Exactly 75 years ago on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg burst into flames over a Lakehurst New Jersey field and of the 97 people onboard, 36 people died (including one member of the ground crew) – mostly due to jumping from the cabin when it was still several stories high. What caused the explosion remains a hotly debated mystery with plenty of different theories circulating.
There are plenty of claims that the Hindenburg’s “flammable covering” was the main reason why the airship was destroyed in less than a minute. However, Airships.net has a detailed article filled with photos of the disaster to explain that the Hindenburg was only the last in a “long line of hydrogen airships destroyed by fire” thanks to highly flammable hydrogen gas and studies have shown that the Hindenburg’s covering might not have been flammable at all. In fact, the pictures on Airships.net seem to show the hydrogen behind the cover catching on fire first.
Meanwhile, Aerospaceweb.org also has a detailed discussion of the disaster which also mentions a crew member named Eric Spehl who was suspected of being a saboteur due in part to his girlfriend’s connections to an anti-Nazi organization. According to the theory, Spehl, who was an amateur photographer well acquainted with flashbulbs, could have used bulbs powered by a battery as an ignition source to start the fire. However, Spehl also died in the explosion and could not defend himself from any accusation. And while the sabotage theory was pushed by the Captain and his family (no doubt to deflect any potential blame), its been largely discounted.
That leaves static electricity or a leak as the most probable cause. Moreover, its also possible that the Captain released hydrogen gas on purpose or by accident to rush a landing – something that would have been prohibited in incremental weather due to the risk of a fire. Likewise, a puncture could have occurred causing a gas release.
Either way, below is a great Hindenburg documentary posted on YouTube that is well worth watching by fans of airships