Military Intrigue or Static
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
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
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.