Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.
It's the question that's always asked after tragedies, the "what if?" History is littered with these. On May 6, 1937, the airship Hindenburg explodes in a Titanic-sized fireball, ending the lives of 35 of its passengers and crew. Its demise signals the end of the airship age of travel. Within months, all rigid airships would be grounded and scrapped. If history granted us the ability to reverse this tragedy, would the long term outcome be any different? What if the Hindenburg never crashed? What would have happened to the ship? The reality these vessels of tragedy share is the hard fact that they are only famous because of the loss of life enveloped in their sagas.
What Exactly Was a Rigid Frame Airship?
To modern folks, it seems completely mind-blowing that there was once something larger than an Airbus A380 ferrying passengers across the ocean. Not only were these airships bigger, but they were outright hotels in the sky. Imagine walking freely in a private cabin with your very own bed with a closet to open and hang your luggage in. There was even a lounge complete with a grand piano available. You don't see that anymore.
What made all this opulence possible was the German designed rigid frame airship. Unlike a hot air balloon or modern day blimp, where the shape of said craft was created entirely by air inside a single envelope, a rigid airship had a frame that gave structure to multiple envelopes. This frame was made out of a aluminum alloy composite known as duralumin, the lightest metal then available in the 1920s. The mathematical formula to lift this steel and gas structure spawned HUGE airships, 600 to 800 feet in length. Nothing today even comes close to that size.
LZ 129 Hindenburg
Hindenburg and her running mate, Graf Zeppelin, represented the pinnacle of German dirigible design that began at the turn of the 20th century. By the 1920s these airships had reached truly titanic sized proportions. Hindenburg, constructed in 1931 as LZ-129, was officially one of the largest airships ever built. At 803 feet in length, it was a marvel to behold. Originally designed for helium, the Hindenburg was modified for hydrogen after the United States passed the Helium Control Act which prohibited the export of the safe lifting gas. The highly flammable gas Hydrogen was then used.
Hindenburg operated for fourteen months without any major incidents before being destroyed in a hydrogen fuel explosion in 1937. Its destruction ended the era of these great airships and all remaining ones were decommissioned and scrapped within a few years.
So what would have happened then if there was no explosion?
Had Hindenburg not exploded, she would have completed her journey to New Jersey safely. The first part of its first scheduled transatlantic round trip flight of the 1937 season, she would have been refueled and prepped for her return voyage. Returning to Europe several weeks later, the cycle would have continued over and over.
Despite omitting the disaster, the great airships already were an endangered species by the 1930s. A combination of both an overall questionable safety record, by either design or human error, and the advancement of aircraft technology put the longterm future of these ships in doubt.
By the 1930s, a number of great airship disasters had already occurred, most of which with considerable loss of life.
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Despite the fame of the Hindenburg disaster, the USS Arkron is actually considered the deadliest airship disaster of all time and is all but forgotten since its demise wasn't captured on film. With a higher death toll, the loss of this vessel signaled the end of US involvement in the development of airships. The loss of R101 three years earlier signaled the end for the British. By the time Hindenburg flew in 1936, Germany was one of the only countries still building and operating airships at a large scale.
USS Akron was the US Navy's definition of a flying aircraft carrier. It seemed promising during the decades of very limited aircraft capabilities. But after the loss of both USS Akron and two years later, the loss of USS Macom, the airship design was simply too fragile to be reliable.
The USS Los Angeles, a german built airship under US control, and one of the very last to be decommissioned by the US, ultimately proved that rigid airships didn't benefit US Navy operations during Fleet Problems XII and XIII. Their fragility and vulnerability to anti-aircraft fire couldn't be overcome.
World War II
If the Hindenburg Disaster didn't signal the end of the rigid airships, the second World War certainly would have.
Just two years after that fateful voyage in 1936, German invaded Poland and thus began the most destructive total war the planet has ever seen. Total War is defined as when the entire economic might and resources of a country are assembled behind the war effort. This includes recycling and reusing of materials at hand, even if it mean't cannibalizing existing vessels.
Germany's biggest airships, Graf Zeppelin and Graf Zeppelin II, had actually survived to World War II in real life. Nether were in service at that time, grounded after public confidence in hydrogen was shattered after Hindenburg. Up until the invasion of Poland, Germany had tried to and nearly succeeded in negotiating a deal with the United States to release enough helium to re-float one of them.
Had Hindenburg not crashed, all three ships probably would have been in active service by the time of the invasion. Weeks before the first shots, officials likely would have recalled all three back to Germany to prevent capture. From there, into lay up they would have gone as their passenger services would have been suspended after the outbreak of war. And then the deathblow.
On March 4, 1940, a formal order came down from German Air Minister Hermann Göring calling for the immediate scrapping and salvage of all rigid frame airships. The German government had determined that their duralumin frames and other components were needed for the war effort. Both Graf Zeppelin and Graf Zeppelin II were scrapped shortly afterwards. Had Hindenburg survived, it too would have been recycled into aircraft.
The extinction of airships was simply inevitable.
internationalcanu on June 20, 2018:
Good analysis. You're right about WW2 would have brought the end of the transoceanic airships anyways, and WW2 would cause a huge advancement in airplane technology. After WW2 there were still proposals put forward in Popular Mechanics/Popular science by companies to resurrect the airship for transoceanic use, however they never came to be. One of the main reasons the Hindeburg was seared into the minds of people unlike other airship tragedies was that it was caught on camera and broadcast all over the world. If the hindenburg's destruction didn't occur, the fear of airship safety would not be in the minds of people, and perhaps you'd have seen a growth of short haul tourist airships (like DELAG prior to WW1) in tourist areas of the world.