the aircraft. Although the Hindenburg is most famous for her fiery death, she was not initially meant to be filled with hydrogen at all. Dr. Hugo Eckner, at that time the chairman of the Zeppelin company, had decided that it would be wiser to fill his new ship with the inflammable gas helium. However the dream was not to come true. Here goes the explanation. In order to remain afloat, the Zeppelin Company had to accept large sums of money from the government led at that time by the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler. The Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin the two most majestic airships carried the swastika signs on their tail fins and participated in many propaganda shows, flying all over Germany and dropping leaflets and pamphlets illustrating the power of the Nazi. The United States, having the only natural deposits of helium in the world, were getting more and more suspicious of Hitler and his Third Reich. They wondered if the zeppelin could be used for military purposes such as they were in WWI. Although the head of the Zeppelin Company never belonged to the Nazi movement and criticized it, the U. S. Congress came to the decision that it was impossible to let the Germans have helium for their new airship. Thus, the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen. Now that the grand ship was fully ready to fly, it took off to the sky on March 4, 1936.

The tests went well, and the Hindenburg was scheduled to start carrying passengers across Europe and North and South America. The LZ129 (the Hindenburg) contained many novelties and was a luxurious airship. For example, she carried the passengers inside her huge hull instead of the gondola section, as it was done before. She was also equipped with a room for smokers, which was astonishing for an airship inflated with hydrogen. However everything was foreseen: the room was lined with asbestos and built with an airlock which would keep any flames from spreading to the rest of the ship. All lighters and matches were removed from the passengers and kept under lock and key until the end of the flight, and there was the only lighter fixed on a table in the smokers room. The mighty Hindenburg was not a longliver of a zeppelin. She made only a few breathtaking flights before her destruction. It was her first flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey. The airship left Germany on May 3, 1937, and reached the destination on May 6. There were 96 people on board 36 passengers and 61 crew-men. It was an impressive and thrilling sight an enormous zeppelin floating smoothly across the sky. A numerous audience was watching the airship at Lakehurst. Suddenly a tongue of flame embraced the tail and spread with a horrifying speed all over the zeppelin, turning it into a fire ball. In less than a minute the giant creature crashed onto the ground. She took the lives of 36 people 13 passengers, 22 crew-men, and 1 civilian member of the ground crew. Nobody knows why it happened. There are many versions: a) sabotage; b) stroke of lightning; c) carefully planned insurance fraud. Nobody can tell for sure, but at that time two things were clear that German engineers are not that impeccable as they were thought of before the tragedy, and that commercial airships do not have future. Nowadays, a century after the first zeppelin s flight, the German giants are getting revived. Filed Under:,

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