36 Killed on the “Hindenburg” But Records Prove That Zeppelins Are Safe (Aug, 1937)

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36 Killed on the “Hindenburg” But Records Prove That Zeppelins Are Safe

by Bob Gordon

TO MOST of us Earth-bound mortals, there is something singularly terrifying about death from the sky. The only terror equal to it is death from fire. When the two horrors are combined in one spectacular disaster such as overtook the airship Hindenburg, we of panicky imaginations are prone to ignore facts, prone to throw up our hands and cry, “That is enough!”

Yet the men who must face this fate again if airship progress is to continue are far from ready to cry enough. Every uninjured survivor of the Hindenburg crew hurried back to Germany, that he might get a berth in the next great Zeppelin, the LZ-130, rapidly nearing completion.

And this attitude is not mere heroics. Airship men really believe that the rigid dirigible is a reliable means of transportation. Disasters? Of course they encounter disasters. “What mode of transportation does not?” is their argument. And they make a pretty good case for the airship, too.

They will tell you, for instance, that dirigibles have carried more than 250,000 paying passengers, yet up until the time 12 of the 36 passengers on the Hindenburg’s last trip were killed at Lakehurst, not a single passenger of any airship had ever lost his life.

You don’t believe this? Well, here are the figures.

On the three commercial Zeppelins built and flown before the World War, 37,250 passengers were carried without even a serious injury. Immediately following the war, the Nordstern and the Bodensee carried several thousand passengers before being seized by the Allies. Goodyear blimps have carried 180,000 passengers in perfect safety, while the Graf Zeppelin and the Hinden-burg carried 16,000 on regularly scheduled runs.

As to crew casualities, aside from one blimp pilot and two members of a ground crew killed when their ship was wrecked in a violent gale, after being torn from its moorings, no crew member of a commercial ship had been killed before the Hindenburg carried 24 of its 66 members to a fiery death.

There have been only 156 large rigid dirigibles built in the history of the industry. Twenty-nine of these were built and flown in Germany before the war. Several of the first ones were wrecked, but no one was killed. Count Zeppelin, a balloon observer for the Union Army in the American Civil War, devoted practically his entire lifetime to building and flying dirigibles, and died a natural death at the age of 76.

During the war, Germany built 104 and England 14 large airships. Sixteen German Army ships were lost in action, including four that were sabotaged while in their hangars; two bombed by British planes while on the ground, one blown to sea in a gale, and five stranded—two in enemy territory, three in Germany. Only four were shot down in flames. The rest were dismantled because they were obsolete, had been badly damaged (although able to return home), or to prevent confiscation by the Allies at the close of the war.

Since the war, Germany has built four large rigid airships, the United States three, and England two. No other country has ever built this type of craft.

Of Germany’s four, the Los Angeles was retired after many years of safe use. The Graf Zeppelin is still in regular service, having made more than 500 flights without accidents. The Dixmude disappeared over the Mediterranean after being turned over to an inexperienced French crew. The Hinden-burg was destroyed while landing at Lake-hurst, when exhaust flames from the motors or static electricity probably ignited hydrogen gas as it was being valved.

Of the two English ships, one broke in midair, due to structural weakness and burned. The other was driven into a hillside during a rainstorm.

Of the three American-built ships, the Shenandoah broke in two during a thunderstorm. The Akron was flown into the sea at full speed during a thunderstorm, while still intact. The frame of the Macon broke during a storm at a spot where needed repairs had been deferred, and was landed at sea at a spot selected by the Commander, with the loss of only two lives.

In the entire world, since the first dirigible was flown, only 318 lives have been lost in peace time operations of lighter-than-air craft.

Then why all the cry that the dirigible is doomed?

Since the World War there have been 69 major submarine accidents, in which 771 men were lost. We still build submarines.

During the same period there have been more than 100 “notable” marine disasters, in which 12,000 lives were lost. Yet try to book a quick passage on even a lowly freighter!

You will find the accommodations booked for weeks, sometimes months, ahead.

There have been 100,000 railroad fatalities since the war, yet the railroads advertise (and truthfully) they have the safest means of transportation.

On almost any summer holiday in the United States, more lives are lost in auto accidents than have been lost in the whole history of the airship. More than half a million persons have thus been killed since the war.

There is no cry to stop commercial airplane flights, though the past season has been disastrous. And if you think the air lines have lost business on account of these accidents, take the fingers of one hand out to Newark airport, and count the empty seats. Then why this condemnation of the airship, when, as a means of commercial transportation, it is the least offender of all? Are twelve passenger deaths, out of a quarter of a million passengers carried, too great a price to pay for the development of this swift and comfortable means of long distance transportation?

The fate of the rigid airship now seems to be entirely in the hands of the Zeppelin Company, and the U. S. Navy. The Germans have no idea of abandoning the industry, which for the first time was getting on a paying basis when the Hindenburg burned.

The LZ-130, now nearing completion, will have accommodations for 100 passengers; the projected 131 will carry 150. Since an average of forty passengers have been turned away from each trip of the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, the company has no qualms about being able to sell the additional accommodations.

It costs an average of $53,000 a round trip for an airship to make the North Atlantic flight. On the other side of the ledger will be $79,000 passenger revenue, and an additional $18,000 from mail and freight, making a net profit of $44,000 for each round trip. Not a bad payoff on a $2,000,000 investment! But the pie the Zeppelin Company really has its eye on is a trans-Pacific service. It is a ten-day trip from Seattle to Japan by the fastest steamers. The Graf Zeppelin made the trip in less than three days, nine years ago.

Airship officials do not consider the present Clipper planes as serious competition. The present planes carry only six passengers, a crew of nine, and half a ton of mail and cargo.

Opposed to them, the LZ-130 will carry 100 passengers, a crew of sixty, and twenty to thirty tons of mail and freight. The Clipper ships, though they fly faster, take the longer southern route, make four stops en route, and take from five to six days. An airship can take the great circle route, and fly non-stop in less than three days.

Aside from larger passenger quarters, and a slightly larger gas capacity, there will be no radical change in the design of the LZ-130 and 131, which will be almost sister ships of the Hindenburg. They will, of course, be buoyed by helium, in spite of its greater cost when compared to the highly inflammable hydrogen. That is one lesson the Germans have learned. Perhaps from necessity, for this government will never again permit a hydrogen-filled ship to use its landing facilities, according to reports.

Though several newspaper commentators have inferred that the United States was to blame for the Hindenburg’s burning, through refusal to sell helium, this is not true.

The Navy did insist upon a monopoly of the gas at first, when it was scarce, and extremely expensive to extract from natural gas. But when an ample supply was assured! several years ago, the sale to foreign countries for commercial purposes was offered. The German government could have secured helium for both the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, but balked at the price. It was Dr. Eckner’s insistence on obtaining helium for the Hindenburg that caused his break with the Nazi Government, and his subsequent dismissal from command of that ship, according to well-informed people in the industry. I

Commercial development of the rigid airship in the United States seems to be dead at the present time, due largely to a lack of interest in those having sufficient capital for the venture.

The Science Advisory Board, appointed to investigate the future possibilities of the dirigible shortly after the Macon crashed, recommended that another ship be built. It designated that this ship be used “at least for a time, as a flying laboratory and training ship.” The airship was never built.

As to the military use of the dirigible, it is the general opinion in Army circles that the airplane and blimp can accomplish military missions more effectively, and more economically, than can large airships. With airplanes able to climb higher than the dirigible, and able to fly circles around it, the airship has lost its value as a wartime scout and raider over land. The day of the airship bomber has definitely passed. But with the Navy it is something else again. Nothing can take the place of the large airship as a long-range scout. With a liquid desert as vast as the Pacific to patrol, twelve airships, costing less than one cruiser, could absolutely prevent a hostile fleet from approaching our shores undetected, while all the ships and airplanes in the fleet could not guarantee this. Besides, the dispersion of the fleet for scouting purposes, or to protect coastal cities, would so weaken it that a hostile fleet, able to approach intact, could defeat our forces piecemeal.

During twelve hours of daylight, a cruiser costing $18,000,000, with a crew of 605, can scout 4,800 square miles of sea. During the same period an airship manned by a crew of sixty, and costing only $2,000,000, can scout 172,000 square miles.

But cannot airplanes, with even greater speed, patrol even a greater territory? For a short distance off shore they can. But even the longest-range airplane cannot remain aloft more than 72 hours (you can’t refuel far at sea), while an airship can remain aloft two weeks, drifting at night to save fuel.

The argument usually given against the airship is that it is so vulnerable that, if it should discover the approach of a hostile fleet, it would be destroyed. Granting this for the moment, the same also applies to any other patrol medium. A cruiser must approach to within ten or twelve miles to secure the desired information, so could not hope to escape unscathed. It would be more economical, both in lives and money, to risk an airship to secure this vital information. The airship would certainly have time to radio its discovery before being destroyed; and the sacrifice would be well worth while if it prevented one ship from being sunk, one city from being bombarded.

But the dirigible would have better than an even chance of getting away. Proof of this was given a few years ago, when the Los Angeles sighted the aircraft carrier Lexington during fleet maneuvers, and observed it for an hour and 55 minutes before being discovered, although the Lexington had several planes in the air.

The reason for this is apparent to anyone who has ever done any flying. It is quite simple to sweep the horizon with a strong glass, spot any ship on the surface within the limits of visibility. It is quite something else again for the lookout on a ship to watch the immense dome of the entire sky effectively. In practice, it would be quite possible for an airship to discover the approach of a hostile fleet in mid-ocean from a distance of 40 miles, radio its position and size, and escape without the enemy being aware he had been observed.

Inflated with non-inflammable helium, the airship is by no means as vulnerable a target as is popularly supposed. Those who think a few machine gun holes in the bag will doom the ship do not realize that there is little pressure on top of the bag, none at all on the sides and bottom.

There were four valves 32 inches in diameter on each of the Macon’s twelve gas cells, yet with all valves fully open, it took several minutes to effect an appreciable change in buoyancy. Hundreds of machine gun bullets would do very little damage to such an airship. In the meantime, machine gunners aboard the dirigible, and the five planes it carries, could do quite a creditable job of defending itself.

Bombing and shell fire are something else again. A plane could easily destroy an airship by dropping bombs on it. The airship has no business coming within effective range of shell fire.

Although the Navy, especially the younger officers, still want additional airships, no definite steps are being taken (that they will admit) to procure them now.

The policy seems to be that, with the recent large appropriations for bringing the fleet up to treaty strength, it would not be wise to ask for additional appropriations for airship construction, with the Hindenburg tragedy so fresh in the minds of congressmen. They are, however, laying definite plans to go ahead with the development of airships when the time seems more propitious.

The Secretary of the Navy says:

“The Hindenburg tragedy will not effect the Navy’s decision, because it resulted from a hydrogen fire, and American ships use, instead of the highly inflammable hydrogen, an inert gas, helium, which while it has less lifting power than hydrogen, does not either burn or explode.”

So the immediate future of the airship is still in the hands of the Germans. For the next sky queen, we must await the arrival of the helium-filled LZ-130.

1 comment
  1. Don says: November 13, 200711:20 am

    I’m so glad Zeppelins were proved safe — it would be hard to imagine the modern world without them!

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