Monday, February 03, 2020

The Tragic Disaster of the German Airship Hindenburg

International news reports last month (November 2019), tell that Werner Gustav Doehner died in his home at Laconia New Hampshire on Friday November 8 at the age of 90.  Werner Doehner was the last survivor from the tragic disaster of the German airship Hindenburg that burned and crashed at Lakehurst New Jersey on May 6, 1937.  This is the story.

The German airship Hindenburg was the longest and the largest, and certainly the most famous of all of the several hundred airships, zeppelins, blimps and dirigibles that were constructed back during that era.  The 1937 Hindenburg disaster brought an end to the usage of airships for regular commercial passenger flight.

Preparatory work on LZ129, as it was designated according to the identification system adopted by the Zeppelin Company in Germany, began in 1931.  Assembly of the LZ129 began next year in March (1932) in a new and very large construction shed at Friedrichshafen, an industrial city on the edge of Lake Constance, quite close to the borders of Switzerland and Austria,

The outer skin of the LZ129 was made of modified cotton cloth coated with chemicals, and the hydrogen gas for this lighter than air ship was generated in 16 cells made of another form of chemically modified cotton cloth.  All passenger accommodations and amenities were provided in two decks in the lower section of the main body of the airship and they were heated by an air flow from the two forward diesel engines.  There was also a smoking room that was slightly pressurized to prevent the inward leakage of highly enflammable hydrogen gas; and there was just one public shower that provided a small trickle of water.

This newly designed zeppelin was powered by four specially modified 16 cylinder Daimler Benz diesel engines, each rated at 1200 hp.  Each engine was connected via a gearing system to its own four blade twenty feet wooden propeller which gave a top speed to the Hindenburg of 84 miles an hour.

The gondola was suspended under the main body of the airship and it contained all controls for the airship, together with flight operations and navigation.  There was also a kitchen in the gondola, though all cooking was performed electrically.

The Radio Room was installed in the hull of the airship, just above the gondola, and it was provided with two receivers and two transmitters, longwave and shortwave, each at 200 watts.  The antenna was a single trailing wire, the length of which was reeled out according to the frequency in use. 

The Hindenburg transmitters were licensed with the international callsign DEKKA, with the DE identifying Deutschland-Germany and the KKA identifying the Hindenburg LZ129.  International radio monitors in the United States reported hearing the Hindenburg on 5280 kHz, as well as on other frequencies in the 10 11 and 12 MHZ bands.

There were occasions when the Hindenburg was noted on relay from the German shortwave station at Zeesen, near Berlin.  For example, programming from the Hindenburg was noted in the United States on frequency callsigns DJC and DJD in July 1936.  Then too, as another example, there were occasions when the American shortwave stations including W2XE (CBS Jamaica Long Island NY) carried a relay of programming from the Hindenburg. 

Routine flight communications and private telephone calls during this same era were conducted via the RCA shortwave station at Rocky Point on Long Island.  On one occasion, test broadcasts from DEKKA were noted with two RCA frequency callsigns in parallel, WQP on 13900 kHz and with WQO on 7725 kHz.

On many occasions while overflying cities in Europe and the Americas, the Hindenburg made broadcasts of speech and music for relay by local stations on the ground as well as for direct reception by listeners with a shortwave radio.

The airship Hindenburg LZ129 was just as large as the sea going vessel Titanic, and just as large as the massive cruise ships of our present era.  While in flight, the Hindenburg made a majestic site as it quietly and gracefully slid through a peaceful sky. 

It took five years to finally complete the construction of the Hindenburg and it made its maiden test flight on March 4, 1936 with 87 passengers and crew aboard.  The LZ129 then made a series of promotional flights over Germany, dropping printed leaflets and making radio broadcasts which were relayed by local radio stations on the ground below.

On the last day of the same month (March 31, 1936), the Hindenburg began its first commercial flight, a roundtrip from Munich in Germany to Rio de Janeiro in Argentina.  The return journey of this flight was plagued with several technical problems, though none were serious. 

During the remainder of that year (1936), the Hindenburg made a total of 17 round trips across the Atlantic, to both Rio and New York.  During this 1936 season the lounge contained a specially built Bluthner baby grand piano that weighed just 356 pounds which is only one third of the weight of a regular grand piano. 

This baby grand piano was made of Duralumin, and it was covered with yellow pigskin.  Those who heard a musical concert from the Hindenburg on the radio stated that the sound from this strange piano was very unusual, and actually very unappealing.

During the 1936-1937 northern winter, the Hindenburg was refurbished, ready to take up passenger traffic across the Atlantic again in the early Spring (1937).  The first round trip for that year was again to Rio, and its second round trip began on May 3 (1937) with the destination as New York.

On this its tragic final flight, the Hindenburg took just three days to cross the Atlantic, and after traveling down the Atlantic Coast of Canada, it flew silently over New York City around 2 00 pm, much to the delight of viewers on the ground.  From there it flew south along coastal New Jersey awaiting a suitable docking time in between weather squalls.  Around 7:00 pm in the early evening, the giant airship was cleared for its final approach to the Mooring Tower at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, a dozen miles inland. 

At 7:21 pm, a pair of landing lines were dropped from the nose of the ship and these were grabbed in the usual way by the ground handlers.  Just four minutes later, at 7:25 pm on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg suddenly burst into flame, and it then dropped to the ground in a little over half a minute.

Traveller Werner Gustav Doehner was just 8 years old when he boarded the Hindenburg at Frankfurt in Germany with his two parents and an older sister and brother.  Their mother dropped the older boy through the open observation window, and by the time she dropped Werner, his face and his hair were already afire. 

The sister Irene seemed to be afraid to jump, and she ran into the inferno in attempt to reach her father.  The mother then also jumped out from the same observation window.  Unfortunately, the father died in the fire, and the sister Irene died in nearby Point Pleasant Hospital that same evening, from massive burns to her whole body.

Werner was uninjured in the fall, but he spent three months in hospital recovering from severe burns to his hands and face.  He subsequently married and had one son.  He was the last of the 62 survivors of the Hindenburg tragedy.  Thirty five other passengers died that night at the disaster scene in Lakehurst.

Awaiting the arrival of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst was News Reporter Herb Morrison from mediumwave radio station WLS in Chicago.  With him was Engineer Charles Neilsen who operated a Presto Direct Disc recorder.  Morrison was describing the mooring of the Hindenburg when suddenly it burst into flame and dropped to the ground. 

Morrison was audibly shocked at the now historic tragedy that was unfolding before him, though he continued with his live commentary.  The vibrations caused by the explosion aboard the Hindenburg, disturbed the recording on the wide 16 inch disc.  Beginning next morning, radio stations in New York and Chicago, and ultimately nationwide, included Morrison’s recording of the events. 

Subsequent investigations have suggested that static electricity conveyed by the wet mooring ropes ignited hydrogen gas that was leaking from a small tear in the skin of the zeppelin.  The Hindenburg carried 17,000 pieces of postal mail, only 176 survived the fire and were rescued and postmarked four days later.  Though charred and damaged, they are still readable and they are these days listed among the worlds most valuable philatelic artifacts.
(AWR-Wavescan/NWS 566)

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