“Something will happen to the back of the Hindenburg,” said a letter to the German Embassy in May 1937, just before the huge dirigible burst into flames above the Lakehurst, New Jersey. The letter was eerily correct, but lacked specifics.
Was it a bomb? A hydrogen leak? A thunderstorm? A spark? Saint Elmo’s Fire?
Scientists and engineers from San Antonio’s very own Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) helped design, test and build Hindenburg 1/10 scale replicas to test each theory 75 years after the fact. A team of local engineers, scientists and historians teamed up with the Discovery Channel’s series “Curiosity” to get to the bottom of the crash that claimed the lives of 36 of the 97 passengers and crew aboard the Hindenburg airship.
“It mimicked it perfectly, it was really fun,” said Matthew Blais, director of fire technology at SwRI – one of America’s biggest test facilities.
Blais probably has one of the coolest jobs you never knew existed until now. He and his team test how materials and designs handle (or don’t handle) fire, experiment with hydro-fuels and investigate causes of fires and explosions. Which basically means he’s living every 13-year-old boy’s dream.
“Any time you see a lab in the show, that’s my lab,” Blais said. “It’s really something to see the way the 80 foot (model) performed exactly like it did in the 1937 disaster …. It’s a calculation, you’re always a little bit iffy. (We asked ourselves), ‘Is this really going to fly?’ It did. Perfectly.”
On May 6, 1937, sixty-two people survived this:
SwRI, an independent nonprofit, has government and industry clients including NASA and the U.S. Military.