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NOVA: Hindenburg: The New Evidence

Stream or tune in Wednesday, May 19, 2021 at 9 p.m. & Sunday, May 23 at 3 p.m. on KPBS TV + May 23 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2

The German passenger airship Hindenburg seconds after catching fire, May 6, 1...

Credit: © Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Above: The German passenger airship Hindenburg seconds after catching fire, May 6, 1937. Long-overlooked footage of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster that sheds new light on the infamous accident is featured in a new NOVA documentary, “Hindenburg: The New Evidence.”

Long-overlooked footage of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster that sheds new light on the infamous accident is featured in a new NOVA documentary, “Hindenburg: The New Evidence.”

The precise trigger for the conflagration that brought down the Hindenburg has eluded experts for over 80 years, with theories about the airship’s fire ranging from deliberate sabotage to a spark generated by the stormy conditions in which it landed. Despite two official investigations into the accident, one American and one German, the origin of the fire has largely remained a mystery.

But newly discovered amateur footage of the crash shows the airship’s final seconds from a fresh angle—allowing historians for the first time to see the airship from nose to tail just after the fire breaks out. Taking clues from this new evidence and other historical sources, NOVA leads a fresh investigation with eye-opening experiments that could finally solve the mystery. 

Helming the new investigation are Lieutenant Colonel Jason O. Harris, an Air Force veteran and commercial airline pilot trained in accident investigation, and aviation historian Dan Grossman, a bestselling author and world-renowned authority on Hindenburg and the 1937 investigations.

Their inquiry leads them from the Lakehurst, New Jersey airfield where the Hindenburg crashed to the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen in Germany to a Caltech laboratory in Pasadena. 

Hindenburg: The New Evidence: Preview

80 years after the world’s largest airship ignited in a giant fireball, newly discovered footage sparks a reinvestigation of what exactly caused the Hindenburg disaster.

Filmmaker Quotes:

“Thanks to this stunning new footage, we were able to revive a cold case investigation surrounding one of the most iconic disasters of the 20th century,” said “Hindenburg: The New Evidence” Executive Producer Gary Tarpinian.

“For over 80 years, experts have debated how and why the fire began.,” added Writer/Producer Rushmore DeNooyer. “Using the tried and true scientific method, we were able to unravel a key part of one of history’s most famous and captivating unsolved mysteries.”

“We went to a lot of places in search of answers — from the crash site in Lakehurst, New Jersey, to the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen in Germany,” said Director Kirk Wolfinger. “This film not only reveals new insights into how this tragic event unfolded, but also illustrates the enormous scale of the disaster.”

The original investigations into the Hindenburg crash concluded that the fire was a result of leaking hydrogen ignited by a spark, though the specific cause of the spark itself was never determined. Eyewitness accounts suggested that the fire started near the tail of the aircraft, but supporting evidence was hard to find.

There’s no film capturing the moment of ignition — the press recordings of the disaster begin after the fire is well underway — and most physical evidence was destroyed immediately in the blaze. For over 80 years, the origin of the spark that doomed Hindenburg has remained elusive — what exactly caused it, and where in the ship it occurred, both lost to history.

Recently, astounding new footage of the disaster shot on an 8mm Kodak camera surfaced, filmed by an amateur cameraman named Harold Schenck. Never seen by the original investigators, his footage shows the crash from a much wider angle, and crucially, captures Hindenburg’s landing approach, including the release of the ship’s landing ropes, which hit the ground four minutes before the fire began.

While the footage does not show what ignited the hydrogen — the spark that doomed Hindenburg — it does offer key clues. The NOVA investigators focus on the landing ropes: in the rainy conditions of May 6, 1937, could they conduct enough electricity to possibly contribute to a spark?

After verifying the footage’s authenticity with experts, Harris and Grossman enlist Konstantinos Giapis, professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, to conduct specially-designed experiments addressing the origin of the spark and the ropes’ conductivity.

The rigorous tests result in the most compelling theories to date about how, where, and why the spark occurred and why it just so happened to be at the one spot where hydrogen was leaking — a seemingly impossible coincidence given the vast size of the airship.

Watch On Your Schedule:

This episode will be available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast, for a limited time.

Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

Join The Conversation:

NOVA is on Facebook, and you can follow @novapbs on Twitter. #NOVAnext

Credits:

A NOVA production by Morningstar Entertainment for GBH Boston. Written by Rushmore DeNooyer. Directed by Kirk Wolfinger. Executive Producers are Gary Tarpinian and Paninee Theeranuntawat. Vice President of Production is Dan McCarthy. Producers are James Millican and Rushmore DeNooyer. Edited by Duncan Sinclair. Co-Producer is Kevin Young. Narrated by Talithia Williams. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt.

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