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The Theme of History in Atoms, Molecules, and Ions

Blimps and the Hindenburg Disaster

You've probably seen one of the Goodyear blimps floating around in the sky, particularly during large sporting events. Everyone loves a good blimp sighting, right? A blimp was even present at the Statue of Liberty's 100 birthday party. You can check out some of the footage here.


Blimps through the years. (Image from here.)

Have you ever wondered how a blimp soars through the air? Or how it's different than a hot air balloon?

The blimp is similar to a large balloon. Unlike airplanes, which must be moving relatively quickly to stay in flight, a blimp actually floats in the air. It is able to do so because it is filled with a gas that is less dense than the air around it. Most blimps are filled with helium, which is much less dense than air itself. This is why helium-filled party balloons can float while if you blow a balloon up using the air in your lungs, it sinks to the ground.


Balloons filled with helium floating around. (Image from here.)

In the past, however, some blimps were filled with another gas less dense than air: hydrogen gas. For example, the Hindenburg, the largest blimp ever constructed, was filled with hydrogen, which turned out to be a terrible choice. Let's just say that hydrogen is a very reactive and flammable gas.

The Hindenburg was a famous German blimp from the 1930s that took several trips from Rio de Janeiro to Frankfurt and was often filled with wealthy and famous passengers. Thousands of people usually lined the flight path to view the floating marvel. Tragedy struck, however, on its May 6th, 1937 voyage.

The Hindenburg, which is still to date the largest blimp ever constructed, was completing its first ever transatlantic crossing and was in the process of landing in New Jersey. As the Hindenburg was landing, hydrogen gas began to leak. Because H2 is reactive and flammable, the blimp immediately burst into flames, killing 36 of the 97 passengers.


The Hindenburg Disaster. (Image from here.)

Unfortunately, the skin of the Hindenburg blimp was also made from a flammable material, which helped lead to the blimp's demise. For this reason, modern blimps are all filled with helium and are constructed from a less flammable outer material. Interestingly, helium gas is nonflammable and can even put out a flame. This sounds like a much better choice for a flying balloon filled with people.

If you'd like to see footage of the Hindenburg in its final flight check out this video.

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