Crash and burn: three air disasters caught on camera

The Hindenburg disaster - three air disasters caught on camera
The Hindenburg Disaster 6 May 1937 | Wikimedia | Public Domain

If the myth of Icarus is any indication, the fantasy of human flight has been a lofty aspiration that spans millennia. From kites to commercial space flight: the timeline of manned flight spans back further through history than you might think. However, with each new discovery comes a new tragedy.

Of course, as with most historical events, reliable records and reports can be hard to come by. But a boom in technology over the last century has meant that we are able to capture and record events in greater and more visual detail. Here are just three of the worst moments in aviation history that have been captured on camera.

Hindenburg

Only two Hindenburg class zeppelins were built, but as the biggest zeppelins ever to fly they were already considered to be remarkable. With its length falling around 400 feet short of the height of the Empire State Building, LZ-29 Hindenberg was truly the pinnacle of air travel and the pride of Nazi Germany. The LZ-29 Zeppelin became a commercial aircraft in March of 1936 and over the course of that year would make ten return trips between Europe and New York with a mileage of 308,323 km. Despite an incredibly successful first year of transiting close to 3,000 passengers as well as mail and imports, what was at the core of the ship was destined to be its ruin.

By the time the LZ-29 Hindenburg had been built access to affordable helium (the gas of preference to get the airship off the ground) was an almost impossible feat - especially in the quantities needed to fill such a large tank. With tensions growing politically worldwide, and the US having almost exclusive access to helium, the Hindenburg was filled instead with hydrogen; a gas that provided more lift than helium, and was readily accessible and affordable. Despite its benefits, the fatal flaw of hydrogen was what made helium the preferential gas of choice: hydrogen is highly flammable.

To lessen chances for disaster, the Hindenburg was designed with separate compartments that stored the hydrogen as well as a specially designed reflective outer sheet that blocked harmful UV rays that could cause damage over time and stop infrared light from heating the contained hydrogen. Despite these safety measures, on May 7th the Hindenburg sailed its final ill-fated trip.

As the ship was approaching the docking pylon on the New Jersey airstrip, quick-changing winds caused the ship to undertake last-minute manoeuvres to compensate. Whether from the stress of the manoeuvre or wear and tear, witnesses noted that they saw the outer sheet of the ship flapping as though gas was escaping just in front of the vertical fin. With no time to address the damage flames appeared (the ignition source is a point of speculation to this day) and ripped through the back of the ship. The airship buckled as the individual compartments of gas ignited, and it fell from the sky in a ball of flames.

The Hindenburg disaster wasn’t the first or even the most deadly airship accident in recorded history. The USS Akron disaster saw the loss of 73 of the 76 crew members and passengers aboard when struck by lightning over New Jersey, whilst the R101 crash killed 36 in an accident 7 years before the Hindenburg's infamous final flight. So why, then, was the Hindenburg Disaster the one that hit headlines around the world?

Publicity about the ships first transatlantic crossing of the year meant that reporters and news crews were on the ground eagerly awaiting the arrival of the airship. A live radio broadcast detailed the event in real-time, whilst film crews captured the disaster frame by frame. It was the first disaster to have been caught on camera allowing records of the disaster to be broadcast across the globe. In total 35 crewmen and passengers of the 97 total on board were killed along with the death of another crew member on the ground below.

Space Shuttle Challenger

Just as the airship was thought to be the aviation of the future, just four decades later we had turned our eyes beyond the skies. The space race between America and Russia had not only launched a man into space but made the hope for commercial space travel a reality.

By the mid 80s space travel wasn’t capturing the imagination of the public as it once had. It had been nearly 20 years since man had set foot on the moon, and with America having won the space race public perceptions of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program were leaning further towards indifference.

In an attempt to reinvigorate fascination with the Space Shuttle program the Teacher in Space project was announced. Thousands submitted their applications to become the first civilian in space who would broadcast two school lessons to children from orbit. When it came time for the 25th mission into space classrooms across the US were tuning in to watch Christa McAuliffe - a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire - launch into space.

73 seconds into the launch the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart live on air. Stations broadcasting the launch cut away the moment the rocket broke apart, but those watching live from the launch site could only look on in horror as the spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic. Later evidence would show that the 7 astronauts aboard weren’t killed instantly in the explosion, but as the crew compartment was engulfed in flames in its return to earth. The disaster was later attributed to a faulty O-ring that was not designed for the cold temperatures of space travel.

NASA had planned to integrate more civilians into future Space Shuttle launches, however following the Challenger disaster any plans to send civilians into space were scrapped.

Sadly the Space Shuttle Challenger wouldn’t be the last Space Shuttle disaster caught on camera. In 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded on its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere after an insulation tile had been damaged on launch. As with Challenger, all astronauts aboard were killed.

In 2004 all 14 Astronauts lost in the two disasters were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honour by President George W. Bush.

Air France Flight 4590

As aviation science and flight are better understood, the safety of aircraft has ensured that aircraft disasters are increasingly rare. As unlikely as it is to experience one, it’s even less likely that you would be able to capture one on camera.

On the afternoon of 25th July 2000, Air France Flight 4590 took off from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris bound for JFK International, New York. Five minutes before the plane's departure another plane dropped a strip of titanium alloy (later identified as the engine cowl cover) onto the runway during its takeoff.

As it sped up the runway for takeoff, Air France Flight 4590 ran over the strip of metal which shredded a tire. The tire shed debris which was whipped into the undercarriage of the plane at speeds of 140 mph. The impact of the debris didn’t rupture the undercarriage of the plane but sent a shockwave through the fuel tanks that caused one (which was later found to have been overfilled) to rupture. The tank started gushing fuel which was quickly ignited.

Air traffic had spotted the flames just before the plane left the tarmac, however, the plane had reached speeds meaning it was no longer able to abort the takeoff sequence: despite knowing the plane was on fire there was nothing that the pilots could do. As the plane struggled, the left-wing began to melt and disintegrate under the intense heat from the flames.

Unable to climb, the pilots tried to level the plane by decelerating, but lost control of the and stalled, crashing the plane into a nearby hotel. The entire event had been recorded by a passing driver.

Before the crash, the Concorde class of planes had been considered to be the safest model in aviation history with zero fatalities across its 27-year history of operation. Having been one of two supersonic aircraft to be used for commercial purposes, the Concorde (like the Hindenburg) was considered to be the future of commercial aviation. Its excellent safety record and ability to drastically reduce travel times had been the aircraft's biggest selling points.

Following the downturn in air travel after 9/11, and Airbus no longer supporting the maintenance of the aircraft, it was just three years later that the Concorde aircraft was retired. In total, only 20 Concorde aircraft were ever built.

Written by:

Jo Rowan