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Static Fire Stories Articles & Technical Papers Current News

The Hindenburg:
Was Hydrogen Really To Blame?

Based On An Article by Mariette DiChristina, Popular Science, Nov. 1997

Mariette DiChristina's article What Really Downed the Hindenburg appeared in the November, 1997 issue of Popular Science. DiChristina reported on years of research conducted by Addison Bain, a retired NASA engineer, into the crash of the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937.

Bain, who managed hydrogen programs at NASA, had always been curious about the cause of the disaster. It had been held for years that the Hindenburg crashed because free hydrogen aboard the craft had been ignited by a natural electrical discharge or by sabotage. One of the things that made him doubtful of this theory was his knowledge of hydrogen. He understood that hydrogen does not burn as a red hot fire as shown in all the famous photographs of the tragedy. A hydrogen fire radiates little heat and is barely visible to the unaided eye.

Bain soon became obsessed with the Hindenburg and spent most of his spare time in research. His work took him from the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC to archives in Maryland, the Fire Sciences Lab in Montana, and finally into contact with Richard Van Treuren, a member of the Lighter-Than-Air Society in Akron, Ohio.

Through his contact with Van Treuren, Bain discovered that pieces of the Hindenburg's skin still existed. He traveled all over the country buying whatever original materials, papers and books he could from collectors. He was even able to obtain a small clipping of the swastika painted on the Hindenburg's side from a collector in Chicago, Cheryl Gantz, who heads up the Zeppelin Collectors Club.

Bain approached researchers at NASA who all agreed to donate their free time to work on "Project H". Their first task was to examine the materials to determine what was in the fabric that covered the Hindenburg. By using an infrared spectrograph and a scanning electron microscope, the scientists were able to discover the chemical signatures of the organic compounds and elements present in the fabric.

The Hindenburg was covered with a cotton fabric that had been swabbed with a doping compound to protect and strengthen it. Unfortunately, the doping compound contained a cellulose acetate or nitrate (used in gunpowder). This compound was followed by a coating of aluminum powder (which is used in rocket fuel). Additionally, the structure was held together using wood spacers and ramie cord; the furnishings were make of silk and other fabrics; and the skeleton itself was duralumin coated with lacquer. Added together, all of these made the craft itself highly flammable. In DiChristina's article, Bain was quoted as saying that perhaps "... the moral of the story is, don't paint your airship with rocket fuel."

In support of Bain's theory that the fire was started by the fabric's flammability in a charged atmosphere were two letters that he discovered in a German archive. The letters were written in 1937 by Otto Beyerstock, an electrical engineer who had incinerated pieces of Hindenburg fabric during electrical tests conducted at the direction of the Zeppelin Company. Beyerstock ruled out the idea that hydrogen could have started the fire. He asserted that the same outcome would have occurred if a similar craft flew under the same atmospheric conditions but with noncombustible helium instead of hydrogen as the lifting fuel. As a matter of fact, Bain discovered that such a fire did occur in California in 1935 when a helium-filled airship with an acetate-aluminum skin burned near Point Sur.

Bain has several detractors that insist that the cause of the fire that consumed the Hindenburg in less than 60 seconds was in fact the hydrogen on board. They maintain that it would have taken perhaps an hour for the cover alone to burn.

Addison Bain has given us yet another mystery in the most famous air disaster of our time. For more information on Mariette DiChristina's article, as well as detailed drawings of the Hindenburg itself, explore the Popular Science website at www.popsci.com.

 

 

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