76 years after the Hindenburg disaster, scientists have finally figured out exactly what made the dirigible explode into a ball of flames on May 6, 1937
Back in the 20's and 30's, dirigibles were all the craze. People were quite certain that the massive, rigid airships were the future of air travel, something evidenced by the Empire State Building, whose spire was originally intended as a docking station. However, all that changed after a fateful disaster in 1937, when the German airship Hindenburg caught fire while landing in New Jersey, killing 35 of its 100 passengers.
Up until now, experts have debated what actually caused the fire, but scientists from the Southwest Research Institute, led by aeronautical engineer Jem Stansfield, have recreated the Hindenburg's final moments using models, and they believe they've found the true reason for the disastrous fire: Static electricity. It has been generally accepted that a sudden spark ignited the hydrogen filled airship, but the source of the spark is contested.
What Stansfield believes, is that the Hindenburg traveled through an electrical storm on it's way across the Atlantic, charging the airship. When landing, the Hindenburg released it's anchoring cables, and when ground crew attached the cables, they effectively grounded the ship, discharging whatever static it had built up during the trip.
The 450 meter long Hindenburg, sailing through the air above the southern tip of Manhattan
Stansfield and his team also believe a leak or faulty valve in the hydrogen balloons which contained the airship's gas, lead to hydrogen being dispersed throughout the rear of the ship via the ventilation system. This is evidenced by the entire rear portion of the ship being engulfed in flames almost immediately.
Obviously, the fact that the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen didn't set it up for a nice, safe flight to begin with: Hydrogen is highly explosive (and used today as rocket fuel). The reason it was filled with such a dangerous gas however, instead of the completely non-reactive Helium, wasn't purely out of negligence. At the time the Hindenburg was in service, the United States had control of the world's helium supply and had placed a helium embargo on Germany. Thus, only the American built airships could be filled with Helium, and the German Zeppelin company had to resort to the only other lighter than air gas readily available, despite the risks.
And thus, sadly, these incredible giants which combined the leisure of a cruise with the adventure of air travel, disappeared from our skies.