Sunday, May 6, 2007

The 70th Anniversary of the Hindenburg Disaster

It was 70 years go that the zeppelin Hindenburg burst into flames upon its arrival at the U.S. Navy mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Ultimately the fire would result in the deaths of 35 people on board and one of the ground crew. There were 62 crew members and passengers who survived. The disaster would effectively bring an end to the era of airships.

Before the Hindenburg ever took flight, airships had gone through a long period of development, from the point at which Jean-Pierre Blanchard fitted a hand cranked propeller to a balloon in 1784 to Henri Giffard who piloted a steam powered airship in 1852. It would be Croatian engineer David Schwarz who would develop the first rigid airship (airships in which the envelope's shape is retained through an internal framework). After Schwarz's death his widow sold information about Schwarz's airship to Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Zeppelin made his first flight in 1900 over the Bodenese. Although the flight only lasted 18 minutes, it laid the groundwork for future success. Indeed, Zeppelin's flights were so successful that in 1914 the first airline, DELAG, was founded. Initially, they would use seven rigid airships or zeppelins (as they came to be called, after Graf Zeppelin himself). In World War I both the German Army and Navy would use zeppelins as bombers and scouts. In 1917 Graf Zeppelin died and the Zeppelin Company would then be headed by engineer Dr. Hugo Eckener. Eckener was a visionary who pictured a world in which zeppelins would be used for peace rather than war, in which they would provide transportation around the world. To this end, starting in 1919 the Zeppelin Company began establishing regular routes for flights.

Eventually, the Zeppelin Company would design zeppelins for the U.S. Navy (including the most successful, the U.S.S. Los Angeles). It was in 1935 that the Zeppelin Company decided to build their largest zeppelin ever and the largest single aircraft ever built. The new ship, designated LZ 129, would be christened the Hindenburg, after Paul Von Hindenburg who had been president of the German republic from 1925 to 1934. Needless to say, this decision did not sit well with the Nazi regime (whom Eckener did not care for anyhow). The Hindenburg flew from Germany to the United States and even Brazil. It flew successfully in its first year of service. Unfortunately, the ship (arguably the most beautiful airship ever built) was doomed from the beginning. The Zeppelin Company had wanted to fill it with helium, but the United States military embargo against the Nazis prevented them from buying the precious gas from the U. S. It was then filled with the much more combustible hydrogen. As a result, when it erupted into flames on May 6, 1937, it pretty much went all at once. The disaster was widely covered in the news and would effectively end the era of airships. For decades afterwards, only Goodyear and, during World War II, the U. S. Navy, would make any use of airships at all.

Sadly, the Hindenburg disaster was not the worst zeppelin disaster of all time. That would be the the crash of an American zeppelin, the U.S.S. Akron, on April 3, 1933, which left 73 passengers and crew dead (only three survived). I should mention that the American zeppelins Macon and Shenandoah also met with bad ends (in 1935 the Macon hit a storm which sank it, killing 76 of the crew; in 1925 the Shenandoah was torn apart by a thuderstorm--miraculously 29 of its crew survived). And no zeppelin disaster matched the worst aeroplane disaster. That would be the Tenerife Disaster, which happened on March 27, 1977 when a KLM Boeing 747 tried to take off and crashed with a taxing Pan Am 747 at Los Rodeos airport. The disaster took the lives of 583 people. Indeed, when it came to air safety, zeppelins had a remarkable track record. Until the Hindenburg disaster, the Zeppelin Company's safety record under Dr. Eckener's leadership was perfect. Not one passenger was lost. In America the U.S.S. Los Angeles operated from 1924 to 1932. It lost none of its crew in that whole time. In fact, in 1927 high winds even caused the airship while on the mooring mast at Lakehurst to be lifted almost vertically before the crew could level her out. Amazingly, none of the crew was lost and what is more, it suffered minimal damage! Sadly, it was decommissioned after the Akron disaster and dismantled in 1939. It had the longest career of any airship in history. Despite many of the disasters, over all zeppelins had a better track record than heavier than air craft have. Sadly, between the Akron, Macon, Shenandoah, and Hindenburg disasters, it would seem zeppelins have gotten a bad rap.

Of course, in the past few years zeppelins have made a bit of a comeback. Cargolifter AG pictured an airship, larger than the Hindenburg, which could lift heavy loads. Sadly, the company went bankrupt in 2002. Airship Industries built airships in the Eighties with some success. While the company folded in 1990, they were taken over by Westinghouse, who later sold their airship and surveillance systems arms to Aviation Support Group Ltd., forming Global Skyship Industries. It is still in operation. Zeppelin Company started building airships once more in the 1990s. They created an experimental craft in 1997, designated the Zeppelin NT. Smaller than the zeppelins of old and only semi-rigid, the Zeppelin NT and its sister blimps were not true zeppelins. In 2005 De Beers, the diamond mining company, started using airships to explore Kalahari desert for diamonds.

And while the Hindenburg disaster would end was I hope what was only the First Era of Airships, it would not end the public's fascination with them. In literature airships have been a favourite for over a century. In literature both Jules Verne and H. G. Wells explored the possibilities of airships (Verne's Clipper of the Clouds and Wells' The War in the Air). Mark Twain featured a small airship in the short story "Tom Sawyer, Aeronaut" and a manoeuvrable balloon in the novel Tom Sawyer, Abroad. Ruyard Kipling's ABC series took place in a world where airships were used for both passenger and cargo service. Edgar Rice Burroughs featured airships as one of the means of travel on Barsoom in his John Carter of Mars series. In the Doc Savage novels from the pulp magazine of the same name, among Doc's many vehicles stored at his warehouse labelled "The Hidalgo Trading Company" was a super-advanced, silver airship. A lost airship also figured in the Doc Savage novel The Lost Oasis in Doc Savage Magazine Volume 2 issue 1, September 1933. Lester Dent, the creator of Doc Savage, also wrote a series called "Zeppelin Tales (recently collected and published in an anthology of that name by Heliograph)." Dent wrote the stories from 1930 to 1932, prior to his long career with Doc Savage, and the stories not only feature zeppelins, but such things as pirates (in the air, nonetheless...), cannibals, and even a private detective! Of course, Dent wasn't the only pulp writer who wrote about airships. Airships figured in many early pulp adventures ("The Airship Boys" series dates to 1909). As might be expected, zeppelins figured in pulp stories about the Great War.

Airships even appear in recent literature. Quite naturally, they feature in historical fiction. Len Deighton's novel about Berlin from 1920 to the rise of Hitler, Winter, quite naturally features zeppelins. Max Alan Collins' The Hindenburg Murders is a mystery based on the Hindenburg disaster. Cameron Dokey's Hindenburg 1937 is a romance set on the famous zeppelin. Of course, airships have figured in science fiction, particularly the steampunk subgenre. Poul Anderson's dystopic short shory "The Sky People" featured a post apocalyptic world in which raiders preyed on people on the ground in scientifically advanced blimps. Michael Moorcock's alternate history The Warlord of the Air posits a world where World War I never occurred and even in 1973 airships are still used. In the Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, airships are the most common method of travel. Airships figure prominently in Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore Judson, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. In the Wild Cards series, the potentially deadly Wild Card virus (which can mutate people into superheros, mutate them into twisted creations called Jokers, or simply kill them) is delivered over Broadway by the insidious Dr. Tod in an airship. Only Jetboy prevents the disaster from being worse. In the novel The Never War, one of many by D.J. MacHale featuring teen hero Bobby Pendragon, the Hindenburg figures prominently in the plot. It also figures in the novel Chronospace by Allen Steele. Over the years, airships in general and the Hindenburg in specific has appeared in several documentaries and on series about history and technology.

Airshps have also figured in movies. In 1931 the classic Hell's Angels featured scenes of zeppelin bombers (it's a wonder Howard Hughes didn't try to build one for the movie or at least try to rent one from the U. S. Navy...). The Assassination Bureau, released in 1969, included a zeppelin in its climax. The 1971 movie Zeppelin featured a British pilot (played by Michael York) infiltrating a German zeppelin bombing mission. In 1975 The Hindenburg was a highly fictionalised account of the Hindenburg disaster. In the Bond movie A View to the Kill, villain Max Zorin featured one of Airship Industries' Skyship 500 series. The film made an error in claiming inflation only took two minutes (in reality, even blimps can take a day to fill). The third Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, included a zeppelin (which Indy and his father board). In The Rockeeteer (one of the great underrated superhero movies), the climax takes place aboard the fictional zeppelin Luxembourg (apparently the Hindenburg disaster either never took place or did not impede the progress of airships). An airship is used to travel through Egypt in The Mummy Returns. In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (another regrettably underrated movie), Dr. Jorge Vargas disappears aboard the fictional zeppelin Hindenburg III (again, it seems that airships continued to be used extensively in the world of this film after 1937--the film is set in 1939). The recent film Flyboys mines much the same territory as Hell's Angels, but goes it one better--it features an aerial battle with a zeppelin! As might be expected, airships appear in anime. Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky features huge zeppelins complete with cannon. In his movie Howl's Moving Castle airships are used as a means of travel. In Kiki's Delivery Service, a blimp catches on a building.

Airships have also appeared on television. In the fifth season episode of the TV show The Waltons, "The Inferno," John Boy wins a contest sponsored by a news service and unfortunately wins a chance to cover the Hindenburg's arrival at Lakehurst on May 6, 1936 (I must admit I never found this episode particularly realistic--it would have been like myself as a teen getting to cover the Iran Hostage Crisis...). The Duff Blimp appears in The Simpsons "Lisa the Beauty Queen," where it goes up in flames like the famed Hindenburg. On Dr. Who, in the 2005 episode "The Empty Child," blimps figure prominently. In the 2006 two part episode of the same series, "Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel," zeppelins appear prominently. The 1995 Adventures of Batman and Robin episode "Showdown" features my favourite appearance of an airship on TV. In the episode the Dynamic Duo discover a cassette tape belonging to Ra's al Ghul in which he relates how he tried to destroy the railroad in the American Old West using a steampunk style airship (it looked like a zeppelin to me). He is stopped only by DC Comics' legendary Western bounty hunter Jonah Hex (in his first appearance on film). The episode reminded me of the old TV show The Wild Wild West. Indeed, the plot of the movie Wild Wild West (which ravaged the TV show, in my opinion) resembles the plot of this episode to a suspicious degree. The Discovery Channel's Mythbusters (easily one of the funnest shows on TV) once tested the many theories about what caused the Hindenburg to explode.

Airships have even figured in music. Calypso artist Attilla the Hun recorded the song "Graf Zeppelin" in commemoration of that zeppelin's visit to Trinidad while travelling from Rio de Janeiro to Chicago. In 1969 Captain Beefheart featured a song called "The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)," based on the newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster. And as is well known, the group Led Zeppelin took its name from a quote from The Who drummer Keith Moon about the band going down like "a lead zeppelin (the spelling was changed for fear daft Americans might mispronounce the world "lead")." Their first album featured artwork by George Hardie based on the Hindenburg disaster. A zeppelin also figured in the cover of the their second album. In 1992 Pink Floyd used the the Division Belle blimps in their tour (one travelled across North America, the other Europe). Electronic group VNV Nation featured a song called "Airships" on their album Futureperfect in 2002. Huddie Ledbetter wrote a two part song called "The Hindenburg Disaster."

Despite our continued fascination with airships, the Hindenburg disaster effectively ended their extensive use. While not even the worst zeppelin disaster, it was one in which 35 people lost their lives. The arrival of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst was big news and reporters from the newspapers and newsreels were present. Chicago radio station WLS had assigned Herbert Morrison to cover the airship's arrival at Lakehurst. Instead he found himself covering a disaster taking place before his eyes. His vivid description, in total shock, complete with the famous words "Oh, the humanity," have become famous on their own. Newsreel camera were also covering the zeppelin's arrival, capturing its destruction on film. Morrison's narration would later be added to the newsreel footage. Between the loss of life and the coverage of the disaster, it is little wonder that it would bring the end of airships. Sadly, we still do not know what caused the disaster to this day.

I have always found the Hindenburg disaster to be one of the saddest events in recent history. It is not simply the loss of life, which was indeed a tragedy, but that it brought an end to a mode of transportation on the whole safer than aeroplanes. Obviously, from this article one can tell I love airships. And I obviously hope that airships will make a comeback. I am frightened to death of planes (I am not scared of heights--but anything that can kill up to 300 people at once frightens me a lot--even the Akron had survivors...), but I would gladly board an airship any day. Sadly, I don't know if we'll ever see their return. There has been renewed interest in them since the Eighties. At one time only Goodyear made airships. Today there are several companies building airships. Even Zeppelin has started building them again, although, sadly, Goodyear no longer mass produces blimps. With any luck, perhaps we will see the return of the airships of old.


Sheila West said...

(Prior comment removed and correted as a new post here)

9/11 included the Pentagon, but the visual image we have of that day is the Twin Towers.

While the Akron was obviously the worst disaster, it was the Hindenburg that is emblazoned in our visual associations of blimp disasters.

Video footage is key to escalating something beyond being merely intellectually interesting to read about in a newspaper, to being heartwrenching to watch on a screen.

As a parting shot:

The Nuremburg trials were an endlessly boring and monotonous parade of mind-numbing statistics. And then they took out a movie projector and showed film footage of what the concentration camps looked like. Those film reels changed the entire course of the trials.

The moral of the story:

Don't just TELL us ... SHOW us!

Terence Towles Canote said...

Shelia, I have to agree with you. I think the newsreels of the Hindenburg going up is what made that more memorable than any other airship disaster. As you pointed out, the Pentagon was also hit on 9/11, but because of the TV coverage of the World Trade Centre, it is the image of the Twin Towers that we think of as to that day. I think it goes back to that old adage, "Seeing is believing." Somehow seeing something makes it more real.

Sheila West said...

Yes. And to add:

This fact only recently dawned on me as I have been an overtly visual person my entire life. I'm an aspiring scriptwriter and can easilly imagine things based off of a writen narrative (as in a movie script). And I spent my whole life naively assuming everyone else was just as vivid as I was in imagining things as described to them via verbal or written description. This revelation just makes me more aware of my audience's limitations and my need to show things more visually.

Bobby D. said...

This post really taught me a lot--I had simply assumed airships were freaking dangerous!