May 6, 2022

The Hindenburg Disaster

The Hindenburg Disaster

May 6, 1937. The Hindenburg, the largest rigid airship ever built, and the pride of Nazi Germany, bursts into flames, killing 36 people.


Cold Open

It’s August 15th, 1918 at the Wellington Pier Pavillion in Great Yarmouth, England; in the final months of World War One.

Bertie Cadbury, the heir to the Cadbury chocolate fortune, enjoys a night of music at a charity event. In addition to being a wealthy scion, Bertie is a pilot for the RAF, the Royal Air Force. But tonight, he tries his best to enjoy himself and forget the war that’s been raging across Europe for years. But at about 8:45 PM, Bertie feels a tap on his shoulder. He looks up and sees an RAF orderly standing over him. The orderly whispers, “You’re needed at HQ, sir.”

Immediately, Bertie stands and calmly walks out of the pavilion.

Once he’s outside, Bertie breaks into an open run. As he and the orderly sprint for his parked Ford nearby, the orderly tells Bertie that three German zeppelin airships have been spotted over the sea, less than fifty miles away.

Bertie hops into his car and speeds off. Minutes later, he arrives at an airfield and gets ready for flight.

He and his gunner climb into their DH4 aircraft and take to the skies. At 9:45 PM, Bertie spots the zeppelins flying in a “V” formation over the water.

The airships alter course and start to climb. And Bertie follows them. He pushes past an altitude of 16,000 ft. And soon, Bertie has one of the zeppelins in his sights.

Incendiary bullets stream across the sky and pound the side of the zeppelin. Bertie watches as a hole rips open in the German airship.

Then he banks steeply away to safety as fire consumes the zeppelin causing it to plummet into the sea. 

Throughout World War I, German zeppelins have plagued British cities. Airship attacks have led to many casualties, and they’ve consistently struck fear and amazement into anyone who’s seen them emerging from dark clouds. Unlike balloons, the rigid airships, or dirigibles, are steerable and supported by an internal framework. And to much of the British public, the zeppelins look like something out of a science fiction novel. 

But by 1918, the British military has developed weapons to effectively combat German airships. The age of the militarized zeppelin is coming to an end. But after the war, German engineers and designers will transform the wartime zeppelin into a commercial aircraft meant to compete with the popular luxury ocean liners of the day.

This effort will lead to the construction of the largest rigid airship ever built, the Hindenburg. In the 1930s, the Hindenburg will amaze onlookers all over the world, and become a symbol of Nazi ingenuity. Many will come to believe the zeppelin represents the future of air travel. But those beliefs will be shattered when the Hindenburg crashes and burns, killing 36 people, on May 6th, 1937.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 6th: The Hindenburg Disaster.

Act One: The Graf Zeppelin

It’s October 13th, 1928 aboard the Graf Zeppelin, high over the Atlantic Ocean. Captain Hugo Eckener tries to regain control as the airship flies into a storm at top speed. Hugo is tense but refuses to panic. He knows airships better than anyone and is confident he can steer it to safety.

In 1908, Hugo went to work for Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, inventor of the rigid airship. After serving as an airship pilot instructor during the war, Hugo replaced the late count as head of the Zeppelin Company. Now, Hugo is commanding this airship, the Graf Zeppelin, on its maiden transatlantic voyage designed to show the world that German airships can usher in a new era of commercial travel.

But just as Hugo gets control of the Graf Zeppelin, one of his crew runs in to deliver bad news: winds have torn the cover off the port fin. Hugo knows if they don’t fix the problem, they could lose control of the ship entirely. Hugo leaps into action. He orders four of his crew to attempt a daring in-flight repair and sends out a distress signal, while he tries desperately to maintain control of the aircraft.

Soon, news of the distress signal gets picked up by the press, and stories circulate about the impending doom of the Graf Zeppelin. But the crew makes the necessary repairs, and Hugo successfully leads the airship, and his crew, safely out of the storm.  

Two days later, on October 15th, the Graf Zeppelin lands at the United States naval base in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Hugo fears the bad press has dashed any hope of selling the public on his vision of luxury airship travel.

But to his surprise, the American people give him and his men a hero’s welcome. The City of New York throws them a parade. And many Americans who gather to see the airship’s arrival feel as though they’re witnessing the future. And on both sides of the Atlantic, investors take notice.

When Hugo returns to Germany, money flows into the Zeppelin Company to support the construction of the next generation of German airships. Hugo wants to use that money to produce a dirigible, unlike anything the world has seen.

But Hugo has his work cut out for him. As much as he loves airships, he knows the current designs are deeply flawed and accident-prone. In October of 1930, Hugo learns of a recent British airship incident that killed several passengers and crewmembers. Hugo investigates the crash and discovers that it wasn’t the impact that killed them. Instead, it was the Hydrogen, the lifting agent on most airships, that caught fire and led to the deaths onboard.

So Hugo decides the Zeppelin Company’s next great airship will use a non-flammable lifting agent, helium. But there's only one place to get it: America, the world's only major source of helium at the time. But Hugo also knows securing the helium from America will not be an easy task. United States' monopoly on the gas gives the country a huge advantage over its European rivals. And to keep it that way, the American government banned the exportation of helium in 1925. Still, Hugo has figured out a way to work around the law: he plans to cozy up to as many politicians and wealthy businessmen as it takes to get the helium he needs.

And in the fall of 1931, construction begins on the LZ 129, which will come to be known as the Hindenburg. It will be the largest rigid airship ever built, roughly 804 feet long, three times longer than a modern Boeing 747, and only 80 feet shorter than the Titanic. And indeed, luxury ocean liners serve as the inspiration for the Hindenburg’s interior. If everything goes according to plan, first class, or “A Deck” passengers, will enjoy fine dining, live music, an opulent lounge, and well-appointed sleeping cabins.

But in 1932 and 1933, nothing goes as planned. The Depression has caused economic woes in America and Europe since 1929. Throughout these years, the Zeppelin Company weathered the storm with past profits and a steady flow of new investments. But eventually, the Depression catches up with the firm. Investors flee, and the Zeppelin Company’s once-full coffers run dry. In the face of this difficult economic reality, construction on the Hindenburg stalls.

But then in 1934, Hugo’s Hindenburg is rescued by Nazi Minister of Propaganda: Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels believes the Hindenburg will be a symbol for Nazi innovation and power. He gives millions of German marks from his Nazi propaganda department to Hugo’s company in order to finish the Hindenburg. And not to be outdone by Goebbels, fellow Nazi leader Herrmann Göring funnels even more nazi money into the program.

But these political investments come with strings attached. The Nazis are willing to support Hugo’s company financially, but they want control over how the money is spent. And they have no interest in paying the Americans the vast amount it would require to get the helium Hugo needs for the Hindenburg.

Hugo is forced to accept the fact that Helium is off the table. The Hindenburg will be a hydrogen airship just like the zeppelins that came before. But that’s not the only change in store. By the time the Hindenburg is ready to fly, Hugo will be cast aside by the Nazi regime, and Joseph Goebbels will take full control of his creation.

Act Two: The Hindenburg as Nazi propaganda

It’s March of 1936 at Zeppelin Company headquarters. Hugo storms into the office of Captain Ernst Lehmann, yelling before the door even closes behind him. Hugo accuses the Captain of jeopardizing the Hindenburg and the future of the entire zeppelin program.

In preparation for its first transatlantic test flight, the Hindenburg was scheduled to fly endurance trials, a necessary safety precaution. But Captain Lehmann, at the request of Goebbels, canceled the trials and instead, took the Hindenburg on a Nazi propaganda flight. During the trip, the Hindenburg was damaged in a storm.

As he roars at Captain Lehmann, Hugo argues that the damage suffered on the propaganda tour could delay Hindenburg's first major journey across the ocean. Captain Lehmann listens quietly as Hugo’s tirade reaches its peak and finally comes to an end.

Lehmann knows full well that Hugo is not really in charge of the project. He acceded control the moment Joseph Goebbels put Nazi money into the company. Hugo lost even more say-so when Herrmann Göring got involved and started making changes. Göring split the Zeppelin Company into two separate entities: one to build airships and one to operate them. The Nazis then stripped Hugo of much of his power and put Captain Lehmannin in charge of operations. The Captain isn't one to deny a direct request from Joseph Goebbels, even if it does jeopardize the safety of the Hindenburg.

Soon enough, Goebbels learns about Hugo’s outburst. The propaganda minister makes it clear that Hugo’s name and image are no longer to be used in any German press covering the Hindenburg or anything else. For all intents and purposes, Hugo’s leadership on the project he conceived and spearheaded is done. 

With Hugo sidelined, Goebbels now has free reign over the entire zeppelin program, and complete control of the Hindenburg. Goebbels quickly has the airship decked out with Nazi swastikas, and uses the ship to inspire crowds across Germany, and drop Nazi leaflets from the sky. But Goebbels doesn’t just want to impress the German public, he wants to impress the entire world.

Throughout spring and summer of 1936, Goebbels focuses on what he believes will be his greatest propaganda triumph to date: The Berlin Olympics. And he wants the Hindenburg to be a part of the show.

On August 1st, 1936, Goebbels’ hopes come to fruition:

"NEWSREEL: The picture of the opening of the eleventh and greatest Olympic games of modern times is one that will live forever in the memories of those who had the privilege of witnessing them…

The giant Hindenburg points the way to the arena. A runner with a flaming torch, which was lighted in Athens, birthplace of the Olympic games, arrives at the Lustgarten to be saluted."

After German Chancellor Adolf Hitler officially opens the games, the Hindenburg performs a low-level flyover of Olympic Stadium in Berlin. The Zeppelin is a huge hit with the crowd, and soon, images of the great airship adorned with the Nazi insignia appear in papers and newsreels around the globe. The Hindenburg then captures the attention of wealthy travelers and American and European transportation companies alike. The Nazi party decides it’s almost time for their modern air travel marvel to make its commercial transatlantic debut.

On May 6th, 1936, the Hindenburg sets out from Germany for the United States on its first passenger flight across the north Atlantic. Even though the Nazis have sidelined Hugo, much of his vision for the Hindenburg is still intact. The wealthy travelers and reporters on the flight take in original works of art on the A Deck, they eat sumptuous meals in the ship’s restaurant, and they listen to music played on a specially-designed lightweight piano. The flight even features the first Catholic Mass ever conducted in the air.

The Hindenburg's first trip to the United States is a success. Passengers discover they can enjoy a taste of the highlife just like they would on a luxury ocean liner. But they can make the crossing in two and a half days or less, instead of the five to ten days the journey takes on the water.

As 1936 comes to a close, the Hindenburg makes its 34th trip across the Atlantic. Over 3,500 passengers have flown on the airship, and interest from the public and the press only continues to grow. The Hindenburg marks the dawn of commercial luxury air travel, just as Hugo dreamed. But just one year to the day, after the Hindenburg’s first passenger flight across the north Atlantic, that dream will come to a horrific, fiery end.

Act Three: The Disaster

It’s almost 7:25 PM on May 6th, 1937 at an airfield in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Reporter Herbert Morrison pulls his topcoat tight to protect his twill suit from the rain. He shields his eyes from the heavy drops and gazes out toward the horizon. Herbert looks back to his engineer, Charlie, and gets the sign that they’re ready to record.

Herbert has been sent to New Jersey to cover the Hindenburg landing for radio station WLS in Chicago. Herbert doesn’t have the capacity to broadcast live, but he’s going to record material that can be used for a delayed radio broadcast later.

And soon enough, Herbert sees the Hindenburg approaching. He sets the scene, commenting on the beauty of watching the zeppelin come into dock. But then, something goes wrong. Herbert struggles to relay what he’s watching:

"HERBERT: It's burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It's fire, and it's (unintelligible) terrible... Oh, my... Get out of the way, please! It's burning, bursting into flames, and the... and it's falling on the mooring mast and all the folks between -- oh, this is terrible; this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh, it's...its flames... Crashing, oh! Four or five hundred feet into the sky and it... it's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke, and it's flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity."

It takes only about 90 seconds for the Hindenburg to crash to the ground and burn to ash. Remarkably, many of those onboard leap out of the ship in time to save themselves. 62 people survive. But 13 passengers, 22 crewmembers, and a ground worker all perish. Captain Ernst Lehmann will be counted among the dead when he succumbs to burns and injuries the following day.

Hearing the news of the Hindenburg's emulation, some in the Nazi party claim that airship must have been attacked. But an American investigation shows the disaster was an accident. For his part, Hugo Eckener agrees. After reviewing the evidence, he suggests that a pilot maneuver most likely caused a bracing wire on the ship to snap and then slash open a gas cell. Hugo suggests that hydrogen was then released into the air and ignited by an electromagnetic discharge. Many will argue that if helium had been used instead, the disaster would have been avoided.

The destruction of the largest rigid airship ever built doesn’t end zeppelin flights immediately, but it casts a dark cloud over the budding industry. By the end of the 1930s, as airplanes become safer and faster, commercial air travel moves on from the now-obsolete zeppelins. Hugo’s vision of a sky filled with airships will never come to pass, in no small part due to the Hindenburg’s fateful end on May 6th, 1937.


Next on History Daily. May 9th, 1945. The Russians celebrate Victory Day, one day after the Nazi's surrender bringing an end to World War II in Europe.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.