British inventor 'solves' mystery of Hindenburg airship disaster

Rob Waugh

A British inventor claims to have 'exploded' the myths around the Hindenburg disaster - and discovered what really caused the German airship to catch fire.

Jem Stansfield, 37, says the airship was not destroyed by St Elmo's Fire, or by sabotage, instead a new waterproof coating lit the fatal spark.

The German Airship was landing in Lakehurst New Jersey on May 6, 1937 when it exploded - putting an end to an experiment touted as the future of trans-Atlantic flight.

Thirty-five out of the 100 passengers on board died.

“To test the theories, we built three 30-metre-long hydrogen airships and blew them up,” says Jem Stansfield, 37, a British inventor and TV presenter, who created the models for a Channel 4 documentary.

“We blew them up in ways that corresponded to theories about the Hindenburg disaster. We looked for explosions that looked most like the way the Hindenburg went down - as airships burn, their buoyancy changes, so it’s quite distinctive.”

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Stansfield worked with aviation historian Dan Grossman. As well as their experiments, they also analysed crash reports from both Germany and America.

“When the airship docked, a new waterproof coating meant that there were pools of water on its skin, which picked up an electrical charge due to the weather,” says Stansfield. “When the landing ropes attached, the charge within the framework caused sparking.”

Stansfield says there must have been a pre-existing gas leak - and a spark lit a fire which went down into the airship's ventilation tubes.

On its own, the leak would not have been disastrous - but combined with pools of water and a rushed landing, it was fatal.

“From the experiments, I have a reasonable amount of confidence - it was a perfect storm. They were not supposed to do a high landing under those conditions. They were supposed to land low where there was less of a voltage difference. There was known to be high atmospheric static that day,” says Stansfield. “But they were under a lot of political pressure to land quickly.”

The German engineers behind the Hindenburg had recently redesigned the skin after an incident in Brazil.

 “The idea that it was sabotage, or burning rocket fuel, or St Elmo’s fire just don’t work. The idea of pools of water on the surface causing a fire which tracked back via ventilation tubes - that worked in burn tests, and was repeatable in our experiments.”

Stansfield is keen to dispel the myth that the airship itself was badly designed.

Hindenburg had flown for 250,000 miles before its fatal crash, and the company behind it had flown a shuttle service between Berlin and Brazil successfully before the disaster.

“It’s phenomenal how well they worked,” says Stansfield. “Hindenburg had been struck by lightning before. It was not an unsafe vehicle.”

“No one will ever know for certain,” says Stansfield. “You can’t rewind time. But this theory looks most likely - and it worked in all our tests.”