While weather played an important role in the Titanic disaster 100 years ago, it was an even more direct cause of the Hindenburg disaster 75 years ago this week – at least that is the prevailing belief. On May 6th, 1937, while the Hindenburg was attempting to land at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, a flame appeared on the outer cover of the rear of the ship. Within 34 seconds, the entire airship was consumed by fire and the golden age of airship travel was over.
The effect of the weather on this tragedy actually began on the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. On most trips across the ocean, the Hindenburg maintained an altitude of about 650 feet and cruised at nearly 80 mph; however, on this particular trip the airship encountered strong head winds that slowed it down, pushing back the expected arrival time in New Jersey from around 6am to about 4pm on May 6th, 1937. This change in expected arrival time was critical as late afternoon and early evening hours are much more likely to feature thunderstorm activity compared to early morning hours. On that particular afternoon, a thunderstorm was brewing over Lakehurst, NJ and winds were kicking up to 25 knots or so. As a result, the Hindenburg circled around for quite some time while waiting for the weather conditions to improve. By 6pm, the rain was still falling quite heavily from thunderstorm activity throughout much of New Jersey and lightning storms were definitely recorded in the weather observations for the day. Finally, shortly after 7pm, the decision was made by the commander of the airship to land as “conditions definitely improved”.
Not long after that decision was made, the Hindenburg appeared over Lakehurst, NJ and it began to circle the airfield in preparation for the landing. At 7:21pm, the Hindenburg was still about 1000 feet away from the mooring mast and about 300 feet in the air. At 7:25pm, witnesses saw a small flame rise from the top of the tail section and within seconds there was an explosion and fire engulfed the tail and spread forward. The mid-section of the ship was completely in flames even before the tail of the Hindenburg hit the ground. It took only 34 seconds for the entire airship to be consumed by flames, 36 people lost their lives and, amazingly, there were 61 survivors. Though it was assumed at the time that the fire was caused by a hydrogen gas leak ignited by a spark of static electricity in the highly charged atmosphere, the cause of the disaster is still somewhat controversial. Many theories have been talked about and investigated over the years including sabotage, mechanical failure or even the possibility that it was shot from the sky.