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The Hindenburg Disaster and the End of the Airship Era

Published in History Today

The Hindenburg disaster marked the beginning of the end for airship travel. Yet what is often forgotten today is that, until the 1930s, airships were a popular and luxurious way to travel.

On May 6th 1937, the German airship LZ 129 Hindenburg was destroyed in a fire whilst attempting to dock at a station in New Jersey.

Theories about what exactly happened differ: at the time, it was thought to be an act of sabotage, but it is now believed that a spark, possibly caused by static build-up, ignited a fire that blazed through the hydrogen-filled craft. The ensuing inferno, which took the lives of 13 passengers, 22 crew, and one person on the ground, was captured on cine film and memorably narrated by the newsreader, Herbert Morrison:

This is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world! [...] There's smoke, and there's flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground [...] Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here!

The industry never recovered: although airship accidents were nothing new, the impact of the footage was immense, and images of the tragedy were shown all around the world. The airplane had already caught up with lighter-than-air craft from a technical standpoint, and the sight of a hydrogen-filled behemoth crashing to the ground in flames helped forever dampen the public's enthusiasm for dirigibles. Prior to the disaster, however, the airship was one of the most elegant ways for the well-heeled to travel the world.

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