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Trivia Fact for August 2019

August 7, 2019

Brought to you by Trivia Fan-atics

Ask anyone to name the greatest zeppelin disaster, and they will immediately think of the Hindenburg. The LZ 129 Hindenburg flew from March 1936 until it was destroyed by fire 14 months later on May 6, 1937, while landing at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester Township, New Jersey.  There were 36 fatalities. This was the last of the great airship disasters; it was preceded by the crashes of the British R38 in 1921 (44 dead), the US airship Roma in 1922 (34 dead), the French Dixmude in 1923 (52 dead), the British R101 in 1930 (48 dead), and the USS Akron in 1933 (73 dead).  Only the Roma had fewer fatalities.


So why was the Hindenburg using hydrogen instead of helium?

Helium was initially selected for the lifting gas because it was the safest for airships, as it is not flammable. At the time, however, helium was relatively rare and extremely expensive, as the gas was only available as a byproduct of mined natural gas reserves found in the United States Because of its expense and rarity, American rigid airships using helium were forced to conserve the gas and this hampered their operation. Hydrogen, by comparison, could be cheaply produced by any industrialized nation and being lighter than helium also provided more lift.

Despite a U.S. ban on the export of helium under the Helium Control Act of 1927, the Germans designed the Hindenburg to use the far safer gas in the belief that they could convince the US government to license its export. When the National Munitions Control Board refused to lift the export ban, the designers were forced to re-engineer the Hindenburg to use hydrogen. Despite the danger of using flammable hydrogen, no alternative gas could be produced in adequate quantities. The German’s long history of flying hydrogen-filled passenger airships without a single injury or fatality created a widely held belief that they had mastered the safe use of hydrogen.

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