The thunderous, climactic fireball that marked the death of the Hindenburg, seen here, became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. If ever there was a real life bonfire of the vanities, it was surely the death of the Hindenburg. Her blazing, charred hulk was the funeral pyre of the entire airship industry. And yet, it could all have been so very different.
By the time of her immolation, the Hindenburg was into her second year of service. Indeed, her comings and goings in America had become so routine by May, 1937 that they attracted scant media attention. For fifteen months, the great, silver grey dream ship had ghosted passengers across the Atlantic between Germany and America, as well as making headlining flights down to South America.
Hindenburg, or LZ-129 to use her official designation, was an enormous craft; almost as long as the Titanic. With her public rooms and cabins arranged in the great silver belly of the beast, she brought comfortable, stylish air travel to the Atlantic run for the first time. Some would also say it was the last, too.
There was a hermetically sealed smoking room, and two promenades with views down over the scenery below that were lined with ocean liner style deck chairs. There was a small lounge with a grand piano, and an excellent restaurant, staffed by former waiters from the Hamburg-Amerika line. It came complete with crockery that was specially commissioned for the giant airship.
Twenty-four small, Pullman type cabins were functional, with beds one above the other. Incredibly, there was even a shower available. For her passengers at least, the Hindenburg was intended to be a joyride on more than one level.
The Germans had to fill her with hydrogen, after the American government refused to allow the export of helium to Germany, supposedly on the personal orders of President Roosevelt. Helium was much safer, although five times more expensive than hydrogen.
But helium also had military uses, and Roosevelt- way ahead of the curve when it came to recognising the ambitions of Hitler and the Nazis- was not about to invite charges of fuelling both the Hindenburg and the German war machine. So the great, graceful giant kept using the hydrogen that was available. And, of course, that ultimately would lead to her destruction.
In her first season in 1936, the Hindenburg was a stunning success; so much so that she was often wait listed for cabins in both directions. She could make the flight from Germany to America in two days- a speed which made her more than twice as fast as the record breaking transatlantic liners, Normandie and Queen Mary.
The airship would usually maintain an altitude of around six hundred feet, and was known for being remarkably steady in the air. In fact, she proved so popular in service that another set of cabins were shoe horned into the hull during her refit over the winter of 1936-7.
It became normal for the Hindenburg to descend low enough to show her passengers drifting Atlantic icebergs. Approaching her berth, the Hindenburg would fly along the length of Broadway, before eventually coming to alight at her Lakehurst, New Jersey tower.
All things considered, it was the ultimate way to fly. So successful was the Hindenburg that a sister airship, the Graf Zeppelin II, was under construction in Germany by this time.
The premature, controversial final demise of this great sky goddess- the airborne equivalent of the Ritz- put paid to the notion of airship travel. Had it happened at any other time than in the hysteria fuelled run up to the Second World War, it might not have been a fatal blow. But in the war of words and ideas between competing world views, the loss of the Hindenburg became a political statement on both sides.
It was, without question, an apocalyptic end to an incredible vision. The Hindenburg was, in the end, as much a victim of Nazi megalomania as she was of freak weather conditions on that fatal night.