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Fowler Associates Labs

 

 

Static Fire Stories Articles & Technical Papers Current News

Military Intrigue or Static Disasters?

by Cynthia Waters

Terrorism, military involvement, covert operations and intrigue - all of these ideas were alleged during the investigation of the crash of TWA Flight 800 on a routine flight from New York to Paris last summer. It was not the first time such allegations had surfaced as a result of a crash.

Sixty years ago this month, the Hindenberg exploded at Lakehurst New Jersey just as it was being tied to its moring after a transatlantic flight. It was Hitler's propaganda machine showing off Nazi technology.

The Zeppelin Company made a big gamble with the Hindenburg. She still holds the record as the largest aircraft ever to fly. The majestic and awe-inspiring Hindenburg was meant to be the first of a fleet. Fate, however, dictated that she was to be the last of her kind.

The Hindenburg was a marvel of zeppelin design. Her sheer size was truly an engineering masterpiece. The Zeppelin Company decided that with this new zeppelin, they would increase gas volume by not only making her the longest they could, but also by radically increasing her girth. Where the first Graf Zeppelin was an impressive 100 feet in diameter, the Hindenburg measured 135 feet and 1 inch. With her massive diameter and her impressive length, the Hindenburg carried a gas volume of 7,062,000 cubic feet. This volume, when filled with hydrogen, produced an astounding 242.2 tons of gross lift. The useful lift (the lift left after you subtract the weight of the structure from the gross lift) was still 112.1 tons. Astounding weight even by today's standards but mind-blowing in the 1930's. At this point in world aviation, airplanes could fly only short distances with constant refueling and as little weight as possible. The Hindenberg had no problem flying the oceans. Europe to America was just two days.

The Hindenburg is most famous for her fiery death which should have never happened since she was not meant to be filled with hydrogen at all. Dr. Hugo Eckner, Chairman of Zeppelin, had decided that it would be wise to inflate his new ship with nonflammable helium. The problem was that Germany had no helium.

The United States, having the only natural deposits of helium in the world, was getting more and more suspicious of Hitler and his new Third Reich. Government officials wondered if the Zeppelin could be used for military purposes as they were in World War One. Favor of giving Dr. Eckner the helium was waning. This was supremely frustrating to Dr. Eckner who was openly critical of the Nazi government.

In order to keep the Zeppelin Company afloat during the hard times of the depression, large sums of money had been accepted by the now powerful National Socialist Party. The majestic airships Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin were emblazoned with the swastika and had already been flown on many propaganda flights over Germany dropping pamphlets and generally showing off the power of the Nazi movement.

Even after a meeting between Eckner and President Roosevelt, the U.S. Congress adopted The Helium Control Act which would make it impossible for the Zeppelin Company to obtain helium for their new ship.

With this turn of events, the Hindenburg was inflated with the volatile gas hydrogen and covered in a flammable waterproof skin. The radio announcer who covered the incident "live", said that it had just started raining as the Hindenberg dropped its cables to the people to pull it in to the tower.

After a long investigation and many mysterious allegations, it was finally determined that the Hindenberg exploded and crashed due to the combustion of the hydrogen when it touched the mooring tower and a spark jumped, catching the skin on fire. The whole dirigible exploded and crashed in seconds. Fortunately, out of hundreds on board, only 37 died. After this static tragedy, all lighter than air crafts were filled with helium which is nonflammable.

Six decades later, the same allegations of terrorism, military involvement, covert operations and intrigue arose again over the explosion of TWA Flight 800. After more than six months of investigation, engineers from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are leaning toward several possible mechanical explanations for the explosion. The most plausible of which is linked to the combustion of highly volatile fuel vapor by a small electrostatic discharge.

Much time has been spent investigating the center fuel tank of the aircraft, which is located between the wings and under the passenger cabin. Although it was nearly empty upon takeoff, there was probably enough fuel sloshing around in the tank to build up fuel vapors. An explosion there, coupled with the fuel in the other tanks, would have been enough to bring the plane down.

Several possibilities have been explored as to the ignition source. The first is a static field created by a pinhole leak in the fuel feeder line that connects the fuel tanks in the wings and runs through the center tank. Although planes are built to minimize the risk of sparks, the build-up of static electricity caused by the flow of fuel is an established phenomenon. A gap in the ends of a safety wire coupling section of the fuel line could have provided enough of a spark to ignite the leak.

Another possibility is that a static field around the fuel feeder line between the wing tanks could have been caused by a break in the electrical grounding system on board the aircraft. A minor contact within the fuel tank could have set off the static field and ignited the vapors.

Lacking a definitive explanation, NTSB officials have recommended that aircraft carry extra fuel in their center tanks to keep the tanks below the fuel flash point and reduce the risk of fuel vapor buildup.

One can only wonder how often electrostatic discharge is the real culprit in mysterious incidents.

 

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