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7:15 AM | *The role of weather in the Hindenburg disaster of May 6th, 1937*

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Weather forecasting and analysis, space and historic events, climate information

7:15 AM | *The role of weather in the Hindenburg disaster of May 6th, 1937*

Paul Dorian

As the hydrogen gas burned and escaped from the rear of the Hindenburg, the tail dropped to the ground sending a burst of flame punching through the nose. The ground crew below scatters to flee the inferno (photo courtesy AP)

As the hydrogen gas burned and escaped from the rear of the Hindenburg, the tail dropped to the ground sending a burst of flame punching through the nose. The ground crew below scatters to flee the inferno (photo courtesy AP)

Overview

While weather played an important role in the 1912 Titanic disaster, it was perhaps an even more direct cause of another disaster that took place 25 years later – at least that is the prevailing belief. On May 6th, 1937, while the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg was attempting to land at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, a flame appeared on the outer cover of the rear of the ship. Within 34 seconds, the entire airship was consumed by fire and the golden age of airship travel was over.

Early part of the final flight

The effect of the weather on this tragedy actually began on the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. On most trips across the ocean, the Hindenburg maintained an altitude of about 650 feet and cruised at nearly 80 mph; however, on this particular trip the airship encountered strong head winds that slowed it down, pushing back the expected arrival time in New Jersey from around 6am to about 4pm on May 6th, 1937. This change in expected arrival time was critical as late afternoon and early evening hours are much more likely to feature thunderstorm activity in New Jersey compared to the early morning hours. Indeed, on that particular afternoon, a thunderstorm was brewing over Lakehurst, New Jersey and winds were kicking up to nearly 30 mph. As a result, the Hindenburg circled around for quite some time while waiting for the weather conditions to improve. By 6pm, the rain was still falling quite heavily from thunderstorm activity throughout much of New Jersey and lightning storms were clearly recorded in the weather observations for the day. Finally, shortly after 7pm, the decision was made by the commander of the airship to land as “conditions definitely improved”.

The  Hindenburg  over Manhattan, New York on May 6, 1937, shortly before the disaster

The Hindenburg over Manhattan, New York on May 6, 1937, shortly before the disaster

Approach to Lakehurst, NJ

Not long after that decision was made, the Hindenburg appeared over Lakehurst and it began to circle the airfield in preparation for the landing. At 7:21pm, the Hindenburg was still about 1000 feet away from the mooring mast and about 300 feet in the air. At 7:25pm, witnesses reported a blue glow on top of the Hindenburg followed by a small flame from the top of the tail section and within seconds there was an explosion and fire engulfed the tail and spread quickly forward. The mid-section of the ship was completely in flames even before the tail of the Hindenburg hit the ground. It took only 34 seconds for the entire airship to be consumed by flames and amazingly, there were 61 survivors of the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crewmen).  One worker was killed on the ground making a total of 36 fatalities. 

Hindenburg  begins to fall seconds after catching fire

Hindenburg begins to fall seconds after catching fire

Theories about the disaster

Many theories have been talked about and investigated over the years regarding the disaster including sabotage, mechanical failure or even the possibility that it was shot from the sky. The most widely accepted theory involves the highly flammable hydrogen on the Hindenburg.  Most people believed at the time that something caused the hydrogen to spark, thus causing the explosion and fire. In the beginning of the initial investigation, the idea arose that the drop lines carried static electricity back up to the airship which caused the explosion. However, the chief of the ground crew denied this claim by the fact that the mooring lines were not conductors of static electricity. More credible was the idea that the blue arc seen at the tail of the airship just before it burst into flames was actually lightning and it caused the detonation of the hydrogen. This theory was substantiated by the presence of the lightning storms reported in the area. The hydrogen explosion theory became accepted as the reason for the explosion and led to the end of commercial lighter-than-air flight and the stalling of hydrogen as a reliable fuel.

Tragedy captured on radio and video

The Hindenburg disaster was actually captured on video and radio announcer Herb Morrison, who came to Lakehurst to record a routine voice-over for an NBC newsreel, immortalized it in a famous on-the-scene description in which he emotionally declared, “Oh, the humanity!” [Warning – some may find this video disturbing; video courtesy YouTube].  The recording of Morrison’s commentary was immediately flown to New York, where it was aired as part of America’s first coast-to-coast radio news broadcast.

Meteorologist Paul Dorian
Perspecta, Inc.
perspectaweather.com