Episode 70: Hindenburg Mystery

Air Date: January 10, 2007

The Hindenburg was destroyed by the flammable compound used to paint the bladder, not by the hydrogen gas within.

busted

The MythBusters built 1/50th scale Hindenburg models to test this myth. The model that contained hydrogen gas burned twice as quickly as the model without hydrogen. While the painted skin did burn vigorously, it is not what caused the Hindenburg to burn as quickly as it did.

If you are being chased by a crocodile, you can escape it by running in a zig-zag pattern.

busted

The MythBusters were not successful at luring a crocodile into a chase. They first tried using a baited dummy suspended from a rig, then a robot, and finally they actually held the bait in their hands in an attempt to get the crocs to chase them. The myth was busted because the premise is bad: crocodiles are ambush predators so they aren’t likely to chase you in the first place.

42 Comments

  1. Ray says:

    Wasn’t the culprit static? If it was, then it makes sense that the coating allowed for the initial sparks, as such as a petrol tanker would blame a spark caused by static electricity, or uncharged electricity, rather than blame the fuel.

    I conducted the hydrogen experiment at a kid’s party. Namely different gases. We used three balloons, filled them with different gases. I used air, argon and hydrogen, which I made by adding aluminium pieces to a mixture of sodium hydroxide and water, and it gave off lots of hydrogen. Unfortunately, the balloon got hot, and before I’d realised it, most of the hydrogen had gone. (Next time I do this, I will cool the hydrogen balloon as it is filling up.) The remaining gas I put into a fire, and it was a slow explosion, much more slower than expected. Maybe it was because of low pressure, as the balloon was too heavy to float.

  2. Ray says:

    Probably I should say ‘slow fireball’ rather than explosion, technically speaking.

  3. John says:

    I think Ray is right here. The initial cause of the Hindenberg tragedy may very well have been a static spark igniting the painted skin on the exterior. Of course afterwards the hydrogen provided fuel but the INITIAL CAUSE of the tragedy is what most people care about. That, at least, may very well have been the paint. I think Mythbusters misunderstood the issue here.

  4. rich says:

    we did hydrogen experiments in Junior high. MANY years ago when it was ok to blow up students and classrooms.
    We used Seashells and Hydrochloric acid and made balloons of the stuff. It was awesome and nobody died! It was a slow and steady burn! I feel that the “explosion” was a slow burn caused by static electricity NOT a bomb!

    After that, we went into nitric acid and Iodine crystals. See! I am from the old school of chemistry! I still experiment to this day nas still have all of my fingers!

  5. Damron says:

    Don’t forget, the airship did not come crashing to the ground. I don’t know the weight of this thing, but unlike a blimp it would come crashing down if the hydrogen envelopes were destroyed. This is the key point in the flamable skin argument.

  6. Glenn says:

    The hydrogen test was flawed for one very simple reason. In the Hindenburg the hydrogen was isolated in bags. Hydrogen, by itself, can not burn! The only way that the hydrogen could have ignited is if there were a leak. Any leak of hydrogen escaping from the Hindenburg would simply have flashed as a quick “pop” with hardly enough force or heat to damage the ship. At no time could a hydrogen fed flame work its way back inside the ship to cause an explosion. If you lit a match inside one of the bags, the match would be immediately snuffed out! Simply put, the cause of the disaster could not have been the hydrogen.

  7. Glenn says:

    Sorry, forgot to note: The Mythbusters conducted their test with a model of the Hindenburg that was filled with a mix of hydrogen and air. A proper test would have had the model filled with bags of pure hydrogen.

  8. Dick Landgraff says:

    I’m sure glad the Myth Busters didn’t build the real Hindenburgh. It would still be in Germany.

    I don’t understand it. They had the plans but continued to build a ballon with a metal framework resembling the dirigible. Then they filled it with a gas.

    WRONG! The outer skin of the Hindenburg was merely an aerodynamic shape. Inside was standard atmosphere and a huge 3D puzzle of catwalks to service the SEPARATE HYDROGEN BAGS inside the framework.

    Static electricity (like a small lightning bolt and probably St. Elmo’s fire) started the skin to burn at the tail where the electrical charge found a natural shape to jump from. The burning skin started one of the Hydrogen gas bags on fire. As the Hydrogen burned off, the tail end of the dirigible lost lift. By losing lift, the burning outer skin had a faster path to follow causing more Hydrogen bags to burn open and feed the fire.

    The Myth Buster dirigible was kept level at all times and did not duplicate the tail going down first nor the slower release of Hydrogen from scores of separate gas bags.

  9. sprucebranch says:

    Yeah, I thought the myth to be tested was; was static electricity created in flight and discharged at docking, applied to the weird paint used on the blimp, enough to START the explosion? I mean, with a flammable shell and flammable contents, its obvious that the thing would keep going once started, but what would GET it started? Was it a flaw in the design, or a flaw in the paint? Would the static set it off if there was a small leak in one of the bladders, and would the static set it off if there was no leak, and just the stupid paint job?

    Frankly, using rocket fuel (or the elements of a thermite bomb) to paint a blimp full of flammable gas does strike me as poor decision-making….

  10. Glenn2 says:

    RE: Exploding Hindenburg Episode

    One factor that was not taken into account during the testing was the large diesel fuel tanks installed in the Hindengurg. The tanks would have been nearly empty after a long flight but filled with oil fumes. The tanks would have acted like bombs in the fire and the remaining fuel would have significantly added to the fire.

  11. Ders says:

    diesel has nothing to with it… diesel fuel is completely safe at atmosphere and will not burn nor will its evaporated fumes. Much like most oils these are safe when not underpressure, try it. Buy some diesel and use a blow torch to lite it… it won’t combust.

  12. dude6935 says:

    I think this myth was a little outside the scope of mythbusters expertise. The best test is to initiate a burn on two floating scale airships with multiple internal bags. One should be filled with pure H2 and one with pure He. I have a feeling that both tests would result in fairly quick crash and burn.

    Or, they could perform the test burns on simple balloons filled with H2 and He. As long as the balloons have low backpressure, I suspect the result would be a rapid crash and burn in both cases.

    In these tests, the hydrogen airship would likely crash faster than the helium airship because it would lose its lifting gas more rapidly. Exacly how much faster is outside my ability to predict… But in the end, both airships would have crashed and burned. The hydrogen would not have caused the crash. It simply would have accelerated it.

  13. Roelof Jan says:

    The mythbusters tested a balloon with the flammable paint and a balloon with hydrogen. Then they compared the results. However they did not test a balloon with both hydrogen and flammable paint. Then you would know how much influence the paint had. A single minute slower burn would have saved many lives. Without this test we cannot know the plausability of the myth. Roelof Jan
    The Netherlands

  14. mondo man says:

    THE CROC ONE SCARRED ME DOG SHE DOSN’T LIKE THE CROCS. ME WIFE WAS SCARRED A MYTH BUSTER WAS GOING TO GET A HURT!!

  15. sandy says:

    a tv series “Air Crash Investigation” or Mayday has got a very good explanation of this case. there are many causes. the static charged in the atmosphere and leaked hydrogen etc

  16. Isaac says:

    I believe that a static spar could not have made the Hindenburg explode.
    i believe that the pistol found in the wreckage had something to do with it.

  17. pedals says:

    Yeah, diesel is combustible but not flammable…it will burn but it’s not easy to light off with just a spark or lack of a direct flame.

  18. Roxy says:

    awesome my class is doing a subject on the hinden burg

  19. Nick says:

    people should remember that the myth that was tested was that the paint caused the hindenburg to burn faster, which it didn’t.

  20. Diesel says:

    trash tv masquerading as science…

  21. Isabella says:

    OMG!!!! I LOVE MYTHBUSTERS!!!!

    For science class, I have to do a project on the Hindenburg Disaster, so this is just AWESOME!!!!

  22. Max says:

    I recently began watching old back episodes of “mythbusters” because my cable has recently fallen through. Thus, I can now only watch on the Netflix instant queue, (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I feel bad that I’m not up to date). However, one episode recently caught my eye, and that was the “Hindenburg Mystery” episode. I did some research of my own, and I feel that there’s a very important element that everyone appears to be missing.

    Now, online, it’s easy to find a theory that states that the skin or the hydrogen is where the explosion comes from, but both of those are fairly clearly bunk. Obviously, the hydrogen isn’t entirely responsible, nor is the thermite skin. However, there’s one part that still has yet to be fully tested.

    And that’s the cotton itself.

    Flame retardant cotton wasn’t widely used until the 1940′s, and the hindenburg crashed in 1937 (as you certainly knew). Untreated cotton is flammible. Very much so. In fact, all cotton in the US current HAS to be treated before it can be sold at retail, because of it’s combustability. Therefore, I think that it’s highly likely that the cotton used in the skin of the hindenburg was untreated, and extremely vulnerable to fire. In your experiment, however, judging by the slow burn time of the cotton used, I would assume that you simply purchased the normal, flame-retardant fabric.

    Now, I’d love to see this tested, but I realise that it might simply not be practical. I’d just like to know if there could be some sort of possiblity of truth.

  23. Pete says:

    The busters should do a redo here. They might try a cotton ball soaked in the “dope” and see how fast it goes when an electrical charge is passed through it. As mentioned above the Busters over looked what ignited the skin, why the air frame tended to remain floating and the progress of the fire ie. (did the hydrogen ignite and in turn ignite the dope skin or was it the other way around?). I think Bain addressed all these issues with his theory (hardly a myth). I think that a redo is demanded especially as we are looking to hydrogen as a source for transportation energy in the near future. Many people can’t get on board with that due to the Hindenburg hydrogen “myth”.

  24. Casey says:

    i think the guys should’ve declared the hindenburg “plausible”
    don’t correct me if i’m wrong, but i think that the hydrogeon did affect the fire
    just a thought

  25. jf says:

    you guys miss the point. Because hydrogen was originally blamed for the disaster, the myth was the exact counterargument: ie that the hydrogen was totally “innocent” -and that the skin was the “real” culprit. this is false. using hydrogen was just as bad a decision as the doping agent, the 2 in concert were a terrible combination.

  26. AndyB says:

    noone yet mentioned the Magnesium alloy used for the structure of the Hindenberg, which melted and burnt also… once lit this burnt at very high temperatures! -Thermodynamics was never my strong point but high heat concentration does have its effects…

  27. Seekee says:

    Just watched this episode again, the experiment was done in a enclosed space, was there any wind on the day the hindenburg went down and could this be an attributing factor on the burn rate. Fire needs fuel + oxygen, the experiment is biased.

  28. Wynyard says:

    Why didn’t they test with no paint and hydrogen as well, then we would get a true comparison. What a shame, I thought they were going to for a minute… but no. So we don’t really know anything from this experiment.

  29. max edison says:

    Eyewitnesses to the Hindenburg reported an orange flame – H burns blue.

  30. Phil says:

    MB burned pure H in a very rich flame (too little air mixed in) and it was orange. Watch the episode.

  31. Peter says:

    Just watched the TV version (again) and I believe it was not conclusive. I think a bullet was fired from the ground. After all the intensive investigations the was no mention of a broken cable found that could have caused the Airship’s failure.
    I have watched several docos about this and never seen a broken cable. The aluminium frame would have buckled before the steel cable broke.
    I think an anti NAZI shot the ship, with or with out the intention of bringing it down.
    Whether it was flamable dope or dope, ignition by spark or static, sabotage or prank gone wrong, this was the work of a coward who did not come forward. A new investigation is needed because the history is not sure and is changing.
    I have not seen the Mythbusters episode about the Hindenburg but I would like to.

  32. Joe says:

    The Hindenburg was a fantastic zeppelin but the tragic explosion due to the skin oh the ship. It was the largest German Airship ever!! The skin of the ship made out of rocket fuel and caught on fire after a spark ignited it. Then, do to the highly flammable hydrogen caused the zeppelin it engulf in flames and burn up in 35 seconds. There were 96 people aboard including passengers and crew members. Only 36 of them died but most of them were the crew members.

  33. Frank says:

    You see, the problem is that the skin couldn’t have been ignited by a static spark. Addison Bain cheated by igniting the skin with a continuous spark; in other documentaries he used an open flame.

    It would be better if Mythbusters used an electrical machine (such as a Tesla coil) and gave a brief zap and see if the skin ignites (hydrogen would ignite with such conditions).

    The skin was however, a very poor electrical conductor and German scientists found out that the spark could jump right through it and ignite leaking hydrogen. (Bain claims that they found out the fabric itself was flammable). Thus the fabric was still to blame for the disaster as it caused the spark to ignite the hydrogen, but had it not been hydrogen, there would have been no ignition.

  34. Scotty Leach says:

    Re: Crocodile segment.
    Myth should not be considered “Busted”. The Johnsons Creek crocodile that they used is non agressive and not known to attack humans. Now if they had used the much nastier and bigger salt water croc, we could have had a much different result.

  35. Craig says:

    Hindenburg:

    this myth is definitely not busted in my opinion.

    The way the actual Hindenburg collapses from the rear – following initial flash – and angles backward at nearly 90 degrees allowing the flame propagation to climb upwards, laterally through the axis of the airship, naturally accelerates the flames.

    Mythbusters should have executed the experiment emulating conditions more accurately, namely;
    1. the nature of the initial flash,
    2. pressurized gases in the airship – equivalent to that required to provide lift,
    3. the rear collapse and change in angle of the ship as it burned and
    4. several other factors which should probably be considered.

    Unfortunately, the oxygen-filled example will never be a feasible comparison because no amount of air pressure will create lift.

    An additional test case really should have been an air-ship using helium, just to see what the result would have been with a know ‘less flammable’ gas medium.

  36. Frank says:

    Also wanted to mention about OTHER airship disasters.

    Other airships such as the R-101, the Roma, or the World War I Bomber Zeppelins, burned similarly to the Hindenburg. They definitely weren’t painted with this sort of doping compound but burned because of hydrogen.

    Yes the Hindenburg’s back broke, but that was because the gas in the rear had ignited but the bow still had lift. The fire did not spread cell-by-cell though. In fact, one gas cell only burned when the Hindenburg hit the ground. The fire spread by the axial catwalk, which was like a chimney. It channeled towards the front of the airship where the fire burst out of the hose. The Mythbusters experiment shows fire exiting out of the nose only with a hydrogen explosion. Had it just been paint, the fire would not have spread towards the nose because it would not be able to channel through the axial catwalk.

    So even with reconsidering the experiment, I’d say the myth is still busted.

  37. Robert says:

    what if u got a girl to run the rig and not a guy
    thenn what would happen?
    - B k G

  38. Mikael Persson says:

    When u tested the myth with the Hindenberg disaster . U did forgot 1 thing. U don´t use any air . U missed the passing air flow . Hindenberg was in the air when it all happend . And the air flow must have been helping to fuel the fire. u got 0,59 min on the fastest test. Try that again with the passing air . And I thing u must land on 0,20-0,40 min instead. So I hope to se a enew test on this myth.

  39. Justin says:

    I just read through all these comments. There is some very well defined situations within these comments that I think the Mythbusters should read. My stomach did not sit right when I watched this so I looked to see if there were any thoughts on it. I agree with redoing this test. I also think it will take a lot more planning, mechanical work, and more actual Hindenburg calculations than just a smaller sized rig.

    Secondly, let’s restate the question:
    “The Hindenburg was destroyed by the flammable compound used to paint the bladder, not by the hydrogen gas within.”

    We know that when hydrogen is exposed to flame and oxygen, it will ignite. Same goes for the skin and paint compounds. The key question is not how it was destroyed, but how it started. If it was by hypothesis purposeful, than that is not a science test, it is a police report. If it was by hypothesis static… for example lightning that was not witnessed by anyone, than the amount of heat produced from lightning would not for a fact but likely catch it on fire. I think I’ve seen something that is made that maybe have been used on Mythbusters that uses a contraption that can build up enough energy to get close to a lightning bolt. This might be a reasonable place to visit again, but cannot be for sure because of too many factors. Few being air pressure and air flow in an open sky.

    This is a very serious gesture to try to close off something as controversial and historically serious with so little historical calculations put into the testing. To be more clear, I really don’t think this would ever be solved unless we came up with some real evidence, like someone testifying. Which anyone would probably have passed away by now.

  40. lewis daines says:

    I have a Mini Mythbusters club starting soon,Im 12 and wish to follow in the mythbusters footsteps.

  41. Virgil says:

    If you look at the movie of the burning airship, you’ll notice that the main gush of flame is above the aircraft followed by propagation of fire through the fabric skin from back to front. The main gush of flame is apparently hydrogen burning with oxygen from the air. Hydrogen is lighter than air, so once freed, it would escape out the top of the aircraft.

    Gaseous hydrogen is notoriously difficult to contain so the Hindenburg probably was permiated with the stuff. Everything needs a certain fuel-air ratio to burn and air is mostly nitrogen, so as long as long the leakage was small, the fire danger was small. To get the hydrogen to burn, you need a rupture in one of the gas bladders and an ignition source, ergo, a bomb.

    Hydrogen may have propagated the flames along the top of the aircraft but then the flammability of the dope used to seal the fabric skin took over. It’s always been my understanding that cellulose nitrate dope was used in the twenties and thirties. (Old movie film was made of the same stuff.) This was replaced by butyrate dope During WWII because cellulose nitrate is extremely flammable. Aluminum powder added as a colorant added to the flammability factor but cellulose nitrate was the main flame propagator.

    Iron oxide may have been added to add bulk to the dope used in the gas cells and improve its sealing properties. I doubt that enough was added to enable a thermite reaction to propagate, however.

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