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March 1936: First flight of the Hindenberg

The maiden test flights of the Zeppelin Hindenberg gave no hint of the disaster to come

Hindsight is a wonderful and terrible thing. There was no way that out predecessors at the first Engineer Towers on the Strand could have known that Hindenberg would become a by-word for disaster and hubris when they announced in a brief item at the front of the journal that the Zeppelin Hindenberg had made its first trial flight.


Hindenberg in flight

200 men brought the airship out of its hanger for a three-hour trip over Lake Constance, with its designer, Dr Hugo Eckener, at the controls and a former pilot of the Graf Zeppelin, Captain Lehmann, on board.  Further test-flights saw Hindenberg overfly Munich and Augsberg, all of which were satisfactory. The first flight with paying passengers was scheduled for the end of the month.


Hindenberg’s bridge (left) and engine gondola

It wasn’t until the following May that disaster overtook the Hindenberg. In another brief item follwoed by a longer piece and some drawings, The Engineer reported that the airship had come into land after its first round voyage of the year, delayed by heavy winds over Newfoundland. After avoiding a thunderstorm at its landing ground at Lakenhurst Airport in New Jersey, its crew had just thrown its mooring lines to the ground when a sudden flash of fire from the rear of the ship spread rapidly, consuming the whole airship in seconds. Of the 100 people on board, 35 died, including Captain Lehmann.


The Engineer’s line-drawing of Hindenberg

It’s still not known what caused the disaster. Most theories asume that a spark of some kind, possibly resulting from the thunderstorm, caused the ignition, and recently the idea that a compound used to ‘dope’ (shrink) the airship’s fabric skin, which contained a highly flammable mixture of iron oxide and aluminium-impregnated cellulose acetate butyrate, burned through very rapidly and ignited the hydrogen flotation-bags inside the ship.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Fellow Engineers and enthusiasts of lighter-than (and heavier than) air craft might enjoy a recently published book "Airship on a Shoe string" which describes the trials and tribulations of the earliest UK airship designers and makers. In fact their relationship with the Zeppelin Company was good: they actually bought their 'gas-bags' from the Zeppelin Co in Lindau on the Bodenzee.

    Amongst those involved was Barnes Wallis and out of the technology of making the structure of airships came that for the Wellington bomber) and Nevil Shute Norway-Engineer turned author.

    I must declare an interest: I had the privilege of proof-reading the manuscript before publication -which can be bought via a mail-order house with a name the same as a large river in S America!
    Mike B

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  • Whilst I doubt Airships will ever be a commercial success, I must confess to a sneaky liking for them. They have a romanticism missing from the flying cattle trucks that are modern airliners.
    It is also gratifying that a theory I had seen and put forward in another blog that it was possibly the outer coating (dope) that was the primary cause of the fire and was roundly pooh-poohed by someone is given credence here.

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  • I first read about the aluminium oxide coating being the cause in John Emsley's book Nature's Building Blocks. This book is the finest layman's guide to the elements published.

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