"Oh, the humanity!"—Herbert Morrison, in a radio broadcast
On May 6, 1937, the German airship LZ 129 Hindenburg was about to land at what was at that time Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, after a trans-Atlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany with 70 passengers aboard. The gigantic airship was a zeppelin—a lighter-than-air craft like a blimp, but with a rigid internal frame—and was filled with hydrogen rather than the usual helium. It was the largest flying machine ever built at 263m in length, about four times the length of a Boeing 747 (and looking especially big considering since it was usually seen at a much lower altitude in flight), and was used as a commercial craft, like a luxury liner.
One cannot overstate the appeal of these magnificent airships. People would drop what they were doing and rush outside to see one pass overhead. They would take pictures. It was the kind of thing you told your grandchildren about, especially if you got to tour one while it was landed or — OMG! — ride in one. Cross the technological sophistication of the "Concorde" and the grandeur of "RMS Titanic" and you'll have some idea.
Due to heavy weather conditions, the ship was already late, and Captain Max Pruss had kept in the air for a few additional hours longer than expected until a storm over Lakehurst cleared up. At around 7 p.m., the Hindenburg came into Lakehurst and attempted an in-air anchoring (called a "flying mooring") in heavy winds. Newsreel cameras were rolling and veteran radio newscaster Herbert Morrison of WLS was making a test recording (on special phonograph disks) of what he thought was going to be a routine landing with subsequent passenger interviews.
The world knows what happened next. With the Hindenburg only a few feet from its mooring mast, it caught fire and came crashing down in a spectacular fireball. The horrified Morrison kept right on talking, describing exactly what was happening until he was overcome with smoke and emotion and had to step inside the hangar to recover himself. He subsequently reported on rescue efforts and even interviewed survivors. In total, the disaster claimed the lives of 35 people.
Nobody is sure what happened that day, inquiries held afterwards suggested everything from a lightning strike to deliberate sabotage, although most tests, including those from MythBusters, indicate that it was a combination of factors. The most likely scenario is that a discharge of static electricity ignited a small amount of leaked hydrogen gas, which quickly grew into an unstoppable chain-reaction. Whatever caused it, the crash of the Hindenburg is an iconic moment in the histories of aviation and broadcasting. It was the end of the use of airships for passenger flights.
For tropes about the newsreel and Herbert Morrison's commentary, see Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Footage.
- Broadcasting in the United States - A historic moment remembered (and replayed) even today. The iconic newsreel footage was added to the National Film Registry in 1997.
- Cool Airship - It remains the largest object made by man to ever fly.
- Made of Explodium - Airships were supposed to use helium, which is very stable and nonflammable. But this was available only in and from the United States, which had imposed a ban on overseas sales for strategic reasons. The Germans used the less expensive (and extremely volatile) hydrogen gas instead. If that was not enough, the construction materials involved compounds commonly seen in incendiary weapons, though not in the proportions that would normally be volatile.
- Later studies show that it can't all be blamed on the use of Hydrogen. It's not as volatile as many believe it to be—Hydrogen will only explode when used in extremely compressed quantities. When it burns instead of explodes, it emits a smokeless, clear, cool(er than normal fire) flame (and of note, around 80% of fire deaths are the result of smoke inhalation, not burns). A study done by the University of Miami demonstrated this: they took two cars, one gasoline-powered and one Hydrogen-powered, and penetrated the tanks, igniting them. The gasoline, being liquid, pooled at the source and eventually exploded into a ball of fiery death. The Hydrogen? It was a gas, so it dissipated much more quickly, and it merely burned its fuel supply and sizzled out with very minimal damage. This is not to say that the Hindenburg was not Made of Explodium, though. Later studies showed that it was not the Hydrogen that caused most of the damage, but the shell case of the balloon housing. This was made with a solidified chemical that was later used as an important component of rocket fuel. NASA and the descendant of the company that produced the Hindenburg both agree on this find.
- Nazi Germany - The Hindenburg bore prominent swastikas, Plus, many of the people involved with the Hindenburg were, of course, Nazis. Its first flights involved dropping leaflets to urge people to vote for Hitler for chancellor. However, manager Hugo Eckener, head of the Zeppelin company and longtime captain of the Graf Zeppelin, was an outspoken anti-Nazi. In fact he quickly named the airship "Hindenburg" after Germany's then-president, before the Nazis could name it the "Adolph Hitler."
- Starship Luxurious - Although actually making very efficient use of space, the Hindenburg could definitely impress fans and passengers as the 30s version of this.
- Stock Shout-Outs: As evidenced by the list of references below.
- What Could Possibly Go Wrong? - The Germans had not had any trouble with hydrogen in airships before, and believed they were taking adequate safety precautions. The Hindenburg had been flying back and forth for over a year with no problems. More significantly, the Graf Zeppelin had been flying for over a decade, and none of the other 120 airships built by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (it was called "LZ-129" for a reason) had spontaneously combusted.
- The Don Simpson-illustrated six-issue "Monster Comics" adaptation of King Kong was originally to include a scene wherein Kong, at the top of the Empire State Building, encounters the Hindenburg flying overhead. He is described as becoming "instinctively enraged" by the Swastikas on it ("The symbol of Nazi tyranny!"), and punches it, causing it to crash. Simpson used photos of the actual crash for the panels depicting the Hindenburg's destruction. The scene, totaling two pages, was cut from the sixth and final issue of the comic after it was realized the scene was in poor taste. The deleted scene was included on separate "bonus pages" printed on green paper if you ordered all six issues from Simpson's website.
- The Internet Movie Database lists at least five documentary TV shows about the airship.
- The Hindenburg was a 1975 film about its last flight, with its plot centered around a fictional conspiracy to destroy the airship.
- Polly Perkins' telephoned report on the giant robot attack on New York in Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow is clearly based in equal parts on Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast and Herb Morrison's Hindenberg coverage. There's also mention of the Hindenberg III in Polly's article on the disappearance of Dr. Vargas.
- The Pendragon Adventure actually has a take on how the incident really happened in its third book, The Never War: a fireworks rocket was shot at the Hindenburg, setting it on fire. In the story, Bobby actually considered the possibility of knocking the rocket aside and changing history. Thankfully, Gunny stopped him, or history would have gotten much, much worse from there.
- The MythBusters investigated whether the fire was due to the hydrogen alone, or to the thermite-like materials in the coating of the ship. They decided that both contributed.
- The Hindenburg disaster is depicted on the cover of the first Led Zeppelin album.
- Pokémon Diamond and Pearl introduced the Ghost/Flying-type, Drifloon, and its evolution, Drifblim, styled after a child's balloon and a hot air balloon, respectively. The joke of naming one "Hindenburg" was fairly obvious and commonly done, thanks in part to them learning Explosion and having an Ability whose Japanese name is "Detonation". Then the fifth generation of games, whose region is based on an American location (New York City and New Jersey) for the first time gave these Pokémon an Ability exclusive to them that grants a Status Buff while Burned. Oh yeah, and in this generation Drifblim now learns Explosion at level 56, instead of 51...
- Solatorobo's first level is aboard an airship named the Hindenburg. Of course, it crashes in a ball of flames, though this time, the culprit is Lares.
- In Brütal Legend, the guitar solo "Bring it on Home" summons a giant flaming Zeppelin airship on top of the enemies, in reference to both the Led Zeppelin album above and the Hindenburg disaster.
- The original DuckTales managed to combine this airship with the Titanic in one episode.
- Parodied on Family Guy:
Peter: To the Hindenpeter!
- Helium was only available in the United States at the time, and that country wasn't selling it to any European power.
- The Hindenburg Disaster occurred on May 6th