Travel across the Atlantic Ocean in the days before jet aircraft was not exactly a trivial matter. Surface passenger liners took a week to travel between Europe and the United States. So in the 1930’s when Germany announced trans-Atlantic crossings by zeppelin which would take just a couple of days, the affluent jumped at the opportunity (“affluent” because it cost $400 U.S. for a one-way ticket, at a time when most workers in the U.S. earned less than a dollar an hour; in fact, minimum wage in 1938 was a quarter an hour). The result would easily have been a public relations coup for Nazi Germany, but Mother Nature had other ideas.
The Hindenburg was a huge zeppelin, a lighter than air vessel, and the largest aircraft ever produced – over three times as long and twice as tall as today’s largest jet aircraft. Most of that size comprised the envelope, the huge gas “balloon” of the zeppelin, which was divided into chambers containing the hydrogen gas which provided the vehicle’s lift. The actual passenger space was comparatively small, consisting of a gondola attached to the lower surface of the envelope. Four engines powered the craft at speeds up to 85 MPH. The Hindenburg could carry about seventy passengers and sixty crewmen (which accounts for the expense of a trans-Atlantic trip aboard her).
It’s a common misconception that the Hindenburg disaster occurred on the airship’s maiden voyage. This seems to be a result of people conflating the Hindenburg and the Titanic, which is not surprising given the similarities between the two incidents: huge trans-Atlantic passenger vessels meeting their accidental, unexpected, and spectacular ends while carrying a number of wealthy passengers. In reality, the Hindenburg operated for just over a year, from 1936 to 1937, making eighteen round trips across the Atlantic. The mammoth craft was also used by the Nazi regime for propaganda purposes: the zeppelin overflew the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Germany also issued a couple of postage stamps depicting the Hindenburg (more on those later).
In May 1937, the Hindenburg was bound for South America but had a scheduled stop in Lakehurst, New Jersey; passengers bound for New York would be able to disembark there. Bad weather in New Jersey forced the zeppelin to fly in what today is known as a “holding pattern”; the behemoth which sported the Nazi German flag caused quite a commotion when it overflew New York City. Planes were quickly dispatched by news agencies; small planes buzzed like hornets around the Hindenburg as photos were snapped and newsreel footage was shot, capturing images which would inspire and influence pulp writers and comic book artists for decades to come (I’ve seen innumerable images depicting Nazi zeppelins and bombers flying over the Big Apple, the latest appearing in Dynamite’s new Miss Fury #1, one of the most dreadful comics it’s ever been my misfortune to read). In fact, photos like the one below could easily have become the iconic images of the Hindenburg were it not for what happened later that afternoon:
It’s interesting to note the presence of the Empire State Building in the movies and photos of the zeppelin flying over New York. The domed “tower” atop the building was originally intended as a mooring mast for airships. You don’t need to be the sharpest knife in the drawer to realize that the plan could never have worked, since the updrafts in the man-made canyons of New York City would have easily torn a zeppelin loose from its moorings. (But, had such a docking been possible, you can get an idea of what it might have looked like from one of the opening scenes in the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.)
The weather delayed the Hindenburg’s arrival at Lakehurst for several hours. The airship’s captain was finally given the go-ahead to approach the airfield. By this time the huge zeppelin was coming in to Lakehurst from an odd angle, requiring the Hindenburg to make a sharp ninety degree turn in order for the craft to be able to approach the mooring mast from the windward side. The sharp turn created stress on the Hindenburg’s envelope which was too much for the airship to take; one of its gas chambers ruptured during the turn, leaking flammable hydrogen gas into the rest of the envelope. Meanwhile, the Hindenburg’s outer skin had already accumulated a sizable static electric charge as it pushed its way through massive cloud banks over the Atlantic, resulting in a recipe for disaster. As the mammoth craft was being tied to its mooring mast, a static spark jumped between the Hindenburg’s metal frame and the outer canvas skin. Under normal circumstances this would not have been a problem, but the hydrogen gas which had vented into the space between the gas chambers and outer skin immediately exploded. (How the Hindenburg exploded has been the cause for endless debate over the passing decades; I’ve opted to provide the most likely scenario in this post. The “lightning strike” theory has been conclusively dismissed by eyewitness accounts. There is absolutely no evidence for sabotage, so the events as depicted in the George C. Scott 1970’s disaster movie named for the airship are purely fictional.)
Literally a second or two after the airship erupted in flame, a photographer snapped the picture which would replace the New York overflight photos as the iconic image of the Hindenburg, a photo which also helped hasten the doom of commercial airship travel:
Those of us who took physics or chemistry classes in school doubtless remember an occasion when the teacher held a match to the mouth of a hydrogen-filled test tube. Hydrogen burns with such ferocity that the reaction is very much akin to an explosion. The Hindenburg burned so quickly that it was entirely consumed by fire in the first thirty seconds after ignition, and within sixty seconds the pride of the Nazi airfleet was nothing more than a twisted metal wreck lying on the ground. (The chemical “dope” used to seal the Hindenburg’s envelope was later shown to also be highly flammable; this doubtless also contributed to the rapidity and violence of the airship’s destruction.) Thirty-five people were killed in the disaster, slightly more than one-third of the combined passengers and crew. It’s nothing short of miraculous that anyone survived at all.
Oddly, though, hydrogen lift airships like the Hindenburg were relatively safe. Such zeppelins had been carrying commercial passengers for years without incident. The Hindenburg disaster achieved notoriety far beyond its actual significance (much like the sinking of the Titanic) for multiple reasons: it was the largest aircraft ever built, it was at the end of its first flight to the United States, it carried many wealthy passengers, and it was used as a propaganda tool by a fascist dictatorial regime. Nevertheless, the photos and newsreel footage hastened the end of lighter-than-air commercial flight; the accelerated wartime development of faster propeller-driven planes as well as jet engines (which had been successfully experimentally tested as far back as 1930) sealed the fate of giant lighter than air passenger ships.
The Hindenburg passed into legend, but has never been forgotten. Fifteen years after its destruction, the editors of Thrilling Adventures in Stamps Comics (a magazine devoted to telling the stories depicted on postage stamps, and one which we’ve previously featured in The Big Blog o’Fun) discovered that in 1936 Germany had issued two separate stamps honoring the Hindenburg, and used that as a springboard to visually tell the tale of the gargantuan zeppelin’s demise in the pages of issue #5, dated June 1952.
Here, courtesy of our friends at The Digital Comic Museum, is that short three-pager. Although Thrilling Adventures in Stamps was intended as an educational comic book, they certainly weren’t above using lurid images as a “hook”: note the blazing figure falling to its death on the left-hand side of the center panel on page two.
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.