Friday, May 5, 2017


5/6/1937 - "Oh the humanity! ... This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed!"  Radio announcer Herbert Morrison's horrified eyewitness account still resonating from 79 years ago, in another century when powered flight is only three decades removed from the Wright Brothers' first Kitty Hawk moment, the still most famous disaster in aviation history takes place at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station when the German airship, LZ 128 HINDENBURG, catches fire while attempting to land.
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Seconds Into The Fire
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National And Global Headlines

Named after the late WWI Field Marshal and president of Germany from 1925 until 1934 (the ship is almost named the Hitler), the dirigible Hindenburg is built and designed by the Zeppelin Company for the German Zeppelin Airline Company (which is partially owned and takes directions from the Nazi government). Constructed at the town of Friedrichshafen, near the shores of Lake Constance, to fly paying customers back-and-forth across the Atlantic Ocean (it is just a decade since Charles Lindbergh becomes the first person to accomplish the feat on a non-stop flight) in first class luxury (and as a symbol of Germany industrial might ... unsurprisingly, after Max Schmeling beats Joe Louis and becomes the heavyweight boxing champion, Hitler has him fly home on the Hindenburg), it takes five years and roughly $2,600,000 (over $35,000 in today's money) to ready the ship for its March 4, 1936 maiden voyage through the skies.
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Paul von Hindenburg
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Under Construction
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First Flight

Using 7,000,000 cubic feet of highly combustible hydrogen gas for the craft's lift capabilities (instead of more expensive, but safer helium ... at the time, the use of helium in America is also illegal), the dirigible is 803.8 feet long, with a diameter of 135.1 feet ... and is still the largest object to ever fly.  Powered by four Daimler-Benz DB 602 diesel engines, the Hindenburg is able to travel at a maximum speed of 85 mph.    
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Size Contrast - The Hindenburg, Boeing 747 and The Titanic

It's insides are designed by architect and interior designer Fritz August Breuhaus (he has design experience with Pullman train coaches, ocean liners, and warships for the German Navy) and consists of two decks to handle a maximum capacity load of 61 crew members and 72 passengers. The upper "A" deck contains small passenger quarters in its middle, flanked by two large public areas to either side ... a dining room on the port side, and a lounge and writing room on the starboard side. The lower "B" deck consists of washrooms, a mess hall for the crew, and a smoking lounge.  Long slanted windows run the length of both decks, with the expectation that most of the passengers will spend the majority of their time in the Hindenburg's public spaces.
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The Dining Room
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Lounge With World Map
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Two Berth Passenger Cabin
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First flight a success (the 87 passengers and crew include the chairman of the Zeppelin Company, a representative of the German Air Ministry, the company's eight airship captains, 47 other crew members, and 30 dockyard employees traveling as test passengers), the Hindenburg makes five more trial runs, then a promotional/propaganda flight of 4,100 miles over Germany, before making its first commercial jaunt over the Atlantic, a four-day excursion to South America's playground for the rich and famous, Rio de Janeiro (the journey however takes nine days due to a pair of faulty engines that almost allow winds to blow the aircraft over the Sahara Desert).  In all, the dirigible will make 63 flights before coming down for good in New Jersey in 1937 (a one-way ticket for the America-Germany route costs $400 in 1936, and $450 in 1937, compared to a first class cabin on the Queen Mary costing $240 in 1937).
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Propaganda Dropped By The Hindenburg
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Enjoying The View
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Over New York City
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Moored At Lakehurst, New Jersey
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Zeppekin Passenger Label Pins

Captained for the first time by 45-year-old Max Pruss (a veteran of flying on dirigibles, working his way up to captain after serving as elevatorman on zeppelins during WWI) on its second North American flight of the 1937 season, the Hindenburg is scheduled to put down in New Jersey on the morning of May 6, but is prevented from doing so by strong headwinds, and then inclement weather over portions of the American east coast (so Pruss spends the day waiting for better conditions by taking the ship on a sight-seeing tour over Manhattan Island and the New Jersey seaside).  Okay finally received that he can proceed on to Lakehurst, Captain Pruss is flying at 650 feet when he begins maneuvering the Hindenburg down for a high landing (or flying moor), in which ropes and mooring cables are dropped to a ground crew that then wenches the dirigible down to the ground.  Almost safe, at 7:25 in the evening, just as a light rain begins to fall and the ground crew grabs the mooring lines, something disastrous happens at the back of the aircraft.      
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Captain Pruss
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After The Crash

Fire ... once lit, the conflagration at the back of the dirigible spreads and in a matter of roughly a little over 30 seconds, the Hindenburg is transformed into a blazing inferno and crashes to the earth.  Holocaust, and yet unbelievably, of the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crewmen), only 35 perish in the fire and crash (plus one ground worker) ... deaths that come from burns, smoke inhalation, being hit by falling debris, and escape jumps that take place from too high ... 13 passengers and 22 of the crew.  A never to be forgotten moment for the survivors ... they experience the randomness of life and death, good luck and bad luck, up close, and very personal (further making a horror of things, a sliding door leading the central foyer and the gangway stairs jams, trapping people on the starboard side of the disintegrating dirigible).  Working near the officer's mess, 14-year-old cabin boy Werner Franz survives due to a water tank bursting above him and putting out the flames around him so he can drop through a nearby hatch to safety.  A vaudeville comic acrobat, Joseph Spah, filming the landing, uses his camera to smash out a window, hangs from the window ledge, and then drops safely to the ground when the Hindenburg is still 20 feet in the air (safety roll on contact with the earth, Spah leaves the event with only a sprained ankle).  Four crewmen in the tail survive, though closest to where the fire is believed to have started, saved by the structure of the lower back fin of the Hindenburg, while two crewmen at the bow live because they are standing next to two huge air vents which because of the fire, suck cool air from outside over the men.
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And there are of course, stories of heroism too.  Down and safe, Captain Pruss re-enters the burning Hindenburg and tries to rescue passengers and crew, burning himself so badly that at a local hospital that night he is given the last rites (surviving, he undergoes months of reconstructive surgery and hospitalization). 50-year-old Captain Ernst Lehmann, a pilot of both the Hindenberg, and its sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin, on board strictly to observe and help out rookie Pruss if necessary, also gets out safe, and goes back to help rescue any survivors, and dies the next day in the hospital from severe burns to his head, arms, and back.  On the ground, Chief Petty Officer Frederick J. "Bull" Tobin, an airship veteran, survivor of the crash of the dirigible USS Shenandoah in 1925, and the leader of the docking crew, yells at his men as the ship catches fire, "Navy men, STAND FAST ... WE'VE GOT TO GET THOSE PEOPLE OUT OF THERE!" ... and they do, risking their own lives to rush into the flames and assist survivors in getting out.  
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Two Of The Injured - Otto And Elsa Ernst
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U.S. Sailors Trying To Help
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Werner Franz (The Kid) And Fellow Survivor Heinrich Kubis
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German Victims Mass Funeral

After, the human need to know "why" is never answered, with various theories as to the cause of the fire that include the aircraft was sabotaged by the Nazis so they could place the blame for the disaster on any of their many enemies, sabotaged to embarrass the Nazi regime, a static spark goes rogue, a lightning hit, engine failure, the use of incendiary paint on the ship's outer skin, a hydrogen leak, a puncture in one of the gas cells, a fuel leak, and someone firing a Luger (the pistol is found in the wreckage) into on of the gas cells. No one to this day knows why!    
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The Morning After

And those that might have been around to provide the answer are all now gone ... Werner Franz, the 14-year-old that survives getting soaked with water and jumping through a hatch, is the last member of the crew to pass away, dying at the age of 92 in 2014, while Werner G. Doehner, an 8-year-old passenger in 1937 (he loses his father and sister in the disaster, is now 88, the last person still living to be aboard the Hindenburg when it goes to its doom. 
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Doehner After
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Recovered Silverware
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Partially Burnt Piece Of Mail
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Disaster Site Marker

To the dead, the survivors of the disaster, and all its witnesses, rest in peace!
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Once Upon A Time

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