The Hindenburg tragedy ended the era of the passenger zeppelin and the use of hydrogen gas in lighter-than-air craft. But new research indicates that hydrogen was not the main culprit in the 1937 accident.
The Hindenburg was the pride of Nazi Germany. The biggest aircraft ever to fly, it was 800 feet long - just 50 feet shorter than the Titanic.
On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg had just completed a three-day transatlantic flight to the United States from Frankfurt, Germany. It was coming in to land at Lakehurst, N.J. The weather had been rainy, and flashes of lightning could still be seen. A crowd was gathered, and a radio journalist and film crew were on hand to record the ship's arrival.
But as the Hindenburg was being winched down to earth by a ground crew, disaster struck. The ship burst into flames. Some on board leaped for their lives. In moments, the Hindenburg was a twisted mass of girders. Thirty-five of the 97 people aboard perished, along with one person on the ground. Highly flammable hydrogen, ignited by a spark of static electricity, was thought to be the cause.
But NASA engineer Addison Bain didn't think so. Why had the airship burned with a bright-orange flame, he asked, when burning hydrogen has no flame? How had it stayed upright and aloft for many seconds after the fire began if the hydrogen was burning?
Bain concluded that it was the flammable skin of the ship that had caught fire first. The paint used on the cloth covering the ship contained powdered aluminum - a substance used today in the space shuttle's solid-fuel rocket boosters. Bain later found that German investigators had secretly come to the same conclusion. They had changed the paint's formula, but it was too late. No one wanted to ride in hydrogen-filled airships anymore.
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