Saturday, August 18, 2007

Last flight

On the night of May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt, Germany for Lakehurst, New Jersey. This was the first trip of the year to Lakehurst, but the ship did fly to Rio de Janeiro earlier that year.

The crossing was uneventful, except for strong headwinds. The ship was half full, with 36 passengers and 61 crew members (21 more than usual), but the return flight was fully booked by people attending the coronation of King George VI of the United Kingdom, which would take place on May 12, at Westminster Abbey, London.

The reason why the ship was only half full was probably because of concerns of a bomb on board. A letter was sent to the German Ambassador claiming the ship would be destroyed by a bomb after flying over New York City.

On May 6, the ship arrived in America. The ship was already late, and the landing was further delayed because of bad weather. Captain Max Pruss took passengers on a tour through New York City, and the seasides of Boston and New Jersey.

Finally, around 7:00 p.m. local time, altitude 650 feet, the Hindenburg approached the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. This landing was different, known as a high landing or flying moor, because the ship was winched down from a higher altitude. This type of landing maneuver would save the number of ground crew, but would require more time. At 7:08 the ship made a sharp full-speed left turn to the west around the landing field because the ground crew were not ready yet. At 7:11 the ship turned back toward the landing field and valved gas. All engines idled ahead and the ship began to slow. At 7:14, and altitude 394 feet, Captain Pruss ordered aft engines full astern to try to brake the ship. At 7:17, the wind shifted direction to southwest, and Captain Pruss was forced to make a second sharp turn, this time towards starboard. At 7:19, as the ship made the second sharp turn, 300, 300, and 500 kg of water ballast was dropped because the ship was stern heavy. Six men (three were killed in the accident were also sent to the bow to trim the ship. None of these attempts to correct the problem worked and the ship seemed to sink even more, but Pruss was now permitted to land. At 7:21, altitude 295 feet, the mooring lines were dropped from the bow. At this point, the cameramen were filming the lines being caught by the ground crew or stopped rolling altogether, and missed what was about to happen.

At 7:25, witnesses on the port side started reporting a small burst of flame near the vent in front of the upper fin. Commander Rosendahl's feeling at once was that the ship was doomed. One witness on the starboard side reported a fire beginning lower and behind the rudder on that side (however this may have happened after the initial fire on the port side).


The Hindenburg, moments after catching fire.At 7:25 p.m. local time, the Hindenburg caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flames. Where the fire started is controversial; witnesses on the port side saw yellow/red flames first just forward of the top fin, around cell 4. One, with views of the starboard side, saw flames beginning lower and farther aft, near cell 1. A crew member on board also recalled the flames spreading from cell 4 into starboard. Wherever it started, the flames quickly spread forward. Almost instantly, a water tank and a fuel tank burst out of the hull, as seen in the picture on the right. At the same time a crack appears behind the passenger decks. The ship's back broke, and the section from the nose to the aft engine cars lurched upwards, while the stern stayed in trim. As the Hindenburg's tail crashed into the ground, a burst of flame came out of the nose, killing three of the six crew members in the bow. As the ship kept falling with the bow facing upwards (because there was more lifting gas still in the nose), part of the port side directly behind the passenger deck collapsed inward (where the "dent" was), and the gas cell there exploded, erasing the scarlet lettering "Hindenburg" while the ship's bow lowered. One careful analysis of the flame spread, by Addison Bain of NASA, gives the flame front spread rate across the fabric skin as about 49 ft/s. The ship's gondola wheel touched the ground, causing the ship to bounce up once more. At this point, most of the fabric had burned away. At last, the ship went crashing on the ground, bow first.

The time it took for the ship to be completely destroyed has been disputed. Some believe it took 34 seconds, though others say it took 32 or 37 seconds.
The incident is widely remembered as one of the most dramatic accidents of modern time. The cause of the accident has never been determined, although many theories, some highly controversial, have been proposed.

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