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
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