At a size of 800 feet, the Hindenburg was supposed to set a new standard in the airship era. Unfortunately, its fiery crash on May 6, 1937 caused the exact opposite — the virtual end of zeppelin travel. Since the tragic disaster, which killed 35 of the 100 people on board, many have put forth varying hypotheses as to the cause of the fire, but now a group of engineers and researchers claim they’ve discovered the culprit: static electricity.
On the day of the accident, onlookers and news media watched as the hydrogen-filled blimp attempted to dock at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. The crowds were delighted and all seemed well until the Hindenburg suddenly erupted into flames and, in mere seconds, plummeted around 300 feet to earth. Suspicions as to the source of the ignition encompass everything from sabotage, a bomb, fiery paint, and static. But, according to British aeronautical engineer Jem Stansfield and a team of San Antonio based researchers, those who had their money on static are indeed correct.
The scientists researched in detail the circumstances surrounding the event and conducted a series of tests on Hindenburg models in an effort to recreate the zeppelin’s fiery destruction. They concluded the airship became charged with static from an electrical storm. The electrostatic then came in contact with hydrogen that was leaking out of one of the ship’s valves and a spark ignited.
The researchers describe the chain of events in the following:
“The airship had become charged with static as a result of an electrical storm. A broken wire or sticking gas valve leaked hydrogen into the ventilation shafts, and when ground crew members ran to take the landing ropes they effectively “earthed” the airship. The fire appeared on the tail of the airship, igniting the leaking hydrogen.
“I think the most likely mechanism for providing the spark is electrostatic,” said Mr. Stansfield. “That starts at the top, then the flames from our experiments would’ve probably tracked down to the center. With an explosive mixture of gas, that gave the whoomph when it got to the bottom.”
Stansfield’s experiments are the subject of a British Channel 4 documentary, which will air on Thursday.