Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Hindenburg Milestone

It is, perhaps, appropriate that a milestone anniversary for the Hindenburg disaster comes less than a month after a milestone anniversary for the Titanic disaster.

In April, of course, we observed the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic. Twenty–five years later, on this day in 1937, the German airship Hindenburg met a fiery end as it tried to land in New Jersey.

Everyone knows the story of how the Titanic was regarded as unsinkable before it struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic. I don't know if people felt the same way about the Hindenburg in 1937 — if there was a widespread conviction that the Hindenburg would arrive safely at its destination.

Perhaps there was. The Hindenburg had been flying for little more than a year, and it had been used for propaganda purposes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It had crossed the Atlantic earlier in the year and was making the first of 10 round trips between Europe and the United States.

The Hindenburg set no speed records. Even in their relatively developmental state 75 years ago, airplanes could still get people across the ocean faster than airships like the Hindenburg — but airplanes couldn't come close to matching the creature comforts available on the airships. The people who traveled in them were paying for amenities, not speed — and they paid a lot for the privilege.

They were not unlike the first–class passengers on board the Titanic, who were pampered in every imaginable way. The Titanic could cross the ocean as fast as or faster than any other ship on the sea, but a huge ship like that simply couldn't slither through an ice field the way a smaller ship could — and that was its fatal flaw.

No conclusion has ever been reached about the cause of the Hindenburg disaster — but it seems to me that a significant contributing factor would be the fact that, in the 1930s, highly flammable hydrogen was the fuel being used on airships. In the last half–century, airships have relied on the far less flammable helium.

That might not have made a difference, though, if the talk of sabotage that has persisted for 75 years is true. Surely, a saboteur would have found another way to accomplish his objective, and the landing that was scheduled for 75 years ago tonight would have been far too tempting to pass up. Heavy preflight publicity virtually guaranteed that the Hindenburg's arrival would be extensively covered by the press of the day.

In spite of the huge fireball that erupted, more than half of the passengers and crew survived. Proportionately, that was far better than the survival rate on the Titanic although the passenger manifest on the Hindenburg was far shorter.

There was never a chance that the fatality rate on the Hindenburg would come close to that on the Titanic. The numbers just weren't there.

Part of it may have been the shock value that comes from an outcome that simply isn't possible. And part of it may have been the experience, the immediacy of seeing it happen on newsreels.

Whatever it was, the Hindenburg deserves its spot in history the same as the Titanic disaster 25 years earlier — or the Challenger disaster nearly half a century later.

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