The Hindenburg Disaster

The Hindenburg Disaster Essay and Assignment

Sample Question

Please watch some videos about Hindenburg disaster so you will be fully confident with the topic and please answer the following questions.

1. Describe the relationship between the causes of failure in the case of the Hindenburg disaster (materials/human/design/poor maintenance/extreme conditions). Which causes were most important? Defend your answer with specific arguments. (at least 400 words)

2. Why are new types of airships being designed and constructed today? – How are they different from historical airships, in terms of materials and design? Describe how understanding the causes of failure of the Hindenburg (and similar ones, such as the failure of the airships Macon or Shenandoah) are helping engineers to create better designs. (at least 400 words)

3. Pick one of the types of materials analysis techniques discussed in the videos, and explain how it could be used to help engineers determine the cause of failure in another case (either hypothetical or a real case you look up). What sort of information can it provide? (at least 250 words)

Please try to add an image or two to your answer – and be sure to include any and all references you used in your responses. Please add a brief reflection as well — your reflection should describe both how you connect this assignment with other knowledge gained in the courses, and what you feel is most interesting to you in the videos, or what you found most surprising. Your reflections should be at least 4 or 5 sentences (a paragraph).

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The Hindenburg Disaster Essay

                        The Hindenburg disaster was one of the worst commercial airship disasters to have occurred. The 1937 crash led to the fatalities of more than 36 people, with 61 people sustaining serious injuries. Before the accident, the airship had made ten round trips between Germany and the United States and ferried more than 1000 people. However, on May 6, 1937, the ship was involved in an accident. Researchers have presented various arguments on the causes of the crash.

            One of the reasons attributed to the disaster was the use of inappropriate materials. The incendiary paint theory suggests that the doping compound used on the airship caused the fire (Bain, 1998). The canvas skin that was used to manufacture the airship was instrumental in starting and feeding the fire. The paint coatings used on the fabric comprised of both aluminum-impregnated cellulose acetate butyrate and iron oxide. These two materials are potentially reactive even after setting fully. Therefore, one could deduce that the choice of the materials used in the construction of the airship was highly related to the accident. Besides, the ship had been designed to operate on Helium gas. However, due to the restrictions imposed by the United States on its exports to Germany, the airship was using Hydrogen (Bokow, 1997). Hydrogen is a highly flammable and substantially fed the fire.

          Furthermore, while the hydrogen was contained in chambers, researchers have raised questions about what may have lead Hydrogen’s leak. It is argued that one of the various bracing wires within the ship may have snapped during one of the sharp landing maneuvers, this puncturing one of the gas chambers (Liao & Pasternak, 2009). Tests on some of the bracing wires found that substandard materials might have been used when making these wires; thus, they could not withstand much pressure (Bokow, 1997). Besides, there are arguments that a vent was stuck open; thus, the gas leaked through.

Figure 1: The Hindenburg Fabric

            Hydrogen cannot self-ignite; hence, there are various arguments on what could have ignited the gas. The static spark theory argues that an electric spark started the fire after the buildup of static electricity (Krystek, 2001). This spark ignited either the hydrogen or the airship coating, thus leading to the explosion. Lighting could also have ignited the fire. Lightning had hit airships but without any damage. However, since Hindenburg was preparing to land, it might have been venting hydrogen, which was a routine during landing, hence the ignition (Bokow, 1997).

Figure 2: The Hindenburg Exploding

            Human errors and poor maintenance can also be related to the disaster. Researchers argue that the ship could withstand sharp turns without substantial damage. However, after repeated stressing, the airship could have become structurally weaker to withstand the sharp turns 44

  1. Furthermore, the ship did not receive routine maintenance, despite evidence of minor damages in previous flights. There was little evidence to suggest that these damages had been properly rectified. In 1936, the airship’s tail had struck the ground. Though the tail was repaired, the incidence could have caused severe internal damage (Liao & Pasternak, 2009). Furthermore, the airship’s trapeze had been hit severally in past experiments, which further contributed to the escalation of its vulnerability to accidents. A fuel leak that was not properly fixed previous could also have resulted in the fire since there was an emission of a highly flammable fuel vapor that could have self-ignited (Bain, 1998).

            The argument that some of the bracing wires snapped during the sharp turns tends to be more rational. During the many sharp turns involved in the landing maneuvers, one of the substandard bracing wires could have snapped, thus puncturing one of the hydrogen chambers. After the accident, an analysis on one of the inferior wires revealed that it broke on merely 70% of its rated load (Liao & Pasternak, 2009). Thus, the wires snapping would have punctured one of the many gas cells resulting in hydrogen leak. The static discharge would then ignite the hydrogen. Besides, the broken bracing wire could have struck the girder causing sparks, which could have then ignited the hydrogen gas.

New Types of Airships

            The Hindenburg disaster almost brought the airship industry to a halt. The airships were becoming a favorite in the aerospace industry since they could fly for long durations while consuming less fuel. However, The Hindenburg accident ended all commercial flying airships. However, airships are still being designed and constructed in the contemporary world for other uses other than commercial flights. One of the primary uses for these new airships is military operations. The airships are used in operations such as radar surveillance platforms, missile monitoring, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes. For instance, DARPA has invested more than $300 million in the development of airships for military uses (Sherman 2010).

             Other than military purposes, airships are used for passenger transport, but for shorter distances. In most cases, the airships are used for sightseeing tours, but for small groups of people. For example, Airship Ventures Inc. used to run tours for up to 12 people in the San Francisco Bay area (Sherman 2010). Besides, in other countries, airships are used for advertising purposes. Because of their large size miniature engine noise, the airships provide an excellent advertising platform around crowded areas. For example, Nippon Airship Corporation in Japan used airships for advertising purposes around Tokyo.

            Furthermore, airships are used for exploration purposes in the contemporary world. They have been used for the exploration of diamonds in remote and harsh environments such as the Kalahari dessert (Huifeng,Chao,& Changguo, 2010). Besides, the new airships have been used for aerial video and photography. Their slow moving speed coupled with their silent engines makes them instrumental for wildlife observation purposes.

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            The contemporary airships are different in design and material composition. While earlier airships could use hydrogen to fly, modern airships can only fly using helium, minimizing the chances of explosions since helium is stable (Bokow, 1997). Earlier airships used goldbeater’s skin or gelatine film to construct the gas cells. These materials were highly flammable and could not withstand heat (Krystek, 2001). The modern airships are made using human-made materials such as Dacron, Mylar, Polyester, and Tedlar that is bonded with Hytrel. Further, the weather resistant, high-tech plastic film is coated with a polyester fabric (Huifeng,Chao,& Changguo, 2010). In addition, most of the metal that is used is riveted, aircraft aluminum. The nose cone in modern airships is made using metal, plastic battens or wood laced to the ship’s envelope. Further, the gondolas are made using metal monocoque designs.

            The failures by airships such as Hindenburg are enabling engineers to create better designs. The crash of the Hindenburg, for instance, ended the design of rigid airships. Non-rigid airships became more popular after studying the weaknesses of the rigid airships and their vulnerability to accidents. Engineers have also been able to develop better materials for the construction of the airships. Initially, the ship’s cells were made of materials such as goldbeater’s skin, which were vulnerable to fire and other damage. However, with the many accidents, engineers were able to develop better materials to use in the construction of the airships.

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Material Analysis

            One of the materials that have been analyzed is the highly flammable doping material that was used to paint the airship. Some arguments argue that this material led to the accident, rather than the oxygen that was used to give the airship lift. Through using the same elements as used in Hindenburg’s paint, it was discovered that it was possible to create incendiary thermite. However, the researchers found that the proportions of components used in the experiment burned much slower than the rate at which Hindenburg burned as recorded on film.

 Furthermore, a scale model of Hindenburg using similar proportions of the paint but placed in a hydrogen rich environment took almost a minute to burn, and the combustion appeared akin to that of the accident. The researchers, therefore, concluded that the accident could be attributed to both the paint and the hydrogen. The paint in itself could not be responsible for the airships fast burning. Further, the researchers found that if actual thermite would have been used to cover the airship, then it would have been too heavy for it to fly. Such research is important as it highlights the materials that are suitable for the construction of airships, as well as materials for the aerospace at large.

            The Hindenburg disaster was presentable, but during the accident, many things came into play. The accident highlights the importance of factors such as material analysis and regular inspection of equipment. Had the materials been inspected, probably the non-standard bracing wires could have been spotted. Further, frequent maintenance of the airship would have aided in identifying any damage and taking corrective measures.


Bain, A. (1998). The Hindenburg Disaster: A Compelling Theory of Probable Cause and Effect. publisher not identified.

Bokow, J. C. (1997). Hydrogen Exonerated in Hindenburg Disaster. Hydrogen Newsletter, 1.

Liao, L., & Pasternak, I. (2009). A review of airship structural research and development. Progress in Aerospace Sciences, 45(4), 83-96.

Krystek, L. (2001). The mystery of the Hindenburg disaster. Unnatural History Museum.

Sherman, J. (2010). The Hindenburg Disaster. ABDO.

Huifeng, T., Chao, W., & Changguo, W. (2010). Progress of New Type Stratospheric Airships for Realization of Lightweight [J]. Acta Aeronautica Et Astronautica Sinica, 2, 010.

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