Pondering History: What if the Hindenburg Accident Didn't Happen?
I recently watched a TV show in which the Hindenburg didn’t crash and burn. The ramifications of this were explored in small detail but it got me thinking about what would happen if the Hindenburg accident didn’t happen on 6 May 1937?
Firstly, what is the Hindenburg?
It was a zeppelin which also is sometimes called and an 'air ship' or, I know as a kid, we called them blimps (this was when we'd see ones bearing advertising always fly overhead - the one I remember most was the Good Year blimp).
The Hindenburg was a German built aircraft that entered service on 4 March 1936. It completed seven round-trips to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and ten round-trips to New York City in her maiden season transporting passengers. Sadly, in her second season she only completed one round trip to South America before the tragedy occurred on her first trip of the season into New York.
On 3 May 1937 the ship left Frankfurt, Germany arriving in New York on 6 May, three days later when a series of occurrences led to the ship catching fire after a spark ignited leaking hydrogen.
There has been so much written about this incident so see my notes below for further reading as I am wanting to keep this as a very quick blog!
What Would Have Happened if the Ship Wasn't Destroyed?
I was really thinking about the implications if the people on board didn’t die, as this is what is explored in the TV show I'd watched, but what I ended up deep diving into was the possibility that airships may have become more common place if this accident hadn’t happened.
From what I’ve read, I’ve come to doubt airships would have existed for much longer as a form of mass transportation. The costs alone are enough of a reason to not continue the production of airships, let alone the safety concerns given they relied on highly flammable gas.
The Hindenburg had a sister ship built, the Graf Zeppelin II but it wasn't completed until 1938, by which time the fate of airships appeared to be inevitable. The ship made thirty flights, most of which were German spy missions.
The company that built these two ships and their operators were not the only ones in the world but the Hindenburg signalled the end of the air ships heyday for all involved. This was solidified in 1940 when Germany ordered the scrapping of the program and ships with all parts to be utilised in the building of aeroplanes that had proved superior to the air ship.
Everyone knows about the Hindenburg disaster, but did you realise the number of survivors outnumbered those who were killed? Given its place as a “major” tragedy I always thought that the loss of life was higher. While 36 crew and passengers (plus one ground crew) were killed there were 62 survivors.
As I was on a deep dive reading about the Hindenburg, I came across the story of a dog (who sadly died) who was onboard but whose presence led to claims that sabotage caused the Hindenburg accident.
This dog was a German Shepherd named Ulla.
A Dog and A Sabotage Plot
Ulla belonged to Joseph Spah, a German born-American citizen who was returning home after spending a season working in Europe as a performer. During his time in Europe he had purchased Ulla for a large fee and the dog became a part of his act.
By all accounts Spah was very close to his dog and was very upset when he found out that the dog had to travel in the cargo hold, not the passenger cabin. He claimed this was due to the value of the dog and her worth as part of show but it is also possible that he was just very close to his dog.
Throughout the flight he visited Ulla in the storage hold constantly and each time he had to be accompanied by a member of the crew who grew tired of having to chaperone him. As a result he often snuck into the hold to be with his dog. This behaviour was considered suspicious so after the accident had occurred his name was put forward as a possible saboteur.
One of the main believers in his guilt was the Captain of the ship who was adamant that the ship was destroyed by an act of sabotage and not anything to do with his piloting of the ship as had been suggested. He claimed that Spah's visits to his dog were cover for the planting of a bomb.
The FBI conducted an investigation into Spah but he was cleared of any charges, so it likely that he just preferred to company of his dog to the other passengers on board! Spah would go on to have a career in the American entertainment industry (see below for a link to more information on him).
Sadly, Ulla died in the accident while Spah survived by jumping from the burning craft. There was also one other dog noted as travelling on board but this dog also died and we know nothing else about the dog.
In a 1975 film about the disaster this sabotage plot is explored with a dog featured but taking poetic license the dog belongs to someone else and it survives the tragedy (if only we could re-write the story and save Ulla)!
The Fate of Airships
This blog originated from a simple Instagram post that, like most things, has led to a deep dive! My original question remains - what do you think the ramifications would have been if the Hindenburg accident did not happen? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
As this is such a popular historical topic there is a lot of content out there! Other than the usual historical resources I have come across a few bloggers who have some interesting sites. These are a few:
"Faces of the Hindenburg", http://facesofthehindenburg.blogspot.com/2008/11/joseph-sph.html (link is directly for the Joseph Spah page)
"AirShips.Net", https://www.airships.net/hindenburg/interiors/ (great to see what an airship actually looked like inside)
Other places to visit if you want more Hindenburg History:
Donovan Webster, "What Really Felled the Hindenburg", Smithsonian Magazine (4 May 2017)
Benjamin Zhang, "These Amazing Colour Photos of the Hindenburg Zeppelin show what luxury flying was like 80 years ago", Business Insider (23 November 2014)
"Dogs on the Hindenburg", Famous Dogs in History, <https://dogs-in-history.blogspot.com/2017/02/dogs-on-hindenburg.html>
"Hindenburg: German Airship", Britannica, <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hindenburg>
"In Photos: The History of the Hindenburg Disaster", Live Science, <https://www.livescience.com/58982-history-of-airship-hindenburg-disaster-photos.html>
"The Hindenburg", IMDb Profile for the 1975 film, <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073113/>