In 1937, the fiery destruction of the Hindenburg airship shocked the world, largely because the spectacular and deadly disaster was captured on newsreels. But for decades, the images the public saw did not show the very start of the fire. Now, a new NOVA documentary, Hindenburg: The New Evidence, uses amateur footage unearthed just a few years ago to further investigate the possible causes of the explosion.
“It ... says to me, as a producer, don’t let anyone tell you that there’s nothing new to be learned,” Gary Tarpinian, an executive producer of the documentary, tells the Albuquerque Journal’s Adrian Gomez. “We’re happy to be the ones that show the world something new on this tragic accident.”
The German airship, seen as a luxurious new form of travel, was attempting to dock at Naval Air Station in New Jersey when it burst into flames on May 6, 1937. The United States and Germany both launched official investigations into what sparked the fire but reached no definitive conclusions. Crucially, neither of the investigation teams consulted footage shot by amateur photographer Howard Schenck.
As Mindy Weisberger reports for Live Science, while the professional news crews at the scene all recorded the blaze from a similar angle, Schenck aimed his Kodak eight-millimeter camera at the side of the ship. His wide-angle lens captured the whole ship as it burned.
In 2012, Schenck approached Dan Grossman, an aviation historian who went on to help make the documentary, at a 75th anniversary memorial service for the Hindenburg and showed him the footage.
“My reaction was just—wow. I can’t believe we have this angle,” Grossman tells Live Science. “The footage begins earlier than any other film footage, so it shows more of the accident from an earlier point.”
The basic outline of the disaster is straightforward. Airships at the time were made of metal frames covered with treated cotton and inflated with hydrogen—a gas that is highly flammable when mixed with oxygen from the air, wrote Donovan Webster for Smithsonian magazine in 2017.
“It was never going to be ‘safe,’ you can never safely operate a flying bomb,” Grossman tells Live Science. “But the Germans had developed very deliberate and careful protocols for how to operate an airship, and many of those were ignored.”
The disaster most likely involved a hydrogen leak. Thunderstorms also created charged air that increased the chance of sparks caused by static electricity. Meanwhile, the Hindenburg’s crew members were probably under stress, Jason O. Harris, a pilot trained in accident investigation who worked with Grossman to study the disaster, tells the Military Times’ Caitlin O’Brien. They were late to arrive in New Jersey and eager to land quickly.
While Schenck’s footage does not show the spark that started the fire, it suggests that the culprit may have been related to the airship’s landing ropes. The Albuquerque Journal notes that the ropes dropped to the ground four minutes before the fire started. The documentary team worked with a chemical engineering scientist to study the ropes’ conductivity.
As Grossman tells Live Science, official protocol called for the ship to descend to a low altitude before dropping the ropes. Instead, the crew attempted a “high landing,” lowering the ropes to the ground from a high altitude so that the ground crew could winch them to the ground. These conditions created a higher risk of sparks.
“You can never operate a hydrogen airship in complete safety, and you can certainly never operate one in complete safety where there are thunderstorms,” Grossman says. “But you can operate it in a safer or a less safe manner, and they chose the less safe manner by choosing a high landing rather than a low landing.”
Per History.com’s Christopher Klein, the Hindenburg disaster wasn’t the world’s deadliest airship accident. It didn’t actually kill everyone on board: Of the 97 passengers and crew members on the ship, 35 died, along with one member of the ground crew. But thanks to the graphic footage, along with radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s emotional reaction, including the famous phrase “Oh, the humanity,” the event had a huge impact on public opinion of the ships.
After the disaster, lighter-than-air travel virtually disappeared, while commercial air flight took off. Today, some companies are seeking to revive airships as a low-carbon solution for cargo transportation and even passenger flight.
Hindenburg: The New Evidence aired on PBS Wednesday and is now available to stream at PBS.org.