OPINION: Oh, the humanity! Atlanta lawyer is a Hindenburg savant

A new documentary of the Hindenburg disaster features rare footage shot in 1937 by an amateur cameraman, Harold Schenck. (Photo courtesy of Dan Grossman)
Caption
A new documentary of the Hindenburg disaster features rare footage shot in 1937 by an amateur cameraman, Harold Schenck. (Photo courtesy of Dan Grossman)

Credit: Courtesy of Dan Grossman

I’ve known Dan Grossman for several years as the lawyer who has been a watchdog over the city of Atlanta’s police force since a crew of cops acted like a goon squad during a 2009 raid at the Eagle, a gay bar on Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Grossman can be a hard-nosed attorney. He has pushed for needed changes to the Atlanta Police Department in a federal lawsuit against the city and speaks authoritatively on policing and civil rights. He remains a court-appointed monitor in the Eagle case.

So, I was surprised to learn that Grossman is also, according to a national publication, an “aviation historian, a best-selling author and a world-renowned authority on airships.” Especially LZ-129.

LZ-129 is better known as the Hindenburg, the beast of the sky that became synonymous with disaster.

Grossman stars in a new “NOVA” episode released last week on PBS. The documentary features newly released film footage, a professor trying to recreate the cause of the 1937 disaster, and the Atlanta attorney at his dirigible nerd best.

The Hindenburg remains a defining catastrophe because the conflagration of a Nazi zeppelin in front of numerous cameras, accompanied by a historically emotional soundtrack — “Oh, the humanity!” — just never loses its morbid appeal. It speaks to hubris and mankind’s tenuous battle to subvert nature with technology.

Grossman, a pilot who’d prefer to be flying or researching a book than fighting City Hall, is an expert on all types of flying from the 1920s until the 1960s, and has aided all types of movies, books and documentaries. He goes back and forth on how prudent it was to fly a behemoth that was three times the length of a 747, was filled with 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen, and needed 300 men pulling ropes to get it to the ground.

Dan Grossman, an Atlanta lawyer and an expert on airships from long ago, holds a piece of the Hindenburg's metal frame in his home. He takes part in a PBS "NOVA" documentary on the disaster. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
Caption
Dan Grossman, an Atlanta lawyer and an expert on airships from long ago, holds a piece of the Hindenburg's metal frame in his home. He takes part in a PBS "NOVA" documentary on the disaster. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Supported by an internal framework, zeppelins were “an engineering miracle,” said Grossman. They were light for their size, sturdy and practical, able to carry 100 people, including the crew. And they were fast — two-plus days to cross the Atlantic versus five days in an ocean liner.

“It was the Concorde of its time,” said Grossman. People paid $450, about $8,300 in today’s money, to travel aboard the behemoth.

However, Grossman asked, “Why was a flying bomb a good idea? It’s kind of a dumb idea, an example of, ‘If something works on a small scale, let’s make it big.’ It’s a technology that is inherently difficult. It’s like a giant sail. It’s a wall in the air (that catches wind and can be blown about). Airships were a technologically dumb idea. But there just wasn’t anything else at the time.”

So why does one become a world-renowned expert on zeppelins?

“First of all, they’re kind of cool,” he said. “They’re gigantic things that can float.”

Yes, that’s a given. Please go on.

“Airships for a period of history represented a delightfully naïve enthusiasm about technology and the future,” he said. Plus, Grossman was attracted because the technology is understandable.

“Give me a 1950s Ford truck and I can change the spark plugs,” Grossman said. “A modern one is computerized. I wouldn’t know where to start. The technology of that time is accessible. There’s nothing about an airplane of the 1930s I don’t understand.”

Grossman got the flying bug in college and has obsessed with the history of dirigibles for decades. It’s a lane not occupied by many others, he said as we sat in the man cave of his Morningside home, a room with four leather chairs, perhaps 40 framed historical photos of airships, some china from the Hindenburg (from the non-disastrous flights) and a triangular-shaped chunk of the aluminum girder from LZ-129′s final flight.

I mentioned to him that his walls have no photos of the stricken Hindenburg.

This May 6, 1937, file photo, provided by the Philadelphia Public Ledger, was taken when the Hindenburg exploded over the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Caption
This May 6, 1937, file photo, provided by the Philadelphia Public Ledger, was taken when the Hindenburg exploded over the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

“No, no, no, this is about the glory days,” he said laughing, yet serious. ”It’s about the good stuff, only the happy stuff.”

“There is so much more to the history of airships without going into the Hindenburg,” Grossman said. “It’s a little annoying that all people want to talk about airships is the Hindenburg.”

“There are so many airship stories I would love to tell,” he said, pausing to add, “But no one would pay for it.”

Well, then, let’s talk about the Hindenburg.

A linchpin of the “NOVA” episode centers around some rarely seen 8 mm film shot in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, by Harold Schenck, who borrowed the camera from his brother.

In 2012, when Grossman was attending the commemoration of the disaster’s 75th anniversary, he was approached by Bob Schenck, the cameraman’s nephew. “I have some film of the Hindenburg disaster,” Schenck told him. “This probably looks the same as all the others but if you want to see it, I’ll show you.”

Grossman knew he had something special when he realized Harold Schenck was shooting from a different angle than the news crews, whose view was that of the airship flying toward them. Schenck’s film was a side view, showing the entire craft, with nose and tail visible at the same time, providing a better image of the flames’ progression. Grossman now owns the film, having purchased it from the family.

Dan Grossman, an Atlanta attorney and expert on zeppelins and other airships, holds a film that was shot of the Hindenburg disaster that is part of a PBS "NOVA" documentary. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
Caption
Dan Grossman, an Atlanta attorney and expert on zeppelins and other airships, holds a film that was shot of the Hindenburg disaster that is part of a PBS "NOVA" documentary. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

A surprising fact of the disaster, given the ferocity and speed of the destruction, was that just 35 of the 97 people aboard were killed, as was a person on the ground.

“It was miraculous,” said Grossman. “It was a question of when to jump. If you jump (when it was) too high, then you don’t survive. If you wait too long, it’ll come down on top of you.”

The documentary mirrored some of the investigations and tests conducted in 1937 after the explosion occurred, but this time with a few new twists. There was a leak in the rear of the Hindenburg, making it “tail heavy” and allowing hydrogen gas to mix with oxygen. The ropes lowered from the airship got wet in the thunderstorm and, four minutes after being dropped, became a conduit for the charged particles buzzing about the frame of the ship.

It was like the spark you get after walking on a carpet and touching a doorknob. But fortunately, your bedroom doesn’t contain 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen.

Grossman said the Germans, who were masters at engineering and precision, were forced to use the more volatile hydrogen in their zeppelins rather than helium because, years earlier, America had embargoed its helium stockpile.

The Hindenburg arrived in New Jersey about 12 hours late because of headwinds. The airship’s management and crew felt pressured to move quickly because they wanted to turn around and get the return flight ready to prove they could meet a schedule.

“The Germans knew you do not land in a thunderstorm, but they did,” Grossman told me. “The German manuals written in 1919 said that. I could show you.”

Thanks, but I’ll just hold the cool piece of the Hindenburg girder as you explain.

“Why this disaster happened was they stopped being German; they rushed it,” Grossman said. “But in that political regime, who do you fear more? The weather or the Gestapo?”

Correction: This column originally misstated the amount of hydrogen contained in the Hindenburg. The airship contained 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen.

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