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At 7:25 pm on the evening of May 6, 1937, the German zeppelin Hindenburg burst into flames while mooring at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, US. The fire took about 37 seconds to completely destroy the hydrogen-filled craft, killing 36 people.

Zeppelins were the German-built lighter than air craft favoured for long, luxurious air travel before passenger jet service. Constructed of a series of hydrogen gas cells contained within a rigid aluminum frame with a tight fabric skin and powered by diesel outboard motors, zeppelins were large, slow, and popular. The Hindenburg’s sister craft, the Graf Zeppelin, was 776 feet long, filled with 105,000 cubic meters of hydrogen, carried 20 passengers, and was capable of 128 km/h. It made 144 transoceanic crossings, and was the first aircraft to exceed a million miles of travel. The Hindenburg was twice as big, with 198,000 cubic metres of hydrogen capacity, a 70 passenger limit, and cruising speed of 135 km/h. The Hindenburg was 804 feet long. It was, and remains, the largest aircraft ever built.

The Hindenburg left Frankfurt on May 3, cruising against headwinds for North America with 35 passengers and 61 crew, some trainees. They arrived at New Jersey on May 6 but were delayed in landing by rainy, inclement weather. By 7 pm they were cleared to land, and the captain circled around the mooring mast to attempt a high landing, at about 90 meters, from which the airship would be winched down.

At 7:25 pm the Hindenburg slowed to a stop at the mast. Several people afterwards reported seeing a ball of flame or blue flames beginning in front of the port steering fin, and rapidly spreading to the top of the ship. Within moments the entire airship was engulfed; it snapped amidships and the aft section fell to the ground, pulling the bow section with it. The crash took about 37 seconds from start to finish. It is estimated the fire rose above 3700 degrees Fahrenheit, melting the Hindenburg’s aluminum frame.

13 passengers, 22 crew, and one ground crew lineman died in the accident, most in the bow section. The crash of the Hindenburg, with its extensive radio and newsreel footage, permanently destroyed the safe reputation of zeppelin travel. No other large lighter than air craft were ever put into commercial service.


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