Hindenburg Disaster - Rate of Flame Propagation

Rate of Flame Propagation

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Regardless of the source of ignition or the initial fuel for the fire, there remains the question of what caused the rapid spread of flames along the length of the airship. Here again the debate has centered on the fabric covering of the airship and the hydrogen used for buoyancy.

Proponents of both the incendiary paint hypothesis and the hydrogen hypothesis agree that the fabric coatings were probably responsible for the rapid spread of the fire. The combustion of hydrogen is not usually visible to the human eye in daylight, because most of its radiation is not in the visible portion of the spectrum but rather ultraviolet. Thus what can be seen burning in the photographs cannot be hydrogen. However, black-and-white photographic film of the era had a different light sensitivity spectrum than the human eye, and was sensitive farther out into the infrared and ultraviolet regions than the human eye. And while hydrogen tends to burn invisibly, the materials around it, if combustible, would change the color of the fire.

The motion picture films show the fire spreading downward along the skin of the airship. While fires generally tend to burn upward, especially including hydrogen fires, the enormous radiant heat from the blaze would have quickly spread fire over the entire surface of the airship, thus apparently explaining the downward propagation of the flames. Falling, burning debris would also appear as downward streaks of fire.

One note is that in 1935 a helium filled blimp with an acetate aluminium skin burned near Point Sur in California with equal ferocity. Even the USS Macon, a U.S. Navy airship, burned after crashing into the Pacific off Monterey Bay. Those critical of these claims insist these two incidents had nothing to do with the dope; the small blimp burned because gasoline was ignited during a lightning strike, and the Macon burned because its signal flares fired ignited gasoline.

Those skeptical of the incendiary paint hypothesis cite recent technical papers which claim that even if the airship had been coated with actual rocket fuel, it would have taken many hours to burn – not the 32 to 37 seconds that it actually took.

Modern experiments that recreated the fabric and coating materials of the Hindenburg seem to discredit the incendiary fabric hypothesis. They conclude that it would have taken about 40 hours for the Hindenburg to burn if the fire had been driven by combustible fabric. Two additional scientific papers also strongly reject the fabric hypothesis.

However these claims do not agree with the results the Mythbusters achieved on their Hindenburg special of their TV show and others feel the criticisms does not take into account the conditions that lead to firestorms, such as convection and ignition from radiant energy.

The most conclusive proof against the fabric hypothesis is in the photographs of the actual accident as well as the many airships which were not doped with aluminum powder and still exploded violently. When a single gas cell explodes, it creates a shock wave and heat. The shock wave tends to rip nearby bags which then explode themselves. In the case of the Ahlhorn disaster on January 5, 1918, explosions of airships in one hangar caused the explosions of others in three adjoining hangars, wiping out all five Zeppelins at the base.

The photos of the Hindenburg disaster clearly show that after the cells in the aft section of the airship exploded and the combustion products were vented out the top of the airship, the fabric on the rear section was still largely intact, and air pressure from the outside was acting upon it, caving the sides of the airship inward due to the reduction of pressure caused by the venting of combustion gases out the top.

The loss of lift at the rear caused the airship to nose up suddenly and the back to break in half (the airship was still in one piece), at that time the primary mode for the fire to spread was along the axial gangway which acted as a chimney, conducting fire which burst out the nose as the airship's tail touched the ground, and as seen in one of the most famous pictures of the disaster.

Read more about this topic:  Hindenburg Disaster

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