The first of these airships, the Hindenburg, came into service in 1936, sporting Nazi swastikas. Powered by four 1,100hp diesel engines, it could carry 50 passengers at over 128kph (80mph) in unparalleled luxury. Where the Graf Zeppelin had crammed its passengers into a gondola, the Hindenburg used part of the massive hull for passenger accommodation on two decks. The upper deck had promenades on each side where passengers could stroll and gaze through panoramic windows. There was a dining room with linen-covered tables, a writing room, and a lounge with a baby grand piano. On the lower deck were bathrooms, a shower room, the crew’s quarters, the kitchen, and a smoking room.
The latter drew attention to the Hindenburg’s one fatal flaw: its vast envelope was filled with inflammable hydrogen. The zeppelin’s designers had intended to use helium, but the United States refused to supply it. Nevertheless, German engineers were sure that the Hindenburg was safe. A refit in the winter of 1936–37 upgraded it to accommodate 72 passengers, and in May 1937 it was ready to resume scheduled services between Frankfurt and Lakehurst. Ambitious plans were afoot for a German–US consortium to run a transatlantic service that would employ four airships. And then came the inferno of 6 May. As the Hindenburg met its mysterious and fiery end, international airship travel also went up in flames.
Whatever the specific reasons for the Hindenburg disaster, statistics suggest that airships were never really safe enough for passenger transport. Out of 161 airships built over three decades, 60 were destroyed in accidents, either through fire or structural failure. They were in any case too expensive to build and too slow to have provided the kind of mass international air travel that exists today. But for the Hindenburg disaster, giant rigid airships might just have found a niche as the cruiseliners of the sky. As it is, they have become no more than a remembered curiosity.