Remembering LZ 129, the Hindenburg and the Importance of Naval Air Station Lakehurst

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On May 6, 2017, I attended the memorial service of the eightieth anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster at the spot where the Hindenburg crashed at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. The weather was much like it was that fateful night eighty years ago, overcast, a cool breeze and light rain. For more than 30 years on May 6th, the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society (NHLS) has marked this solemn occasion at the very spot where the Hindenburg’s Gondola came to rest.

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The former Naval Air Station (NAS) Lakehurst, once called the ‘Airship Capitol of the World’ is now part of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The base still has four of its iconic hangers from the golden age of rigid and lighter than air airships, which stand as reminders of the bases prominence in the emerging technology in the early days after World War I and into World War II.

So just how did NAS Lakehurst become the ‘Airship Capitol of the World’ and end up tied to the Hindenburg in the annals of history? In 1919, the United States Navy was in need of an airship station. The Acting Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, authorized the purchase of the 1700 acres of the former World War I United States Army chemical warfare training facility known as Camp Kendrick. The Navy renamed the facility Naval Air Station Lakehurst and began construction of Hanger One in September of 1919; Hanger One was completed and commissioned on June 28, 1921. The huge building was designed to be able to house two rigid airships at the same time. It is a massive structure at two hundred ninety four meters (nine hundred sixty-four and a half feet) long, one hundred ten meters (almost three hundred sixty one feet) wide and sixty-eight meters (two hundred twenty-three feet) high.

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NAS Lakehurst became the center of rigid airship development for the United States when the Navy stationed three of their four rigid airships there. The USS Shenandoah ZR-1 (constructed in Hanger One), the USS Los Angeles ZR-3 (originally LZ 126) and the USS Akron ZRS-4, the world’s first flying aircraft carrier were all stationed at NAS Lakehurst.

In October 1928, NAS Lakehurst became the first international airport in the United States when the Hindenburg’s sister ship the Graf Zeppelin LZ 127 arrived on the first intercontinental scheduled flight from Friedrichshafen Germany to NAS Lakehurst. Graf Zeppelin would again make history in August 1929 when it began and completed the first around the world flight from NAS Lakehurst.

The Hindenburg was designed and manufactured by Zeppelin Company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH along Lake Constance in Friedrichshafen Germany. The Zeppelin was operated by the German Zeppelin Airline Company, Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei. The Airship was named in honor of the late German President Paul von Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg LZ 129 was and still is the largest aircraft ever built at two hundred forty-five meters (almost eight hundred and four feet). It is longer than an Airbus A380-800, Boeing 747-8 and Antonov An-225 placed nose to tail with eleven and a half meters (thirty eight feet) to spare. It was also very fast for its day. The Hindenburg was able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in half the time it took the Queen Mary, Normandie and Bremen, the fastest ocean liners of their day. On average, the Hindenburg could cross the Atlantic Ocean in two and half days. It’s fastest crossing from NAS Lakehurst to Frankfurt Germany took only forty three hours and two minutes. However, it was very expensive at four hundred fifty U.S. dollars for a one way flight.

In 1936, NAS Lakehurst was the only place on the east coast of the United States that could shelter the Hindenburg. With no commercial ground crew available, military members were paid one dollar and given a bag lunch to moor the airship.

On May 6, 1937, on its thirty-fifth and final crossing over the Atlantic Ocean, the Hindenburg encountered thunderstorms which had delayed its arrival by twelve hours. Poor weather conditions continued to be present with thunderstorms reported in the area at 3:43 PM. The airship arrived over NAS Lakehurst at approximately 4:15 PM. The Hindenburg’s Commander, Captain Max Pruss was concerned with the weather conditions, as was NAS Lakehurst’s Commanding Officer, Commander Charles Rosendahl. The Hindenburg flew for several more hours along the coast of New Jersey. By 6:00 PM, conditions at NAS Lakehurst had improved. Commander Rosendahl sent Captain Pruss a message relaying the current conditions which Commander Rosendahl considered suitable for landing. At 6:22PM, Rosendahl radioed Pruss and recommended that he land now. The Hindenburg arrived once again over the field at NAS Lakehurst from the southwest, shortly after 7:00 PM at an altitude of approximately six hundred feet. At 7:08 PM, Rosendahl sent a message to the ship strongly recommending the earliest arrival and landing. The wind was from the east and after passing over the field to observe conditions on the ground, Captain Pruss initiated a wide left turn to fly a descending oval pattern around the north and west of the field, to line up for a landing into the wind.

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Suddenly the Hindenburg was being engulfed by fire. The airship pitched up as the aft section struck the ground. In less than forty five seconds, the Hindenburg was consumed by a raging inferno and fell from the sky. The only living survivor of the disaster, Werner Doehner, is now eighty-eight years old and lives in Colorado. He has described that air around him on the ship was on fire. He was eight years old on that trip and traveling with his entire family back from a vacation in Germany. As the airship erupted into fire his mother pushed him and his brother out of an open window. He suffered burns and was hospitalized for three months before being well enough to be transferred to a hospital in New York City for skin grafts. At the memorial service, many spoke about Captain Pruss was praised and compared to modern day heroes for his actions that day. He personally ran into the inferno with no protective gear three separate times rescuing victims. He was badly burned and had to be restrained from entering the wreckage again. His burns were so severe he would be hospitalized for months and require skin grafts as well.

The loss of thirty six lives (thirteen passengers, twenty-two crew members and a single ground crew) did not make the Hindenburg the deadliest disaster involving an airship. The USS Akron ZRS-4 which departed from NAS Lakehurst on April 3, 1933 holds that distinction with seventy-three killed when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off New Jersey during a storm. The Hindenburg is the deadliest in measure of civilian lives lost. What really brings the Hindenburg disaster to the forefront is being the first major disaster that was captured on newsreel. It is remembered because of the famous delayed radio broadcast by Herbert Morrison, who covered the landing for WLS in Chicago. These were later synched and broadcast in a format that was the forerunner of today’s television news.

Perhaps the largest misconception about the Hindenburg is that the hydrogen it used for lift exploded. The Hindenburg caught fire, it did not explode. If the Hindenburg’s two hundred thousand cubic meters (seven million, sixty two thousand cubic feet) of hydrogen had exploded it would have likely killed everyone present and leveled the base’s structures. This year the guest speaker at the memorial was Doctor Horst Schirmer. His father Max was an aerodynamic engineer on the airship. Doctor Schirmer recalled how he flew on the Hindenburg during a test flight over Lake Constance from Friedrichshafen Germany. He described a magnificent airship that was a joy to fly in.

After eighty years, despite many theories and investigations, the source of the fire is still undetermined. Many have suggested lightning but during many recorded interviews, Captain Pruss discounted that. He stated that the Hindenburg had been struck by lightning many times, especially during its many voyages near the equator by South America, so this could not have been the cause. The worst damage from lightning the Hindenburg suffered, he stated, was a hole in the bow skin. He believes sabotage was much more likely.

Doctor Schirmer remarked “We will never for sure know what exactly happened, hopefully, it was not sabotage.” He explained that hydrogen needs the right combination of oxygen mixed with it and an ignition source to ignite it. For this reason he believes the hydrogen was slowly leaking and not a sudden massive release. He recalled that the Hindenburg had a new type of propeller installed before this trip. He described the landing and how the Hindenburg’s aft engines were placed into full reverse as it approached the flying moor. Doctor Schirmer described the temperature of the engine gases internally to be near 600 degrees Fahrenheit. As they exited the exhaust pipes, the gases cooled to 500 degrees. At just 10 feet beyond the exhaust pipe they cooled to nearly 300 degrees. Doctor Schirmer theorizes that an oil particle blown from the engine while in full reverse could have been the ignition source to the fire which fell the Hindenburg. He explained how there were vents nearby where the gas and oil particles could have come in contact with each other.

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Over the following days both the American and German governments initiated investigations. The Germans salvaged most of the airship and shipped it back to Germany for examination. With the few exceptions of pieces that exist in the Navy Lakehurst and the Lakehurst Historical Society museums, little still exists today. After eight years and numerous advances in science and technology, it is still not definitive in what started the fire that destroyed the Hindenburg. The conclusion that a significant leak of hydrogen prior to the disaster with an unknown ignition source is still the most likely cause of the end of commercial airship aviation.

In preparing this article I visited the both the Naval Lakehurst Historical Society located in Hanger One aboard Joint Base McGuire – Dix – Lakehurst and the Lakehurst Historical Society located at 300 Center Street Lakehurst NJ. Both contain artifacts from the Hindenburg and were amazing to behold. I highly recommend visiting both and taking the base tour.

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