May 6, 1937: The Hindenburg Tragedy Changes the Course of Air Travel

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Airships were the first aircraft capable of controlled powered flight, and were most commonly used before the 1940s. In fact, the Empire State Building was completed in 1931 with a dirigible art deco mast, in anticipation of passenger airship service. After the outstanding success of the Zeppelin design, the word zeppelin came to be commonly used to refer to all rigid airships. 

Thus, the Hindenburg, nicknamed the “Pride of the Skies,” departed from Frankfurt, Germany, on the evening of May 3, 1937. But while landing in New Jersey, the Hindenburg caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flames, crashing to the ground within 35 seconds.

There were 35 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmembers) from the 97 people on board, and an additional fatality on the ground. 

Investigators eventually determined that the airship had burned rather than actually "exploded."

The event shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and marked an abrupt end to the airship era. The future of air travel looked instead to the heavier-than-air aircraft with faster and more reliable travel.

Although airships are no longer used for major cargo and passenger transport, they are still used for advertising, sightseeing, surveillance and research. One of the most familiar marketing icons today is the Goodyear Blimp, recalling a possibility that never took off.

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