End of an Era & Bull Stands His Ground
March 4, 1936: First Flight of Hindenburg
The arrival of the zeppelin made the idea of long distance, transatlantic transportation viable. The Hindenburg could cross the Atlantic in only 43 hours; Lakehurst, New Jersey to Frankfurt Germany. This accomplishment was astounding for its day as only the fastest ocean liners could do it in 5 days, slower ships took 10 days.
The zeppelin’s first flight took place March 4, 1936 lasting 3 hours and 6 minutes. Its propaganda value was demonstrated on August 1, 1936 when the ship flew over the 1936 Berlin Olympic games (left). Over 3 million Germans and visitors watched Hindenburg cruse above the city for more than an hour at approximately 750 feet.
The maiden flight to America included celebrities, journalists and featured the first Catholic mass ever said in the air and a broadcast over the NBC radio network which included a recital on the Hindenburg’s specially made lightweight aluminum alloy piano.
By the end of 1936 Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic 34 times carrying over 3,000 passengers and more than 66,000 pounds of mail and freight. The end of the ’36 season seemed to indicate that regular transatlantic air service had arrived.
Of course as we all know the era of zeppelin travel ended with the Hindenburg disaster when the ship crashed at Lakehurst, NJ killing 36 people.
The fire spread so quickly, consuming the ship in less than a minute, that survival was largely a matter of where one happened to be located when the fire broke out. Those who were close to a means of exit at the time generally survived. Those who were deep inside the ship were generally trapped in the wreck.
As the ship settled to the ground, less than 30 seconds after the first flames were observed, those who had jumped from the burning craft scrambled for safety, as did members of the ground crew who had been positioned on the field below the ship.
Natural instinct caused those on the ground to run from the burning wreck as fast as they could, but Chief Petty Officer Frederick J. “Bull” Tobin, a longtime airship veteran cried out to his sailors: “Navy men, Stand fast!!” Bull Tobin had survived the crash of USS Shenandoah and he was not about to abandon those in peril even if it meant his own life. And his sailors agreed.
Films of the disaster clearly show sailors turning and running back toward the burning ship to rescue survivors, heroes of their day.
Despite its romance and grandeur, technologically the Hindenburg was obsolete before it ever flew. On November 22, 1935, three months before Hindenburg first took to the air, Pan American Airways’ M-130 China Clipper made the first scheduled flight across the Pacific.
The longest leg, the 2,400 miles from San Francisco to Honolulu, was longer than distance required to cross the North Atlantic.