Hindenburg 10/3/22

History with Richard Bleil

Some years ago, Titanic became a huge cinematic event.  There are those who have no idea that it was based on an actual disaster, one that I always paired, in my mind, with the Hindenburg.  The (real) titanic sunk on April 15, 1912, some five years before the US entered the first war to end all wars.  Less than thirty years later, in 1941, the US entered the second war to end all wars. 

Between the two, in 1936, the Hindenburg launched.  She was fitted with the highly flammable gas hydrogen as the lifting gas.  In 1936, Helium was known, but helium is only available through radioactive decay.  It cannot be generated like hydrogen, so it must be collected from natural sources.  Although radioactive decay occurs globally, the other key component is that the helium must be generated in a location that can trap it, such as a cave with a dome shape. 

In 1936, there were two major sources of helium.  Russia was one such nation, and the US was the other.  As it turns out, the Hindenburg was Nazi propaganda.  If you can find one of the rare photos of the Hindenburg before the disaster, you might see the swastika on the tail fin.  The US was not at war with Germany yet (the US entered the war in 1941) but stood opposed to the fascist regime of the Nazi government, as did Russia.  As such, neither government would sell Germany the helium it needed, forcing Germany to turn to hydrogen. 

The precautions aboard the Hindenburg were designed to prevent sparks and flames.  Of course, smoking was completely forbidden, and I’m sure that, even though it was the luxury travel vehicle of the time, the kitchen surely didn’t use open flames.  The walkways between the hydrogen ballasts were metal, forcing the Hindenburg staff to wear rubber covers over they shoes to ensure no sparks occurred. 

Finally, the US agreed to sell Germany the helium required to refit the Hindenburg.  The fateful flight from Germany to the US had passengers and was for the express purpose of refitting the gas.  To this day, the exact cause of the explosion and fire is a mystery, but the prevailing theory is static electricity.

The skin of the Hindenburg was coated with aluminum.  Although the Hindenburg was no speed demon, the trip across the Atlantic was very long.  As such, it’s believed that the friction of air with the Hindenburg built up a static electricity charge on the aluminum skin, which it held because, being airborne, there was no way for the charge to be released. 

Arriving in Chicago, the mooring lines were dropped, and the altitude was reduced.  The moment the mooring line touched the ground, it’s been hypothesized, the static electricity discharged to ground, causing the fateful spark that ignited the hydrogen.  That day, there was an electrical storm in the distance, and they landed near a power line, all being the prevailing hypotheses at one point or another, along with human error causing a spark aboard, and even sabotage by the US government. 

There were no explosions, something that surprises me.  The lack of explosions is a tribute to how well the hydrogen ballasts must have been constructed, because if they had a significant oxygen content at all, the hydrogen would have exploded rather than burn.  A news team was on site at the time as it was quite an auspicious occasion to have the premiere luxury airship, and its compliment of very wealthy clients, visiting the US.  This is how we now have the amazing photos of the tragedy, and video as well.  The news reporter uttered that now-famous expression, “the humanity…the humanity” as she fell from the sky in flames.  That day, thirty-five people died in the fiery hell, and sixty-two survived, including the captain of the ship, badly burned, but among the survivors.  Many of the survivors tried sliding down the mooring lines to escape the flames, all of which can be seen in the news coverage. 

When the Titanic movie was released, I was certain it would be (quickly) followed with the Hindenburg.  I suppose it’s the Nazi connection that prevented it.  As a related but strange aside, about twenty years ago there was a lot of discussion among chemists regarding the helium shortage.  See, since helium cannot be generated, the supply of helium is limited.  Because of its popularity among consumers, it was estimated that, by today, it would be gone.  Fortunately, new sources have since been discovered, and the party balloons are safe.  By the way, helium is so small that it fits between the molecules of rubber, which is why rubber helium balloons deflate so quickly.  Don’t waste your money on special clips for where the balloons are tied, because the helium is not leaking from there.  It is also why the silvery looking balloons last longer, because the helium cannot fit between those molecules.  The shininess is because electrons are on the surface of the balloon, kind of (if I can oversimplify here) “plugging up” those holes.  And it just occurred to me; I guess that’s the reason for the aluminum coating they used on the Hindenburg.

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