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Fowler Associates Labs



Static Fire Stories Articles & Technical Papers Current News
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 the investigation.

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 motors.

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 discharge.

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 proves false.


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