The grandest airship in the world, the LZ 129 Hindenburg, arrived over the United States as a rainstorm was broiling over its intended destination, the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. It was the latest struggle in a journey that had suffered powerful headwinds across the Atlantic. The day before arriving, a fuel pump had broken, prompting intensive repairs. Now facing storms, Captain Max Pruss delayed the landing with an airborne tour of Manhattan (wowing New Yorkers and passengers alike) and once more with a view of the coast until the storm slackened.
By the 1930s, travel by airship became the premier method of travel. Within only a few years of their success, propellers were applied to hot air balloons, leading to Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s 1785 crossing of the English Channel. As engines became more efficient through the nineteenth century, chemically produced hydrogen provided effective lift, and the cost of aluminum dropped to make it usable for construction, airships became more practical. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin became the premier designer of airships through his use of a girder-frame covered in fabric. Germany soon led the world with a fleet of “zeppelins,” which were put to the war effort as bombers and spotters, although they soon outpaced by airplanes. After the war, the zeppelin found its role as a commercial passenger carrier.
The pinnacle of airships was the Hindenburg, launched in 1936. Its guest accommodations were as luxurious as ocean liners without noise or seasickness; in fact, advertisements bragged how a pencil could be balanced on its tip while in flight. This luxury came at a cost: a one-way ticket on its first season of seventeen transatlantic voyages cost as much as $400 ($2,600 in 2014). Yet the cost proved to be another awe-inspiring factor as only the crème de la crème of society were aboard, such as politicians, businessmen, and boxer Max Schmeling upon becoming world heavyweight champion. The Nazi government seized on the propaganda appeal of the airship. They used it to distribute fliers and appear at Olympic Games in Berlin as well as a mobile monument to German prowess.
To start its second season of service, the Hindenburg flew to New Jersey with a half-filled cabin. Its return voyage was fully booked as a stream of wealthy notables planned to attend the coronation of George VI. Despite delays that caused them to cancel plans for public tours, Captain Pruss was hopeful that the cabins would be cleaned and engines checked for their return on schedule. At last he received radio word from Lakehurst that the storm had passed. When the Hindenburg arrived a few minutes after 7 o'clock, though, ground crews were still not ready. Pruss ordered a sharp turn to circle the field. A sudden change in the wind forced another sharp turn as the airship made a final approach. It was a race against time as a new storm approached.
The Hindenburg came toward the mooring mast stern-heavy. Pruss and his command thought nothing of it; the airship had been designed to collect rainwater as ballast, which often collected in the rear due to aerodynamic pressure. As he prepared to order the ballast dumped, a quick thought about the sudden turns made him wonder why the water had not shifted to port or starboard. Instead, he ordered crewmen to investigate, which led to the discovery of a broken bracing wire that had burst one of the balloons. Explosive hydrogen gas was venting out of a flap just in front of the top fin.
Pruss ordered all external vents opened, which caused a sudden drop as the free hydrogen escaped. The gas exploded as a pillar of fire above the airship. Eyewitnesses among the crew on the field and press that had gathered said that the Hindenburg glowed beforehand. Later investigations showed that the glow was most likely St. Elmo's fire, an static-electrical build-up due to the rapidly shifting weather, the discharge of which produced sparks necessary to set off the hydrogen. At the time, others took it as divine intervention protecting the passengers. Despite the bumpy landing, no one was harmed.
It was a turning point for a long history of airship crashes. Development in other countries had been stunted by tragedies, such as the 1930 crash of the British R101 over France on its way to India, killing nearly all of the leaders of airship development for the country. In 1933, the USS Akron broke up in a storm, and its sistership, the Macon, crashed in high winds in 1935. The landing of the Hindenburg was seen as heroic and instilled faith in the public as an airship could land slowly in a crash whereas airplanes simply fell.
Flammable hydrogen was still a major issue, especially as the United States had passed the Helium Control Act in 1927 that limited its export as a potential weapon to protect American interests as the singular helium-producer. Pressure from upper classes who admired German airships encouraged loosening of the law. As trade ended with Germany with World War II approaching, American airships became militarized, proving unfit for combat but crucial for submarine-hunting, using instruments and depth charges to render Wolfpacks useless against convoys. Blimps, twice as fast as naval ships, served as aircraft carriers for planes making forward patrol.
The war provided a generation of new development that translated to civilian uses as the Cold War progressed. Designers combined the best of heavier-than-air planes, and later helicopters, with the efficient lift of blimps for hybrid airships. Comfortable, if slower, long-range cruisers supply worldwide travel, in addition to cargo carriers that transport goods in a cycle following jet streams that has been nicknamed the “orbit of atmospheric satellites.” The demand for helium, typically obtainable only in spent uranium fields, has many economists worried about the earth running out, spurring interest to harvest on the moon.
In reality, the crash of the Hindenburg remains one of the most famous disasters of the twentieth century. In just over thirty seconds, the airship collapsed as newsreels rolled. Thirty-five of the ninety-six people aboard perished, and the public turned toward air travel by plane. Airships today are largely used for entertainment or research purposes.