The LZ 129 Hindenburg airship caught fire, exploded, and crumpled from the sky on this date in 1937. The German airship disaster made headlines around the world, not only due to the horrific nature of its destruction, but also because of the spectacular newsreel coverage and the mystery surrounding the cause of the fiery crash.
The Hindenburg was actually only one of an entire fleet of airships named after Field Marshal and former President of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg. The specific airship involved in the disaster, the LZ 129, was the lead ship of the Hindenburg class. The ships were manufactured by the Zeppelin Company in Germany beginning in 1931, and were first used by the Nazis to distribute propaganda over the occupied Rhineland region in 1936.
Because of the relative expense and scarcity of non-flammable helium, the Zeppelin Company chose to use the flammable hydrogen gas in the airships’ inner balloons. For a full year, the LZ 129 ferried passengers across the Atlantic, making regular trips to both the United States and South America.
On the evening of May 3rd, the airship left Frankfurt for a transatlantic flight to Lakehurst, New Jersey. When it arrived on May 6th, landing crews began preparing for its descent by lowering anchor ropes from the bow and stern. Within seconds, the airship caught fire and exploded, killing 36 and injuring dozens more.
Because it was the maiden flight to the United States that year, several journalists were on hand to record the landing. The disaster has continued to fascinate the public for decades, and dozens of authors have written books on the subject. One such book, Fire in the Sky, was written by Washburn, North Dakota, native Jessica Gunderson. Gunderson has written dozens of children’s graphic novels on historical subjects, including Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark, the Chinese Empire, and the Silk Road. She obtained a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Minnesota State University in Mankato, and now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she continues to write.
And as for the Hindenburg, a group of European scientists recently announced (March 2013) that after all these years, they finally solved the mystery of the explosion, blaming static electricity for the disaster.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Dill, Joseph (ed.). 1988 North Dakota: 100 Years: p. 65. The Forum Publishing Company: Fargo, ND.
The Fargo Forum and Daily Tribune. Friday (Morning ed.), May 7, 1937; p. 1.