80 years later, what caused the Hindenburg fire?

Addison Bain’s obsession with the Hindenburg disaster began on his lunch break in the early 1990s when three words caught his eye.

A rocket fuel expert, Bain liked to wander across the street from his office in the old NASA headquarters building to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for inspiration and reflection among some of the most exciting flying machines ever built.

He stopped to admire a 28-foot replica of the Hindenburg, the airship considered the pride of Nazi Germany until a raging fire tore through it 80 years ago Saturday as it prepared to land in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

That’s when Bain noticed the plaque describing the Hindenburg disaster and the three words – “Its hydrogen exploded” – that set him on a controversial mission he’s still chasing nearly three decades later.

“I said, ‘No, no, no, there’s something wrong here,” said Bain, 81, about the explanation for what left 36 people dead.

“Hydrogen doesn’t explode.”

The fire that engulfed the Hindenburg devoured the vision of airships as an elegant passenger vehicle, and forever linked hydrogen – used on the Hindenburg and highly flammable  – in the public mind with the threat of inferno. The Hindenburg was destroyed in less than a minute, but the damage inflicted on hydrogen as a clean fuel source continues today.

The blaze, caught on black-and-white film and captured in a breathless radio broadcast, also ignited the public’s imagination, earning the disaster a place alongside the Titanic sinking and Amelia Earhart’s disappearance as a topic for endless speculation.

What caused the Hindenburg fire? Experts, historians and armchair enthusiasts are still disagreeing over the nuances of the answer 80 years later.

Bain, who retired in 1994 as NASA’s hydrogen program manager, set out to debunk the long-accepted conclusion that hydrogen proved the Hindenburg’s fatal flaw, that it leaked and was ignited by an electrostatic discharge. Bain’s goal: Exonerate the element he’s spent his life studying. He even wrote a book laying out what he thinks happened.

So what does Bain think brought the Hindenburg down?

Not so fast. Let’s back up a little.

An elegant ride

The Hindenburg was part of a class of rigid-frame airships known as Zeppelins introduced by Germany in 1900. By the time the Hindenburg flew, these giant airships were transporting people across the Atlantic and were being heralded as the future in transportation.

For passengers, “it was a voyage to contrast with the sea-swaying ocean liners and airplanes in which the basic scenery were clouds below them,” Bain wrote in his book, “Hindenburg: Exploring the Truth.”

“The giant airships traveled just a few hundred feet above the land or sea allowing passengers to see the terrain and other marvels along the way.”

And it was a smooth ride. One Zeppelin passenger told Bain that he could place a fountain pen on end on a dining table and it wouldn’t move the entire trip.

The Hindenburg was 804 feet long and 15 stories high, and even boasted a baby grand piano, Bain wrote. It relied on 16 cells filled with hydrogen, although it had originally been designed to work with a combination of hydrogen and helium.

It was a sight to behold as it appeared overhead. Film footage shows adults and children looking skyward as its shadow passed.

Then came May 6, 1937. The Hindenburg had departed Frankfurt, Germany, three days earlier on its 63rd flight and was attempting to land on the first of its scheduled trans-Atlantic stops. There had been thunderstorms in the area that day, and the Hindenburg was coming in for a higher-than-normal landing.

Things quickly went wrong.

Flames enveloped the airship, and the Hindenburg fell to Earth. “It's fire... and it's crashing. It's crashing terrible. Oh, my. Get out of the way, please. It's burning and bursting into flames and the... this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world ... It's smoke, and it's in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity,” declared radio reporter Herbert Morrison.

Theories immediately sprouted as to what caused the disaster: Sabotage? An accident?

The official inquiry board settled on the initial assumption: There must have been a hydrogen leak. The hydrogen mixed with oxygen and encountered something – static electricity, perhaps – that set it alight.

Hydrogen takes the blame

Bain thought otherwise.

Bain knows hydrogen. He first started tinkering with a chemistry set in the fourth grade, and quickly began developing his own fuels for model rockets.

After working with Wernher von Braun's team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and with space contractors, NASA hired him to oversee its rocket fueling, leading his friends to joke that he ran the biggest gas station in the world, pumping liquid hydrogen into rockets from Apollo to the space shuttle.

He wrote a book about hydrogen, “The Freedom Element,” and even reconfigured a white 1992 Ford Crown Victoria to run on natural gas and hydrogen. He derives hydrogen for the car from water in his garage.

Bain started his Hindenburg research after seeing that plaque in the Smithsonian, first pouring over every photo and film of the disaster he could find. He donned white gloves to read the original board of inquiry transcript, and took notes in pencil (pens were prohibited). He tracked down Hindenburg crew members, passengers and witnesses on the ground.

Bain traveled across the United States and to Germany. He also came upon Hindenburg artifacts, which Bain brought to NASA labs where he won the support of 14 of his colleagues to conduct tests ranging from electron microscope analysis to spectrographic analysis, among others, using state-of-the-art machines.

“They coined my project the ‘H’ project,” Bain said.

What Bain found has led him to point to the coating on the Hindenburg's covering as the fatal flaw, rather than the hydrogen tanks. He said the covering, or envelope as it was called, had a butyl-based coating that was nonconductive, so when the electrical charge built up on the outside of the ship, it didn’t dissipate as it should have. That day, the electrical charge was greater because the Hindenburg was coming in for a higher landing than normal, Bain said. The charge ignited the fabric covering.

While conducting research in Germany, Bain unearthed documents that support the coating theory. A 1937 letter from the Zeppelin company to the paint manufacturer expressed concerns, noting that tests showed the covering was “readily ignited by an electrostatic discharge.” Also testing in Germany in 1938 by the Wireless Telegraph and Atmospheric Electrical Experimental Station found the cause was “the poor conductivity of the aluminum paint coating on the outer skin.”

“Hydrogen did play a role. There is no question about that,” said Bain, whose conclusions have evolved over the years. “Once the fire started and the outer cover started burning, hydrogen played a role.”

Bain doesn’t want to call his findings a theory. Instead, he said, “what I did is connect the dots of a lot of events.”

Not everyone is convinced

Not everyone thinks he’s connected the dots correctly. Google "Hindenburg disaster" and there are numerous posts dedicated to disproving Bain, particularly focused on pronouncements he made earlier his research.

Dan Grossman, editor of airship.net and author of the book, "Zeppelin Hindenburg: An Illustrated History of LZ-129,"  said the original theory – the hydrogen leak ignited by an electrical discharge – remains convincing even after decades and decades of research.

“Now, is it possible that a spark ignited the fabric covering and that was the first thing and that fire spread to the hydrogen?”  Grossman said. “He may have a point. It is certainly possible, but it is not the most likely. And it doesn’t change the essence of the Hindenburg disaster, which is that a giant airship was completely destroyed by fire in less than a minute because it was inflated with hydrogen.”

For Grossman and others, hydrogen remains the smoking gun, so to speak. And Grossman said he's puzzled as to why Bain feels the need to absolve the element.

“Hydrogen doesn’t need exoneration,” said Grossman, an airship historian whose day job is a constitutional lawyer. “Because hydrogen is like anything else. It is great for some things and bad for some things. Hydrogen was terrible to use in the Hindenburg."

Eighty years on, the Hindenburg still stirs debate, and Bain revels in being part of it.

One change Bain did wrangle already: “that dumb plaque” at the Smithsonian, as he calls it.

It no longer reads, “Its hydrogen exploded" about the Hindenburg disaster.

Instead, it says “The conflagration may have begun when static electricity ignited the airship’s highly flammable outer covering.”

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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