The Hindenburg Myth

The second most common question asked about hydrogen is:

“Didn’t hydrogen blow up the Hindenburg?”   The answer is a definite NO.

The explosion of the luxury airship Hindenburg at Lakehurst, NJ on May 6, 1937, serves as one of the most spectacular moments recorded by the media.  But knowing the actual nature of the Hindenburg disaster, as well as knowing the behavior of hydrogen allows us to dispel this stigma associated with hydrogen:

The Facts on the Hindenburg Disaster:

  1. The bags of hydrogen that provided the lifting force for the Hindenburg were NOT the main contributor to the fire.
    • The surface of the ship was coated with a combination of dark iron oxide and reflective aluminum paint.
    • These components are extremely flammable and burn at a tremendously energetic rate once ignited.
    • The skin of the airship was ignited by electrical discharge from the clouds while docking during an electrical storm.
    • This reaction has been proven chemically for years, and was demonstrated with actual remnants of the Hindenburg sixty years later, which burned as vigorously as on the day of the disaster.*
  2. The hydrogen burned quickly, safely, above the occupants.
    • When the escaping hydrogen was ignited by the burning skin of the airship, it burned far above the airship, and was completely consumed within 60 seconds of the ignition.
    • During this period of time, the airship descended to the ground from the 150-foot docking tower.
  3. Almost all deaths were caused by jumping or falling from the airship.
    • Of the 35 deaths from the disaster, 33 were caused by jumping or falling.
    • Only two deaths were caused by burning, and it is likely that those two were from close proximity to the burning skin of the airship, or from the stores of diesel fuel that were ignited by the covering.
    • Whereas the hydrogen burned within one (1) minute of ignition, the diesel fires burned for up to ten (10) hours after the ignition.
  4. The Hindenburg would have burned if it had been filled with inert helium gas.
    • Even if the Hindenburg had not been lifted by hydrogen, the ignition of the covering would still have happened, and would then have set ablaze the diesel stores, resulting in the same disaster.
  5. The main cause of the disaster was pilot error.
    • The only way to prevent the disaster would have been if the pilot had chosen to land in better conditions elsewhere, which was very feasible, considering he had had enough fuel remaining to reach all the way to California.
    • The fully loaded range of diesel fuel was about 10,000 miles or about 5 to 6 days at cruise speed.

*Regardless of much speculation, translation of a letter handwritten in German on June 28, 1937, by Hindenburg investigator and electrical engineer Otto Beyersdorff states, “The actual cause of the fire was the extreme easy flammability of the covering material brought about by discharges of an electrostatic nature…”   Recently, NASA investigator Dr. Addison Bain has verified this finding by scientific experiments that duplicated the vigorous ignition by static discharge to the aluminum powder filled covering material.   Spectacular colors of this type of combustion were produced from the burning skin of the giant airship.   Dr. Bain concluded that the Hindenburg would have burned and crashed even if helium would have been used as the lifting gas.   Dr. Bain noted that the particular type of aluminum powder particles, which are flake like in shape, are particularly sensitive to electrical discharge. SOURCE: National Hydrogen Association, Excerpted from The Philospher Mechanic by Roy McAlister.