Dr. Hugo Eckener was the chairman of the Zeppelin Company, the company that built the Hindenburg. While the Hindenburg was envisioned as the first in a large fleet, this plan was quickly scrapped when the hydrogen fueled aircraft encountered disaster at a landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey (USA) on May 6, 1937, 7:25pm after a transatlantic flight.
Given the common perception that hydrogen is a dangerous gas, the reasons for its use and its function in the craft should be discussed, as well as the engineering in the craft itself. To begin with, the Hindenburg was an engineering marvel. This airship measured 245m in length, 41m in diameter, had a range of 14000km, held 211890 cubic meters of gas, weighed 317513 kg, and could carry 72 passengers and a crew of 55. It had four 1200 hp Mercedes Benz engines that could power it at a speed of 135km/h. Despite its massive size and weight, the Zeppelin's performance was far superior to the very primitive airplanes of the time. The Hindenburg remains remarkable today because it retains the record for the largest aircraft even flown.
Dr. Eckener had decided that helium, a non-flammable gas, should be used as the lifting gas for this immense vehicle. However, helium had to be obtained from the United States because they possessed the sole natural sources available. Fearing possible military uses of the Zeppelin, the U.S. Congress passed the Helium Control Act which prevented the Zeppelin Company from importing helium from the United States. As a result, the company had to use hydrogen in order to make the Hindenburg fly. On March 4, 1936, the Hindenburg began its flights, carrying passengers across the Atlantic.
Because of the political blockades that were put in place to prevent the acquisition of non-flammable helium, the Zeppelin engineers were forced to design a means of making the carrying of flammable hydrogen as safe as possible. Excellently conceived safety precautions were successfully applied, an example of which is that the craft even contained a smoking room built with an anti-chamber airlock so that passengers could safely smoke without the sparks or flames effecting the flammable gas on the ship.
Given the emphasis on safety in the design of the Hindenburg, there are several theories about what ultimately caused the fire aboard the Hindenburg. Though none of these theories can be proven, there are several likely scenarios. One is that anti-Nazi groups in America or even an anti-Nazi crew member sabotaged it. Another is that the materials were inherently flammable and that it was merely a matter of time before a fire would occur. Still another is that a spark from a nearby storm may have somehow made contact with the airship.
Whatever the cause of this accident which killed 36 people, including its Captain Ernst Lehmann, airships quickly fell out of favor because of the danger associated with them. The danger associated with hydrogen combined with the refusal of the United States to share the helium it controlled ensured a quick end to the era of the airship.
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