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Static Electricity Brought Down the Hindenburg, Engineers Say

For more than 75 years, the Hindenburg airship catastrophe baffled the world. A team of Aeronautical engineers say they now understand the root cause.

by Greg Thomas
Mar 5 2013, 3:20pm

It's never too late to shed light on old mysteries. Take for example the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, a labor leader with mob ties who vanished in 1975. An elderly mafia captain dropped a hint about the whereabouts of Hoffa's body to a Detroit radio station back in January (It's in a field in a Motor City suburb, he says.), causing a national news stir.

Now, a group of aeronautical engineers at a research institute in Texas claim they cracked the historic enigma of the Hindenburg airship explosion. Seventy-six years after the fact, it appears the Hindenburg was brought down by good old-fashioned static electricity.

A quick refresher: the 245-meter-long German-made Hindenburg dirigible was built as a modern technological marvel of commercial transportation, promising trans-Atlantic travel in less than four days. It had a top speed of about 84 miles per hour, which was the rough equivalent of warp speed back in 1937. On one of its first flights, during a landing attempt in New Jersey following a trip from Frankfurt, something went wrong and the rear of the hydrogen-filled blimp ignited. The fire spread quickly across the entire ship, bringing it to a crash-landing that killed 35 of the 97 people on board. It was a damaging blow to the idea of airship travel from which the industry would never recover.

Theories as to the cause of the catastrophe abounded. Some said terrorists planted a bomb on the Hindenburg; other conspiracy theorists said a rifleman on the ground shot the blimp. Some suspected sabotage; others said the blimp was coated with flammable paint.

But one thing several witnesses said they noticed just before the fire began was blue sparks appearing near the rear of the ship. Based on those observations and a bunch of lab experiments involving re-creations of the explosion, the researchers say the root cause of the Hindenburg's demise was static electricity.

The engineers, a mix of U.S. and U.K. researchers studying at the South West Research Institute in Fort Worth, Texas, basically rigged a bunch of 24-meter-long Hindenburg models in various explosion-inducing fashions and observed which ones most accurately depicted the pattern of the genuine disaster.

A Discovery promo for a show following the engineering team's work. You can watch the whole episode on YouTube for a couple bucks, if you're into that sort of thing.

Their theory: The ship became engulfed in an electrical storm that charged it with static; some kind of broken valve or other malfunction allowed gas to leak into ventilation shafts that emptied at the ship's rear, near the rudder; when the crew dropped landing ropes to the ground, they effectively grounded the ship, creating electrostatic that sparked the leaky gas. "That gave the whoomph," the lead researcher told The Independent.

Researchers say the way the fire ignited and spread during the in-lab simulations closely mimics the verbal and documented accounts of the sequence of the Hindenburg's destruction. Details of the experiments and findings are sketchy so far. A documentary about the research is slated to air March 7. But already certain experts are throwing support behind the static electricity theory.

"I think that's exactly what happened," airship historian Dan Grossman told The Independent. "I think you had massive distribution of hydrogen throughout the aft half of the ship; you had an ignition source pull down into the ship, and that whole back portion of the ship went up almost at once."

After the Hindenburg incident and the sinking of the Titanic 25 years earlier, you'd think we'd have internalized some deeper comprehension of the limits of mass-transportation vessels. But obviously we haven't. And you don't have to look far to see how amnesic we are–witness the Carnival Triumph cruise ship that stalled in the Gulf of Mexico last month. More closely related is the Costa Concordia disaster off the Italian coast last year that left 30 people dead. In fact, an Australian billionaire recently announced his plans to build a modern replica of the Titanic, which he calls Titanic II, and set sail in 2016. Let's hope the sequel is better than the original.