The Hindenburg Disaster
A Compelling Theory of Probable Cause and Effect
By Addison Bain, PH.D.
The research examined the disaster
of the airship Hindenburg, which occurred at Lakehurst, New Jersey,
on May 6, 1937.
For nearly 60 years, the prevailing
hypothesis has been that the Hindenburg's hydrogen gas used for
buoyancy was the basic design flaw. Two separate boards of inquiry
each rationalized the premise of two sets of conditions to justify
the cause, namely the presence of free hydrogen and the subsequent
presence of an ignition source. The investigation process in each
case proceeded down the path of rationalizing the most credible
reason for free hydrogen to materialize and then to rationalize
the most credible source of ignition. Although the airship wreakage
was examined, nothing could be found to conclusively support any
other rationalization. Limited experimental testing was done (such
as gas cell conductivity) but nothing conclusive was reported at
the time that would question the airship design. Eyewitness accounts
and photographic coverage constituted the principal evidence for
Numerous theories were postulated by
outside sources as well as the American and German investigative
teams. These were all categorized and reviewed. In the final reports,
the Hindenburg envelope was never mention as being suspect. In a
newspaper account at the time and then later, as a article in a
magazine, a Ralph Upson, inventor of the metalclad airship, did
question the use of fabrics for airships in hydrogen service. A
Professor Max Dieckmann later conducted fabric test comparisons
but this was oriented toward electrostatic conductivity.
The question the research effort is
intended to address is based on the author's examination of the
original film footage and other documentary evidence in an attempt
to explain certain conspicuous observations as follows.
1. The Hindenburg did not explode,
but burned very rapidly in omni-directional patterns.
2. The 240-ton airship maintained trim
many seconds after the fire initiated.
3. Falling pieces of fabric were aflame
and not self-extinguishing.
4. The inferno colorization is characteristic
of a forest fire, not a hydrogen fire, as experienced by the author.
The purpose of the study was prompted
by these suspicious events. It appeared hydrogen may not have been
the initiating factor, thus perhaps, leading to a different theory
than that established in 1937. The public may have been misled to
assume the disaster as solely a hydrogen fire. If it was not, then
the misconception maintains a negative image about the use of hydrogen.
Finally, the purpose of this study
was to conclude that the Hindenburg disaster was a result of the
frailty of human engineering not unlike the Titanic, Space Shuttle
Challenger and similar disasters.
The initial approach to the study (1990)
was to conduct an exhaustive review of the literature and make contacts
with airship experts and airship historians. The focus was on airship
materials and the author was suspicious of the fabric covering,
having learned that a cellulose nitrate dope with powdered aluminum
was perhaps used on the Hindenburg. The former chemical is the basis
of gunpowder and the latter a fuel component used in solid rocket
During the fall of 1995 and throughout
1996, a number of unexpected events occurred which dramatically
revealed sources of significant information and complemented the
course of the study. Fabric samples were provided from an individual
that had been stationed at Lakehurst, fabric samples were provided
also by collectors (or purchased from them), and the interviews
were conducted with survivors and eyewitnesses. The NASA Materials
Science Laboratories at the Kennedy Space Center offered analytical
services. The pinnacle of the study occurred when the author was
provided the unprecedented opportunity (for an American) to examine
files an the Zeppelin Archive in Friedrichshafen, Germany. The Zeppelin
works and new Zeppelin museum were visited.
The overall results indicated two primary
conclusive aspects. First, the prevailing atmospheric conditions
and the unorthodox method of landing at Lakehurst could prompt severe
electrostatic discharge activity on the airship. This factor is
consistent with the original conclusion concerning the ignition
source. The unpredictable behavior and consequence or various forms
of atmospheric electrical activity is embraced by modern experts
of static electricity, the experiences of airline pilots and solid
propellant rocket motor (SRM) scientist's expert in electrostatic
discharge or ESD as they call it. Secondly, the lacquer doped fabric
envelope of the airship was tested and found to be very flammable
and could be successfully ignited using electrical arc sources.
The materials used in the makeup of the envelope, other airship
construction materials and the hydrogen used for buoyancy all could
have contributed to the resulting conflagration.
Evidence that further supports the
conclusion includes examination of the design of LZ-130 (Hindenburg
sister ship). This research revealed design changes (after the Hindenburg
disaster) in an apparent attempt to counteract static buildup and
reduce the flammability of the LZ-130 airship hull. Unpublished
German tests, uncovered by the research, also substantiate the severe
flammability of the Hindenburg envelope when subjected to electrostatic
During 1998 copy of the FBI report
(1937, 337 pages) was acquired. The FBI basically followed up on
inquires surrounding potential sabotage. Nothing conclusive was
found. The conclusion by Hoehling was characterized by the FBI as,
"pure speculation". The "evidence" by Mooney