Last Updated 13 Jan 2021

Hindenburg Disaster

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On May 6th, 1937, a Zeppelin airship of Germany called the Hindenburg set off for its first North Atlantic crossing. It was to land on Naval Air Station base in Lakehurst, New Jersey but fate had a different plan for the Hindenburg and its passengers. At 7:20, reporters and crowds gathered around to see the sky-beauty land in her appointed spot, but at 7:23 screams were heard and the sound of a firework shooting up. To the crowd’s amazement, they saw a small, orange flame forming at the tail end of the airship. The fire started at the top tail fin or so it has been reported by eye witnesses of this horrific disaster.

The designer of the Hindenburg had law enforcements give the witnesses a blueprint of the airship so they could illustrate where they seen the small flame and how they saw the fire spread across the dirigible. When everything was said and done and they reviewed the blueprints that were collected not one was identical to the one before or after it. Some saw a flash, some saw a spark, and some saw an explosion. The cause, to this day, has been unknown. There are theories floating around such as: static electricity from the on coming thunderstorm, a small lighting bolt, a leak of hydrogen, conspiracy, and many others that have no backing agents.

In the following sections I will have hoped to help you make you decision on what the real cause of this tragic event was and in detail explained what I think happened and why with a scientific explanation. First, what was the structure of the Hindenburg made of? The skeleton was made of an aluminum structure. The blimps design was 15 main rings made of aluminum making the central frame. Then the remaining frame was welted to those 15 rings then covered with non flame-retardant cotton. Then the cotton itself was painted. It was painted with cellulose acetate butyrate and aluminum powder, both of which can be combustible alone.

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Aluminum powder can be explosive or flammable if mixed with air, it is used in liquid and solid rocket fuels, and used in thermite, which is an incendiary. It also burns and orange-red depending on other elements being present at point of ignition. The cellulose acetate butyrate is combustible and used in everyday items such as hairbrushes. Thought it was painted with the same substance throughout it was not painted with the same amount of coats throughout. The top had more layers of “dope” paint to sustain from lighting strikes and the bottom was painted with a top coat of reflection “dope” paint to fool the people below.

Inside the Hindenburg, there were 16 gas filled pockets. These pockets were filled with hydrogen instead of helium because it is less dense than Helium. (Side note: The fact that hydrogen is less dense than helium is proven because of Avogadro. He stated that if you have two different gases at the same pressure and the same temperature then they would have the same amount of particles. But then that would lead to say that one mol of helium has a mass of 4 grams and one mol of hydrogen has a mass of 2 grams. The pockets or gasbags were lined with goldbeater’s skin, a thin membrane taken from cattle intestines. The Hindenburg as a whole was almost the size of the Titanic. There are many theories to what caused the Hindenburg fire. Suggestions such as: the pain caught fire from a spark that came off the rope being deployed at the landing destination, or the hydrogen being released had caught a spark or a lightning bolt, a Nazi soldier set the airship on fire, or a witness from below shot the tail end of the dirigible causing it to catch fire.

Though these theories have been backed by countless number of reasoning’s and facts no one scientist can fully prove the cause of the fire. There is one theory that could have been but more than likely it did not. The theory of conspiracy. Though it is true that a handgun was found in the remains of the Hindenburg, it is not a plausible answer to the massive disaster. It is said that a Nazi purposefully shot one of the hydrogen bags while walking the axis of the airship. Considering the Hindenburg was an anti-Nazi dirigible and even its creator did not support Hitler and his rampage, it is not a creditable theory.

Though it is a food for thought, the conspiracy theory has no backing or relative cause of purpose. Addison Bain, for example, tried to show that the thermite paint caused a reaction. In his paper he went on to say that a spark from the engine had landed on the paint and contained enough energy to set fire to the paint and cause the fire. Though he is not completely wrong, personally it is not a well-enough explanation to what happened and how it happened. Bain had preformed television demonstrations on his theory, but he had flaws in his experiments.

For instance, he showed a continuous flame one the skin on the Hindenburg model and his research shows that he concluded it to be an instant spark. On another count, he used a small piece of the actual skin cover in the “dope” and he set it on fire and showed its burn time, if these were correct tests he should have allowed reaction time, set fire in relative area of the original fire, the tail area not its mid section, and did not consider the dampness of the “dope” paint at the altitude it was at. These were also factors going against whether or not the Mythbusters had correctly called their test on Bain’s theory a bust.

In the television series Mythbusters, Adam and Jamie gather myths that have been sent in by their viewers, myths that are not able to be determined busted on a day-to-day basis, and they safely determine if the myth is true and factual or is it a rumor and a hoax. Mythbusters determined that the theory proposed by Addison Bain was a bust. They built three models of the Hindenburg on a 1/50th scale and conducted three different experiments. One Hindenburg was painted with the “dope” and filled with air. The second was just the hydrogen within with a regular skin without the “dope” compound.

The third consisted of both the “dope” skin and the hydrogen filling. They determined that the hydrogen was the real cal prate of the Hindenburg fire. Considering the way they tested the experiments, it is very arguable to say that they did not correctly perform their experiments. For instance they did not set fire at the tail end of the dirigible. They also set a direct flame and not an initial spark to the paint. In addition, when they set fire to a small portion of the skin covered in “dope” they did not allow a reaction time. Reminder that witnesses said they saw an orange-red flame at the tail end of the dirigible. ) While examining the mystery of the Hindenburg, you will notice that at 7:20 the crowd has noticed a slight spark at the tail end; and at 7:23 the airship has started to come down in flames. It took approximately 24 seconds for the Hindenburg to burn from tail to nose. The Mythbuster gang’s Hindenburg models took times that consist of 1 minute and 37 seconds, 57 second, and 52 seconds. In order to declare this busted, one must allow for every possible variable that could have been presented on May 6th in New Jersey.

Other factors that could pose a problem against the Mythbusters are considerations that any man can conjure up and present. For example, the experiment was conducted inside and on the day on the disaster there was a high wind issue. In order for fire to burn rapidly it has to have a large supply of oxygen. The atmosphere consists of nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, oxygen is most of that. Another problem could have been that the Hindenburg had gasbags filled with hydrogen and the Mythbusters “generally” filled the down-scale model with hydrogen, not separating the “dope” paint skin and the hydrogen contact.

If the skin would have been directly lying on the hydrogen in the Hindenburg, it would have taken far less time to burn or might have actually “exploded”. Another myth that has spread widely is that the Hindenburg was painted with pure rocket fuel. As stated previously, the “dope” consisted of aluminum powder and cellulose acetate butyrate. Though it contains rocket fuel ingredients it is not painted fully and only rocket fuel. It is also and ingredient in thermite incendiary, which explains why scientist concluded the Hindenburg fire to be a thermite reaction. Fe2O3+2Al ? Al2O3+2Fe) is the chemical equation for a thermite reaction. A thermite reaction is an exothermic reaction. Meaning when its compounds react with one another they put off heat instead of absorbing energy, or an endothermic reaction. Also, when you burn metals together they tend to have a orange or red flame... the Hindenburg burnt orange-red) Aluminum powder was in bedded in the “dope” compound. This byproduct is mostly found in the contents of rocket fuel or rocket propellants.

It is often mistakenly said that the Hindenburg was painted with rocket fuel but this conclusion is only partially correct. The aluminum powder itself, if extremely fine, can form flammable and explosive mixtures in the air. Basically, the Hindenburg was not painted with rocket fuel. The next suggestion is that the Mythbusters did not allow for weather conditions to be taken into consideration. On May 6th, 1937, it was told to be raining which is a reason the Hindenburg did not land at it designated time. It was delayed over the Atlantic for several hours.

Some scientist have asked, if it had been a spark that ignited the paint then it would have had to generate enough energy to first evaporate dew off of skin and then still possess enough energy to ignite the “dope” on the skin. Once again, the skin was made of aluminum powder and cellulose acetate butyrate. CAB contains low moisture absorption. It effectively resists weathering and ultra-violet radiation. Though it is not effective against alcohol, alkalis, paint removers, and acetones. Since the compound contained aluminum powder, an alkaline metal, could this have over powered it so the “dope” paint absorbed a small amount of water?

It could have, but only if the aluminum powder was in a ration of 50 to 1. It might have been wiser for the German makers to obtain helium rather that hydrogen. Helium does not burn. It is a monatomic gas, or having replaced one atom. Since helium already contains 8 electrons it is a noble gas. This property makes it highly un-reactive because it is already considered to be happy with its eight electrons in its outer most shell. The problem with using hydrogen in the Hindenburg is that it only contains one valence electron which can cause it to highly reactive to almost any element it comes into contact with.

The wiser decision for the makers of the Hindenburg would have been to use the less reactive helium instead of the highly reactive hydrogen. In conclusion, I believe the hydrogen is not the cause of the Hindenburg disaster. Though it is a major factor with its rapid fire spread it is not the main cause. In my opinion, the cause is that a small lighting bolt had hit where the body and the tail fin connected. Where the covering of the body tries to match that of the tail fin. This makes sense because the tail fins were coated with a lighter coating of the “dope” paint. This is the location the hydrogen is being released.

A spark hit the paint at this specific spot causing the paint to ignite and causing a chain reaction with the paint and the hydrogen. If hydrogen was being released at a specific temperature and a specific pressure around the area of ignition, it may have caused the “explosion” on the Hindenburg. When hydrogen comes in contact with a flame the hydrogen extinguishes the flame, but when a combination of hydrogen along with air (oxygen) are presented with a flame, the hydrogen will persist to terminate the flame but then the air with reignite it. This is because a fire cannot burn without the presence of oxygen.

Additionally, a hydrogen reaction (2H+O2? 2H2O) is an exothermic reaction, the same as the thermite within the “dope” paint. With the hydrogen putting of heat when it reacted and the thermite releasing heat as it reacted it caused the temperature of the skin to increase to an immeasurable heat. This most likely caused the aluminum powder within the “dope” to become a lose particle in the air. Another point that may have added to the release of the aluminum powder could be the Hindenburg had been hit before by lightning bolts and caused small burn holes on the top half of the Hindenburg and caused no fire.

Analyzing that the statement before is true, there may have been a chance that the aluminum powder from the “dope” paint could have escaped where the lightning bolt had struck. Therefore it caused a reaction between the oxygen in the air and the aluminum powder. Furthermore my conclusion is the hydrogen is not the initial cause of the fire but the “dope” paint itself. Again this is my opinion and you, as the reader, are free to interoperate the data and conclude to your own opinion because to interoperate the true cause of the Hindenburg is a personal preference one must do on one’s own.

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Hindenburg Disaster. (2017, Apr 09). Retrieved from

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