What If the Hindenburg Had Used Helium Instead of Hydrogen?

The horrifying event of May 6, 1937 is so well known that most can identify it with the sound of only three words: "Oh, the humanity!" The Hindenburg disaster killed 36 people and brought the once-bright era of lighter-than-air transport to a screeching halt. But if it weren't for a U.S. ban on the export of helium gas, who knows how the future might have turned out?

The Hindenburg over Manhattan, New York on May 6, 1937—the very day it crashed.

The Future Is Lighter Than Air

At the turn of the 20th century, it seemed like the future of transportation would be lighter than air. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin flew the world's first airship in 1900 and built several more in the years to follow. LZ-4, his fourth attempt, made an emergency landing during a 24-hour flight. In a premonition of things to come, it erupted in flames. Rather than ending the program, however, Zeppelin's German countrymen rallied behind him, giving him the financial and political capital to start Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, or the Zeppelin Construction Company. Not all of the zeppelins were disasters, of course. Unveiled in 1928, LZ-127 or the "Graf Zeppelin" flew over a million miles, becoming the most successful zeppelin ever built.

Other airships weren't so lucky. On October 5, 1930, the British airship R.101 made a gentle crash-landing on a hill in France — then exploded, incinerating 46 people inside. The reason the R.101, the LZ-4, and other airships were so deadly came down to one element (literally): hydrogen. Hydrogen is the lightest element on the periodic table, making it a fantastic lifting gas. But when mixed with an oxidizer — such as, you know, the oxygen in our air — the slightest spark can make it explode.

The stern of the Hindenburg begins to fall, with the mooring mast in the foreground.

Plan B

It was this danger that led German aeronautical engineer Hugo Eckener, the creator of the Hindenburg, to design his ship with helium as the lifting gas. Although helium is rare, expensive, and weighs twice as much as hydrogen, it has one big thing going for it: It doesn't explode. Helium is a noble gas, which means it's not flammable. Unfortunately, in the 1930s, the U.S. had a monopoly on the world's supply of helium. Out of fear that other countries might use helium for military purposes, the government banned its export, and Eckener retooled his 800-foot-long zeppelin to use hydrogen instead. As a result, on that fateful May day in 1936, the Hindenburg burst into flames upon landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey at the end of its first trans-Atlantic crossing. Thirty-six of the 97 people aboard were killed. According to History, "The fire was officially attributed to a discharge of atmospheric electricity in the vicinity of a hydrogen gas leak from the airship."

The disaster marked the end of the airship era. But what if it had never happened? If Eckener was able to use helium as he planned, would the skies of today be punctuated by dozens of grand airships? There's no way to know how the transportation industry would have been different, but one thing is likely: 36 lives would have been spared.

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Read the definitive history of the Hindenburg in "Zeppelin Hindenburg: An Illustrated History of LZ-129" by Dan Grossman, Cheryl Ganz, and Patrick Russell. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 2, 2017

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