Jonathan Owen reports for The Independent that the, “Hindenburg mystery solved after 76 years,” as, “Scientists believe that a series of events sparked by static electricity lead to the 1937 explosion.”
Led by a British aeronautical engineer, Jem Stansfield, and based at the South West Research Institute in the US, the team blew up or set fire to scale models more than 24m long, in an attempt to rule out theories ranging from a bomb planted by a terrorist to explosive properties in the paint used to coat the Hindenburg.
Investigations after the disaster concluded that a spark had ignited leaking hydrogen gas, but could not agree on what caused the spark, or the leaking gas. Conspiracy theories took hold that the airship had been brought down by a bomb, or had been shot down from the ground. Through recreating different scenarios with mini-replicas, and studying archive footage of the disaster, along with eyewitness accounts, experts believe they have discovered what really happened.
Mark Heald was eight when he watched the Hindenburg coming in to land. He was watching from a distance and able to see what those closer to the airship couldn’t – where the fire started. “Years later, my father realised that he should have volunteered testimony in some of the initial investigations, because we were probably in a rather unusual location. As I recall, we were seeing it from pretty much a side view. We saw a little bit of blue fire just forward of the vertical rudder, the upper rudder. It hung right to the top ridge.”
In a documentary being broadcast on Channel 4 on Thursday, experts reveal the sequence of events that triggered the explosion. The airship had become charged with static as a result of an electrical storm. A broken wire or sticking gas valve leaked hydrogen into the ventilation shafts, and when ground crew members ran to take the landing ropes they effectively “earthed” the airship. The fire appeared on the tail of the airship, igniting the leaking hydrogen.
“I think the most likely mechanism for providing the spark is electrostatic,” said Mr Stansfield. “That starts at the top, then the flames from our experiments would’ve probably tracked down to the centre. With an explosive mixture of gas, that gave the whoomph when it got to the bottom.”