• Berlin
  • The final flight of the Hindenburg


The final flight of the Hindenburg

On May 6, 1937, almost three days after the zeppelin's triumphal departure from Frankfurt while attempting to dock near New York City, the whole zeppelin caught fire within seconds and crash-landed, killing 36 people.

Image for The final flight of the Hindenburg
Photo courtesy of US Navy

File number: EXB004-LZ-129-fireball

Year: 1937

THE FACTS: LZ 129, more widely known as the Hindenburg, was a German luxury zeppelin. Almost as large as the Titanic, it glided across the Atlantic at only a couple of hundred metres above sea level while passengers enjoyed live jazz, fine dining and the panoramic view. On May 6, 1937, almost three days after its triumphal departure from Frankfurt while attempting to dock above Lakehurst Naval Air Station near New York City, the whole zeppelin caught fire within seconds and crash-landed, killing 36 people.


The hydrogen sabotage theory: The various theories about the Hindenburg all link the incident to economic warfare and politically motivated sabotage. At the time the disaster happened, the US had a monopoly on helium but imposed a total helium export ban, essentially forcing the Germans to use easily inflammable hydrogen as lifting gas instead. Officially, US officials said the ban xxxxxxxx was meant to prevent the German military from using zeppelins against Americans in the event of a global conflict, but theorists believe that this was done to deliberately cause an accident.

The Tesla theory: On the day of the crash, Nikola Tesla, pioneer of alternating current, was in New York. Conspiracy theorist and author Jan Gaspard claims this wasn’t a coincidence: he alleges that Tesla secretly built an ion cannon which enabled the US military to bring down the Hindenburg without being noticed.

The Resistance bomber theory: Since the majestic airship was extensively used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis, it was regarded by some as a symbol of the Nazi dictatorship. The crash occurred two weeks after the Luftwaffe’s Guernica air raids, which has sparked persistent speculations that anarchist resistance fighters or Jewish plotters, but also competitor PanAm Airways, might have placed a bomb aboard the airship.

German diplomatic missions in the US and the FBI both had received several warnings prior to the Hindenburg’s departure. Crew members claimed to have seen a flash near the lower fin just before the fire, and the NYPD Bomb Squad and the FBI reported the finding of suspicious residues that could indicate the fire was intentional.

In 1962, conspiracy theorist A. Hoeling published a book fingering Erich Spehl, a rigger on the airship with anti-Nazi leanings, as the culprit (Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?). Furthermore, after the incident, a furious Hermann Göring is reported to have said, “That son of a bitch got away.”

The inside-job theory: Quite the opposite has been alleged by the son of the last surviving crew member. He claimed the Nazis themselves wanted the zeppelins out of the way, in order to punish Hugo Eckener, the openly anti-Nazi manager of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (which manufactured the Hindenburg).

ANALYSIS: All of the above theories lack evidence, but so do those the scientists have come up with, such as lightning, a static spark and engine failure.

Due to the – quite literal – explosiveness of the matter, two separate commissions, one German and one American, were appointed immediately after the disaster. Both independently concluded that no evidence for an act of sabotage could be found.

However, their final statements were rather vague and did not entirely rule out the possibility that xxxxx xxxxxxx such a terrorist act may have occurred. The fact that the chairmen of the two commissions at first favoured sabotage but later changed their opinion contributes to the ongoing appeal of the theories.

Regardless, the Hindenburg disaster effectively sealed the fate of zeppelin aviation, despite heavily subsidised albeit ill-fated recent efforts to rebrand zeppelins as Öko-aircraft (remember Cargolifter?).

BELIEVABILITY (out of 10): X X X X X X X