Hindenburg Disaster: Reason for Not Using Zeppelins

Flying airships or zeppelins, which we see only in commercials or old movies today, were quite popular for a while. Especially in the early 1900s, many zeppelins circled in the sky, and most of the transportation was provided by these zeppelins. So why isn’t it anymore? Let’s look at a tragic story together!

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What is Airship?

Zeppelins are flying vehicles with engines and rudders for aerial guidance. Or we can say that it was a means of transportation. It was designed by German inventor Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and named after him. In 1852, it was observed that a hydrogen-filled bag was successfully flying by attaching a steam engine. This system was developed, and the first airship appeared in 1900.

Upon its initial success, the airship became famous very quickly by producing more and more new ones every day. In fact, the German Ministry of War supported the production of airships and bombed Paris and London through these airships during the First World War. In particular, a German Airship has been used for many years to transport cargo and passengers: the Hindenburg.

Titanic of the Airship World: Hindenburg

This zeppelin model, which fascinates everyone, is one of the largest aircraft ever built. The Hindenburg, which was also given the title of the most giant rigid airship ever built, was named after Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who served as the President of Germany between 1925 and 1934. This airship, which could even cross the North Atlantic, was going back and forth between Germany and the USA.

The Hindenburg was the last passenger plane of the world’s first airline. In fact, its chief officer was the first flight attendant in history. At the time, it was the fastest way to cross the Atlantic. The interior of the airship was designed quite luxuriously. Passengers could dine in an elegant dining room, listen to the piano in a modern lounge, sleep in comfortable cabins, and even smoke a cigarette or cigar in the ship’s smoking room.


For more than 30 years, commercial passenger travel has taken place. That meant more than two thousand flights, over a million miles, with tens of thousands of passengers flying. There was not even a single injury in these journeys, but the event that would completely remove the airship from the stage of history took only half a minute.

Hindenburg Disaster

On May 6, 1937, there were 97 people inside the Hindenburg airship, including the crew and passengers. The flying ship, which was about to complete its transatlantic crossing and land in Lakehurst, New Jersey, caught fire and was completely destroyed.

The flying ship was filled with approximately 7 million cubic feet (198,218 cubic meters) of hydrogen. After nearly 80 years of research and scientific testing, German and American accident investigations predict that the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 was caused by an electrostatic discharge (i.e., a spark) that ignited the leaked hydrogen.

In other words, the hydrogen gas in the balloon leaked for some reason, and with a small spark, the entire ship was destroyed. The fire really spread so fast that it consumed the ship in less than a minute. So survival was largely a matter of where one was when the fire broke out.

Why Did They Use Hydrogen?

If we want to get a flying balloon, we need gases that are lighter than air. When we look at the periodic table, an element winks at us: Hydrogen. It is element number 1, sitting at the top left corner of the periodic table building. This also indicates that it is the lightest (by mass) element. So it is much lighter than air. It has become the prerequisite for something to fly by itself. But hydrogen has a big problem. It is highly flammable; even the slightest spark will cause it to ignite and explode. We observe this tragic situation in the Hindenburg disaster.

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The other candidate in the periodic table is helium. The gas we see on the streets right now is helium, which is contained in balloons played mainly by children. Helium, which is a noble gas, is completely harmless as it does not react with any substance. In other words, we can say that if there were helium in the airship, this explosion would not have occurred. At that time, it was known that hydrogen was explosive. Even the airship was designed to use helium. However, access to helium was not easy due to the United States’ export restrictions against Nazi Germany. It was nearly impossible to find enough helium to fill a massive airship. Therefore, the Hindenburg was filled with highly flammable hydrogen. Helium is still a considerably expensive gas. Thus, even if it is possible to use helium instead of hydrogen, the production of zeppelins is not preferred due to financial reasons and other risks.

The Word that Ends the Age of Airships: Oh, the humanity! 

36 of the 97 people on board died during this explosion. Seconds, even split-seconds, mattered in the survival of other people. Since the airship was about to land, a few people chose to jump and survived. Some lucky passengers escaped as soon as the airship hit the ground.

The Hindenburg disaster was a first for this type of ship. But it wasn’t the first on the list of airship accidents. It wasn’t even the biggest and deadliest accident. For example, the crash of the USS Akron airship belonging to the US Navy in 1933 is considered the most fatal accident in history, and 73 people lost their lives. Similarly, 48 people died as a result of the accident of the British R-101 airship in 1930. But none of them has affected humanity as much as the Hindenburg. The most important reason for this was that this accident took place on live broadcasts, while it was watched by millions of people around the world. The tearful voice of Herbert Morrison, which is seen as one of the most striking moments in the world, is still in the ears: Oh, the humanity!

If you wish, you can watch this sad live broadcast via this link:

References and Further Readings

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2023, January 13). Hindenburg . Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from

The Hindenburg disaster. (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2023, from

Oh the humanity! Herbert Morrison and the Hindenburg. (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2023, from

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, December 18). List of airship accidents. Wikipedia. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from

Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, January 30). Hindenburg Disaster . Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from

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Mete Esencan

Hello everyone! I'm Mete Esencan. I am a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at METU. I was planning to establish a platform by combining the research knowledge I gained during my basic science education and the management experience I gained in the METU Chemistry Society, which I was in charge of for three years. For this purpose, in February of 2021, I took the first step and established the OkButWhy, a platform where we can write articles as if to chat about science, art and philosophy. I wish everyone a pleasant reading!

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