Worse Than the Hindenburg: Forgotten Disasters

Comparison of the R101, USS Akron and LZ 129 Hindenburg (There is one error in this table – Akron had 73 fatalities)

While the Hindenburg is the most famous of the airship/zeppelin disasters, it was not the worst disaster by far. It does, however, mark what is considered the end of what is called the airship era. The accidents that destroyed the R 101 and the USS Akron were both worse than the accident that destroyed the Hindenburg.

R 101

The R 101 was one of two British airships built in 1929. At the time it was built, it was the largest flying craft. There were several trial flights as well as a couple of modifications. One of these modifications included lengthening the ship to add another gas bag. This adds 46 feet (14 meters) to the total length.

One of the trial flights had problems that required some maintenance that changed the piping used in the cooling systems. This type of issue was a good indicator of the types of problems that the R 101 would have.

The R 101 took its maiden flight on the evening of October 4, 1930. This was also the flight that ended in the airship crash in France. There were several prominent passengers on board its maiden flight. These included Lord Thomson (Secretary of State for Air), Sir Sefton Brancker (Director of Civil Aviation), Squadron Leader William Palstra (RAAF Air Liaison Officer to the British Air Ministry), and Director of Airship Development Reginald Colmore as well as both Lt Colonel V.C. Richmond and Michael Rope. Including these individuals, there was a total of 54 passengers and crew on board.

At around 7:06 pm the first of the problems that led to the final crash was found. There was an oil pressure problem. Eventually it was decided to replace the oil gauge. On top of this, the weather was very poor and the R 101 had to deal with wind speeds up to 50 miles per hour as well as rainy conditions.

Very early on the morning of the 5th, the airship went into a dive from which it recovered. But it lost over 400 feet in altitude. The R 101 went into a second dive and hit the ground outside Allone (just outside Beauvais) and caught fire.

Wreckage from the R 101

46 of the 54 passengers died immediately. Two more survived the crash but died later at the hospital. This crash effectively ended the British airship program.

U.S.S. Akron

The U.S.S. Akron was an airship of the U.S. Navy. It was in operation from September 1931 to April 1933. One of the purposes was to act as a flying aircraft carrier and it carried F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes.

Even more than 75 years later, the U.S.S. Akron holds the world-record for helium-filled airships at 785 feet long. (The Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen.)

The Akron was launched on August 8, 1931. It was christened by the First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. The first flight took place on September 23. There were several important people on board including Secretary of the Navy Adams and Rear Admiral Moffett.

The Akron was commissioned to the Navy on October 27. Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl was placed in command. During the time the Akron was in service it was used in various exercises and more than one accident.

One execise occurred on January 9, 1932. The Akron took part in a search exercise over the Atlantic Ocean. It was searching for a group of destroyers that were heading to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It took some time but the Akron was successful in locating the destroyers.

The first of four accidents occurred on February 22, 1932. The accident itself was fairly minor. While leaving the hangar, the tail was caught by the wind and struck the ground. The lower fin area took the brunt of the damage and required repair. Other repairs were needed on the ground handling fittings. It took until April 28th before it was ready for its next operation.

The second accident happened on May 11, 1932. This particular accident occurred in San Diego. The landing there was complicated by the fact that there were no trained ground handlers. The major issue in this accident ended up being the mooring cable. The mooring cable was cut to avoid a major accident. This caused one man to break his arm and two others to fall to their deaths.

The third accident happened on August 22, 1932. This was a fairly minor accident involving the tail fin which was quickly fixed. It was able to take eight more flights before its final accident.

The final accident happened very early on April 4, 1933 over the ocean off of the coast of New Jersey. The accident occurred after the ship’s tail hit the water. Unfortunately for those on board, there was no lifejackets and only one raft. Nearly all of the crew drowned or died from hypothermia.

Of the 76 people on board, 73 died in the accident leaving only three survivors. And during the rescue, two more men died. These men were killed when the J-3 blimp crashed during the rescue mission.

The three survivors from left to right – Moody Erwin, Herbert V. Wiley and Richard Deal

While not as famous as the Hindenburg, this remains the deadliest airship disaster in history.

LZ 129 Hindenburg

The Hindenburg was the most famous of the airship disasters. It was also the disaster that ended the airship era.

The airship originated out of Friedrichshafen, Germany in March of 1936. Unlike the Akron (which had multiple accidents), the Hindenburg was fairly unremarkable with regards to its travels.

The accident that became so famous happened on May 6, 1937. The accident occurred at NAS (Naval Air Station) Lakehurst, Manchester Township, New Jersey. When the accident happened,, the Hindenburg was not operating at full capacity. There was 36 of 70 possible passengers and 61 total crew members.

At around 7:25 pm, the first signs of trouble were spotted. People reported seeing either a dim blue flame or the fabric ahead of the upper fin flutter which could indicate a gas leak. Just moments later the ship caught fire. It took less than a minute for the ship to hit the ground. In total, 13 passengers and 22 crewmen died. There was also one ground crewman killed. The majority of those who survived suffered from very severe burns.

One of the main reasons the Hindenburg is so famous is the news coverage. There were quite a few news crews present waiting for the arrival of the Hindenburg. The footage and the eyewitness reports were shown repeatedly after the accident and are largely responsible for making this more famous than either the R 101 or the U.S.S. Akron.

There are several hypotheses about what caused the fire. One popular hypothesis was sabotage. During the multiple investigations, this theory was ruled out. Another possible cause that has been suggested is a static spark. There were some eyewitness accounts that support this hypothesis.

Another hypothesis was a lightning strike. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support any storms that night. 70 years after the accident, it was suggested that there may have been an engine failure. There have been many other hypotheses surrounding the Hindenburg. But there will likely not be any definitive answers about what destroyed the Hindenburg.

The large amounts of publicity surrounding the accident as part of what led to the end of the airship era.

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