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Hindenburg disaster's earliest moments captured in newly released footage

Unlike most images of the fire, footage captured by amateur photographer Harold Schenck showed the burning Hindenburg from nose to tail, in the moments after a hydrogen leak set the airship ablaze.
Unlike most images of the fire, footage captured by amateur photographer Harold Schenck showed the burning Hindenburg from nose to tail, in the moments after a hydrogen leak set the airship ablaze. (Image credit: PBS/NOVA)

When the enormous German airship Hindenburg burst into flames on May 6, 1937, during a flight over New Jersey, it ignited in seconds before crashing to the ground in front of horrified onlookers. Now, footage that captured the early moments of the disaster, which will be aired on television for the first time, could offer new clues as to what sparked the blaze. 

On the day of the accident, news photographers were already filming the Hindenburg at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. When they realized the airship was burning, they rushed to record images of the rapidly spreading blaze, and the best-known footage and photos of the disaster all show it from a similar angle. 

However, an amateur photographer named Howard Schenck was also at the scene with a Kodak 8-millimeter consumer film camera — but he was at a different spot on the field. Schenck realized that the Hindenburg was on fire and began filming earlier than the newsreel photographers, and his wide-angle lens and side view of the airship captured the Hindenburg's entire length as it burned, offering a perspective that was missing in the news cameras' coverage.

Related: In photos: The history of the Hindenburg disaster

Schenck's astonishing view of the burning Hindenburg — and what it could show about the accident — is revealed in the NOVA documentary "Hindenburg: The New Evidence," premiering on PBS tonight (May 19) at 9 p.m. EDT. The previously unseen angle provided investigators with clues about the longstanding mystery of what generated the spark that set the hydrogen ablaze, PBS representatives said in a statement.

On that day in May, the Hindenburg had just arrived in New Jersey after a three-day journey from Frankfurt, Germany. The airship dropped its landing lines at about 7:17 p.m. local time, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). Four minutes later, the Hindenburg was suddenly engulfed in flames and plummeted to the ground. It took just 32 seconds for the zeppelin to be completely incinerated. When the smoke cleared, 35 people on the airship and one member of the ground crew were dead. 

Airships like the Hindenburg were made of a metal frame covered with a varnished cotton "skin" that was then inflated with hydrogen, and hydrogen is highly flammable if it is exposed to air and mixes with oxygen, according to the RSC. German and American investigators determined at the time that the cause of the disaster was a spark caused by static discharge, which then ignited a hydrogen leak, the RSC reported.

In part, the tragedy unfolded as it did because the officers who were flying the airship didn't follow well-established safety protocols that made airship flight safe — or at least, as safe as it could be, said Dan Grossman, an aviation historian and writer, and one of the documentary's experts.

"It was never going to be 'safe,' you can never safely operate a flying bomb," Grossman told Live Science. "But the Germans had developed very deliberate and careful protocols for how to operate an airship, and many of those were ignored," he said.

There was a thunderstorm that day, creating an electrically charged environment that increased the risk of static discharge. The operators also had good reason to believe that hydrogen was escaping near the Hindenburg's tail, as there was unusual heaviness in that area that could have indicated a leak, Grossman said. Given these circumstances, they should not have attempted what is known as a high landing — in which an airship would drop its landing ropes while still at a high altitude, and would then be winched to the ground — a practice that had a higher risk of generating sparks than a low landing.

"You can never operate a hydrogen airship in complete safety, and you can certainly never operate one in complete safety where there are thunderstorms," he said. "But you can operate it in a safer or a less safe manner, and they chose the less safe manner by choosing a high landing rather than a low landing."

Details on the print of the 8 mm film enabled archival experts to confirm that Schenck's footage was genuine. (Image credit: PBS/NOVA)

A new angle

In 2012, Grossman was attending a 75th anniversary memorial service for the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, when he was approached by Bob Schenck, who said that he had home movie footage of the accident that had been shot by his uncle Howard. At the time of the accident inquests in 1937, none of the investigators were interested in Schenck's footage, likely because they already had footage from the news cameras and didn't care about seeing multiple angles of the event, Schenck said in the documentary.

When Grossman first saw the Schenck footage, "my reaction was just — wow. I can't believe we have this angle," Grossman told Live Science. "The footage begins earlier than any other film footage, so it shows more of the accident from an earlier point," Grossman said.

Schenck's film camera also captured a full broadside view of the ship from nose to tail, showing the Hindenburg during its final seconds of level flight as it was engulfed in flames, until it hit the ground as a flaming shell. 

"Because of where the newsreel photographers were, which was very close to the bow, or nose, of the airship, you just don't see that," Grossman said.

Schenck's footage began earlier than that of the news cameras, and while it doesn't capture the moment of ignition, it does show the dropping of the ropes. This prompted the documentary's investigators to question if the ropes might have conducted enough electricity to spark the fatal fire, Gary Tarpinian, the documentary's executive producer, said in the statement.

"Thanks to this stunning new footage, we were able to revive a cold case investigation surrounding one of the most iconic disasters of the 20th century," Tarpinian said.

The wider angle of Schenck's footage also emphasizes how quickly the shocking event unfolded, and how the disaster must have looked to the horrified spectators who were at the scene. 

"One moment there was this big, beautiful airship safely coming in to land — and then the next moment there was this incredibly dramatic fire. And then within about a minute there's nothing left of it," said Grossman. "You really get a sense of what it would have been like to see it with your own eyes, which I don't think you get quite the same way from the tight closeup shots that you see in the newsreels."

"Hindenburg: The New Evidence" airs on Wednesday, May 19 at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CT on PBS and is available to stream online starting on May 19 at PBS.org.

Originally published on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Mindy Weisberger is a senior writer for Live Science covering general science topics, especially those relating to brains, bodies, and behaviors in humans and other animals — living and extinct. Mindy studied filmmaking at Columbia University; her videos about dinosaurs, biodiversity, human origins, evolution, and astrophysics appear in the American Museum of Natural History, on YouTube, and in museums and science centers worldwide. Follow Mindy on Twitter.