March 5, 2013
Hindenburg Mystery Solved 76 Years After Deadly Explosion
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Investigators said they have solved the 76-year-old mystery surrounding the Hindenburg disaster that claimed the lives of 35 of the 100 passengers and crew members on board.
According to a team led by British aeronautical engineer Jem Stansfield at the South West Research Institute (SWRI) in San Antonio, Texas, a static electricity-generated spark ignited hydrogen gas leaking from the airship — resulting in the massive explosion and fireball.
The ship was initially charged with static electricity after passing through an electrical storm, the researchers said. After traveling to its destination at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester Township, New Jersey, the Hindenburg became grounded when attendants attempted to connect mooring lines. The grounding allowed the charged ship to release a spark.
Ordinarily, a spark would not have been a problem for the massive ship; however, the researchers said the Hindenburg was probably leaking hydrogen at the time.
In order to disprove popular theories like a terrorist attack or explosive paint on the hull, the research team constructed a series of one-tenth scale Hindenburg models. They used the model ships to explore a variety of scenarios — each ending in the burning or explosion of the mini-Hindenburg.
After recreating and recording the different Hindenburg scenarios, the team compared their findings with archival footage of the disaster and eyewitness accounts.
One eyewitness to the disaster was Mark Heald. Just eight years old at the time, Heald watched the Hindenburg coming in to land. Standing a good distance away, he had an ideal visual perspective on how the disaster unfolded.
"Years later, my father realized that he should have volunteered testimony in some of the initial investigations, because we were probably in a rather unusual location,” Heald told The Independent. “As I recall, we were seeing it from pretty much a side view. We saw a little bit of blue fire just forward of the vertical rudder, the upper rudder. It hung right to the top ridge."
That observation appears to coincide with the findings Stansfield and his team came to through their experiments.
"I think the most likely mechanism for providing the spark is electrostatic," Stansfield said. "That starts at the top, then the flames from our experiments would've probably tracked down to the center. With an explosive mixture of gas, that gave the whoomph when it got to the bottom."
"I think that's exactly what happened. I think you had massive distribution of hydrogen throughout the aft half of the ship,” agreed airship historian Dan Grossman. “You had an ignition source pull down into the ship, and that whole back portion of the ship went up almost at once."
Before it crashed on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg was the pride of Nazi Germany. The name “Hindenburg” was actually the result of a mix-up and the ship would have been called the “Adolf Hitler” if German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had his way.
Hydrogen was chosen as the lifting gas over helium because it was cheaper and more readily available for Germans. At the time, the United States controlled most of the helium supply and the Americans used it for their own airships and balloons.