Airship Hindenburg explodes in Lakehurst Disaster

On the night of  May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt for Lakehurst. This was the first transatlantic trip of the 1937 season. The crossing was uneventful, except for strong headwinds. The airship was half full, with 36 passengers and 61 crew members (21 more than usual who were crew members in training), but the return flight was fully booked by people attending the coronation of King George VI of the United Kingdom, which would take place on May 12th at Westminster Abbey, in London.

The low number of passengers was probably because of concerns of a bomb on board. A letter was sent to the German Ambassador predicting that the airship would be destroyed by a bomb after flying over New York City.  On May 6th , the airship arrived in the United States. The airship was already late, and the landing was further delayed because of bad weather. Captain Max Pruss took passengers on a tour through New York City, and the seaside's of Boston and New Jersey.

Around 7:00 p.m. local time, at an altitude of 650 feet, the Hindenburg approached the Lakehurst Naval Air Station for a high landing, known as a flying moor, because the airship would be moored to a high mooring point and then winched down to ground level. This type of landing maneuver would reduce the number of ground crew, but would require more time.

7:08 p.m.  the airship made a sharp full-speed left turn to the west around the landing field because the ground crew was not ready.

7:11 p.m.   the airship turned back toward the landing field and the airship began to slow.

7:14 p.m. at altitude 394 feet, Captain Pruss ordered aft engines full astern to try to brake the airship.

7:17 p.m. the  wind shifted direction to southwest, and Captain Pruss was forced to make a second, sweeping sharp turn, this time towards starboard.

7:19 p.m. the airship made the second sharp turn and dropped 300 and 500 kg of water ballast in successive drops because the airship was stern heavy.  None of these attempts to correct the problem worked and the airship seemed to sink even more, but Pruss was now permitted to land.

7:21 altitude 295 feet, the mooring lines were dropped from the bow, the starboard line being dropped first.

7:25 p.m. a few witnesses saw the fabric ahead of the upper fin flutter as if gas were leaking. At the same time another witness saw what looked like static electricity moving up the hull from the bottom.

Immediately after this, witnesses started to report a small flame ahead of the upper fin. One witness on the starboard side reported a fire beginning lower and behind the rudder on that side  however this may have happened after the initial fire on the port side. The Hindenburg caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flames.  The  flames quickly spread forward. Almost instantly, a water tank and a fuel tank burst out of the hull, as seen. At the same time, a crack appeared behind the passenger decks. The airship's back broke, and the section from the nose to the aft engine cars lurched upwards, while the stern stayed in trim.

As the Hindenburg's tail crashed to the ground, a burst of flame came out of the nose, killing three of the six crew members in the bow. As the airship kept falling with the bow facing upwards, part of the port side directly behind the passenger deck collapsed inward and the gas cell there exploded.  The airship's gondola wheel touched the ground, causing the airship to bounce. At this point, most of the fabric had burned away.

The time it took for the airship to be completely destroyed has been disputed. Some believe it took 34 seconds, others say it took 32 or 37 seconds. Since none of the newsreel cameras were running when the fire started, the time of the start of the fire can only be estimated from various eye-witness accounts, and will never be known accurately.  The incident is widely remembered as one of the most dramatic accidents of modern time. The cause of the accident has never been determined, although many theories, some highly controversial, have been proposed

Some of radio's greatest moments occurred live on the air or while a reporter is recording when the unexpected happens. Hindenberg Disaster was such event for Chicago radio station WLS's reporter Herb Morrison who was at Lakehurst covering the event on that rainy day for later rebroadcast. In those days radio events were always broadcast live since the networks had policies forbidding the use of recorded material except for sound effects. His engineer Charles Nehlsen recorded the broadcast on wax discs using a 16 inch Presto recorder. The recorder included an amplifier with a large 16 inch turntable, a heavy-duty lathe which cut into a 16 inch wax discs.  The recordings were first aired on WLS the next morning and was one of the few times that the radio networks allowed a recording of an event to be broadcast breaking there long standing policy forbidding recorded material. 

WLS, Chicago reporter Herb Morrison who reported for radio the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.