Seventy-six years ago, the German dirigible was promoted as the future of trans-Atlantic flight, but instead it became the notorious poster child of airship disasters.
As the hydrogen-filled blimp was landing in Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937, it suddenly burst into flames and crashed in front of shocked bystanders, killing 35 of the 100 passengers and crew on board—and putting an end to the short-lived airship travel program.
Now scientists who have been studying the circumstances that led to the Hindenburg’s end say they know what happened.
The Independent, in an article about a documentary on the Hindenburg airing on Britain's Channel 4 on Thursday, explains that Jem Stansfield, a British aeronautical engineer who led a team of researchers at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, blew up and set fire to models of the small-scale model to rule out possibilities including a bomb and exploding paint.
The airship had become charged with static as a result of an electrical storm. A broken wire or sticking gas valve leaked hydrogen into the ventilation shafts, and when ground crew members ran to take the landing ropes they effectively "earthed" the airship. The fire appeared on the tail of the airship, igniting the leaking hydrogen, triggering a chain reaction ending in the airship disaster.
"I think the most likely mechanism for providing the spark is electrostatic," said Mr. Stansfield. "That starts at the top, then the flames from our experiments would've probably tracked down to the center.