HINDENBURG TOLL IS SET AT 35
The Asbury Park Evening Press led its final edition for Friday, May 7, with a headline confirming the death toll from the preceding evening’s disastrous crash of the German Airship Hindenburg. The crash had occurred at the US Navy’s airship facility, Naval Station Lakehurst, only about 25 miles from the newspaper’s offices, and its reporters had witnessed the fire which destroyed the airship in less than a minute. Its cause was the subject of speculation in its day, and remains the subject of speculation today, but one thing known for sure is that the fire was fueled by the hydrogen used in the Hindenburg’s lifting bags.
Helium was a safer alternative to hydrogen in Airships and the United States had at the time a virtual monopoly on helium. However, despite German pleas to allow them to purchase helium for use in its commercial airships, the United States was prevented by law from selling the gas to Germany. The Helium Gas Control Act of 1927 banned sale of the gas for export. Helium was difficult to produce and expensive to procure and since it was the preferred gas for use in US Navy airships, the United States had little strategic interest in providing the gas to the Germans.
The Hindenburg is often believed to have crashed on its first voyage to America, which is incorrect. The airship operated successfully, and profitably, for 14 months prior to the disaster. The ship’s sister in operation, but not in design, the Graf Zeppelin, had successfully circumnavigated the globe. Both airships were noted for the luxurious accommodations for their passengers, the sumptuousness of their cuisine, and the efficiency of the German staff. They competed with the transatlantic liners of day, such as Queen Mary, France’s Normandie, and Germany’s own Bremen, offering an advantage of speed.
Hindenburg’s crash was filmed and broadcast live on radio as it occurred, two eventualities which make it the most famous airship crash, given the spectacular ball of flame which it produced. It was neither the first nor the worst airship crash in terms of casualties. The US Navy lost its airship R38 in 1921, when 44 were killed. Fifty were killed in the explosion of France’s Dixmude in 1923, and the loss of the US Navy airship USS Akron in 1933 resulted in 73 deaths. Hindenburg’s accident, in which 35 died and 62 survived, was permanently scored into the minds of all who saw the film, and it spelled the end of airship travel.
But maybe not the end, maybe just a lengthy coma. In 2017 more than a dozen airships were in operation and several companies offered tourist flights in Europe and North America. In this they are following the example of the Hindenburg, which in 1936 took wealthy tourists, including Pan American World Airways President Juan Trippe, on a tourist flight from Lakehurst to Boston and back, a trip intended to stimulate investment in the company. Airships may well again become a factor in commercial aviation, not for their speed, but for their novelty and luxury.