Filling the Hindenburg With Hydrogen
In the 1930s, there was a dream of commercial airships ferrying passengers across the Atlantic in no time at all, just 60 hours. Commercial airship travel was gaining popularity, and the Hindenburg was the largest zeppelin ever built (in fact, it was the largest thing ever to fly). The airship was three times as long and double the height of a Boeing 747 of today, all wrapped up in a silver-painted fabric membrane [source: Hall]. It was just as luxurious as it was enormous -- it even had a specially designed lightweight baby grand piano on board, and, paradoxically, a smoking lounge.
In May 1937, during its attempt to dock, the luxury liner burst into flames above Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. In 37 seconds the Hindenburg was destroyed by fire; 36 of the 97 passengers and crew died. What went wrong? A few things. First and foremost, the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen, a highly flammable gas, instead of a less-combustible alternative such as helium.
There have been differing theories about what caused the hydrogen to combust. Could the zeppelin have been struck by lightning? Or was the German Hindenburg -- Nazi-funded, with swastikas on its tail -- a political target, destroyed by a bomb, gun or sabotage? Or maybe, others thought, the powdered aluminum in the paint contributed to the explosion? Today's leading theory suggests the combination of leaking hydrogen gas, such as from a broken or malfunctioning valve or wire, and a build-up of electrostatic resulting from a thunderstorm may have sparked the fire when the crew dropped the ship's landing ropes, which may have grounded the zeppelin and discharged the electrostatic.