HINDENBURG & the Ghost
30" x 42" x 2", Oil on Canvas, Framed.
Of the 97 passengers on board the airship, 62 survived the mishap. I've
tried to illustrate all the factors in effect on that fateful day, including what must
have been a guardian angel, because the entire event took only a bit more than a minute.
One item you might consider...while looking at the picture: The Hindenburg was
similar in size to the Titanic!.. and filled with inflammatory materials.... Most pictures
illustrate a fire, but I wanted to show the peaceful scene ten minutes before as
the airship floated towards the docking position. The airship had been waiting out an
electrical storm, and finally the green light (above the hanger) indicated it could commence docking.
Additional Comments and Technical Details
--if the hydrogen had in fact
"exploded" there would have been zero survivors from the ship and
probably huge casualties among the numerous, nearby ground-handling crew, and
perhaps onlookers as well. That is a lot of punch, 200,000 or so cubic meters of
hydrogen--if there were any way at all to set it off all at once in a confined
volume so pressure could build up. Fortunately there was no way for this to
Something like that may possibly have happened on notoriously mismanaged
hydrogen ships, such as the French Dixemude (its mishandling was largely the
fault of the French government, which would not buy new gas bags when the old
ones got leaky). I understand that it was reported that on the British R-38
(which the US Navy was buying to become our second rigid, ZR-2) one gas bag
contained 30% or more air. Perhaps such gas bags could indeed explode, though
I've seen experts deny even that.
But any hydrogen cell that either lost so much H2 to the air inside the skin
(but such hydrogen would tend to dissipate away quickly, and there were
ventilation systems in place to make sure it would) as to pose a hazard, or
leaked enough air inward to pose a hazard, would have lost a lot of lift doing
so. The Germans, the most experienced airshipmen in the world, certainly by far
the most experienced with hydrogen, understood not only the hazards but also the
problems that came with loss of lift, and diligently avoided both by stringent
measures to maintain the integrity of the gas bags and the purity of the
hydrogen in them. This does not mean that they were immune to mishap but it does
mean that potentially "explosive" concentrations of oxygen in any gas
cells were most unlikely.
So in no sense was the hydrogen in the Hindenburg explosive. It certainly was
flammable, but so were a great many other components, unfortunately, including
the entire outer skin and the diesel fuel. The evidence is strong that these
materials were the real culprits that day. There is good reason to assert that
in this case, the hydrogen was irrelevant to the catastrophe, for the other
substances very likely consumed the available oxygen
voraciously before the hydrogen had a chance to get any, while still inside the
I suppose it all burned, after it was released by destruction of its
containing vessels and after it had already been lofted, by its own inherent
lightness and by the currents induced by the other burning substances, well
above the falling hull. Once there, its flame would have been pretty
harmless--hydrogen flames don't radiate in the infrared (that comes from carbon)
and aren't visible in daylight. Firemen have been known to walk
right into them with no warning for this reason. They and their "ash"
(water vapor) shoot upward vigorously--in the scenario I outlined
that means even more out of harm's way. The hot licking flames visible in the
have all been from the skin (a mixture of cotton, acetate dope, and aluminum
powder, practically guncotton!) fuel, and other conventional flammables
containing carbon and other heavy elements that radiate in infrared. In
short, had the ship been filled with helium it might have burned in just exactly
the same way. A very sobering thought. And yet, over 2/3 the complement aboard
(both passengers and crew) did survive. How likely would
that be if a jet landing with a 100 people aboard were to crash and burn?