Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fire in the Sky

A few weeks ago a friend of mine (hi, Ken) suggested we attend a ceremony for the 80th anniversary of the crash of the zeppelin Hindenburg on May 6 in Lakehurst, which is about 1.5 hours by car from my house. That sounded like an odd enough event to be worth a look. At least two weeks advance notice of our intent to attend was necessary. Since Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (formerly Lakehurst Naval Air Station) is an active military base, we required security clearance. For some strange reason, we both were deemed acceptable and were allowed on base.

The Hindenburg was far from the worst aerial disaster. Amazingly, the majority of the 97 passengers and crew survived: 13 passengers and 22 crew were killed along with one civilian crewman on the ground. It wasn’t even the worst airship disaster – it ranks 5th. The highest toll was from the crash at sea in 1933 of the US Navy airship Akron; 73 out of the crew of 76 lost their lives, yet this event is little remembered. What makes all the difference to public consciousness, of course, is that the Hindenburg disaster was a media event. Film crews were on hand, and Herb Morrison’s live narration of the events still haunts.

Completed in March of 1936, the Hindenburg was the final iteration of zeppelin design. It was the fastest and most luxurious way for civilian passengers to cross the Atlantic. At 245 meters (803 feet) the craft was huge. It could accommodate up to 70 passengers. In 1936 it completed 17 transatlantic round-trip flights both to North and South America. The trip from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst (which had the facilities to handle airships) usually took 2.5 days though the fastest transatlantic run was 43 hours. The Hindenburg originally was designed for helium, but helium was scarce. The USA was the only significant supplier, and Congress had declared it a strategic material that could not be sold overseas. So, the ship instead used hydrogen for lift. Besides, decades of successful employment of hydrogen, including in World War 1, had convinced the Zeppelin company that the gas could be handled safely. On May 6 1937 this proved to be fatal overconfidence.
1936 arrival at Lakehurst
with USCG escort

Exactly what happened is still unclear. Conspiracy theorists long have suspected sabotage, but neither the American nor the German investigations of the accident turned up any evidence of it. “Static charge” was offered as a possible ignition source in 1937, but this was then and still is disputed by many with expertise in the field. One of the speakers at the ceremony last Saturday was Dr. Horst Shirmer, son of the lead aeronautical engineer for the Hindenburg. Dr. Shirmer as a boy also was a passenger on the airship, though not on the fatal flight. His suspicion is that a glowing ember of soot from the diesel engine exhaust was a likely culprit; the ship had outgassed hydrogen unusually late in the landing process that day as part of an unorthodox approach due to weather conditions. This made ignition from such an ember more possible. He readily admits, though, that there is no way to be sure.

May 6 2017 at crash site. Photo by
Ken Kaplan
Part of my reason for attending was to see what sort of crowd such a ceremony would draw. There was not an obvious pattern. Aside from two childhood passengers of the airship (not on the disastrous flight), few of the hundreds present had any real connection to the Hindenburg or to anyone who had been on the ship’s last flight. They spanned ages and backgrounds. Why attend this memorial activity? There is, of course, the eerie sense of connection to history that one can have in certain places and in the presence of certain objects. We often seek out that sensation. Beyond that, though, I think there is something about events such as this that reminds us in a special way of the randomness of the universe. Sometimes things just happen that are beyond our control. They may be in the control of other people or in the control of no one at all. Will Durant: "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice." Some of us survive, at least for the moment. Some of us don’t. For those of us still here, what is there to do but tell stories of those who have gone, lay a wreath, and move on? Our May 6 will come – but not today.

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