Before scientists learned how to predict the weather, and before the weather predicting equipment came into being, people often found themselves outside, without any place to get under cover, during some really bad storms. Such was the case on Monday, April 13, 1360…later dubbed Black Monday, when a hail storm killed approximately 1,000 English soldiers in Chartres, France. England and France were in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War. The war began in 1337, and by 1359, King Edward III of England was pushing forward to conquer France. In October he sent a massive force across the English Channel to Calais. The French wouldn’t fight back, but rather stayed behind protective walls that Winter, allowing the King Edward’s men to pillage the countryside.
Then in April of 1360 King Edward’s forces burned the Paris suburbs and marched toward Chartres. The night of April 13, while they were camped outside the town, planning a dawn attack, a sudden storm developed. Lightning struck, killing several soldiers, and hailstones began pelting the men, and scattering the horses. One man described it as “a foul day, full of myst and hayle, so that the men dyed on horseback” Two of the English leaders were killed and the troops panicked…they had no shelter from the storm. They were at it’s mercy. King Edward’s forces suffered heavy losses that some of the men saw as a sign from God, that they should not be fighting against France. King Edward was convinced that they needed to negotiate peace with the French, and on May 8, 1360, the Treaty of Bretigny was signed, marking the end of the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War. King Edward renounced all claims to the throne of France, but he was given control of the land in the north of the country. Nine years later, fighting resumed when the King of France claimed that King Edward had not honored the treaty. the last phase of the Hundred Years’ War finally ended in 1453.
Hailstones have long been known to be very deadly. The larger the stone, of course, the more deadly it is. Some have been known to crush the roofs of cars. The largest hailstone recorded in modern times was found in Aurora, Nebraska. It was seven inches in diameter, about the size of a soccer ball. Hail typically falls at about 100 miles per hour, which explains why getting hit with one can really hurt you, no matter how small the stone might be, and why huge hailstones would mean instant death.
Through the years, or at least since the dawning of flight, man has tried to build flying machines that are more and more creative. Some of these have had amazing runs, like the B-17 Bomber, which was a World War II era plane, that still flies today. Others, like the Hindenburg, went down in a ball of flames. I don’t think it’s usually easy to predict which ones will succeed and which ones won’t. I seriously doubt that people would have predicted that the Concord would ever have the problems it had, or that the Goodyear Blimp would prove successful, where the Hindenburg failed. Sometimes, it’s all about finding yourself with just the right set of components, or making just one slight mistake…and sometimes, the mistake is more obvious.
The Hindenburg disaster, which occurred on this day, May 6, 1937, was probably the worst slight mistake in history. The Hindenburg was Germany’s version of the most luxurious way to fly in existence at that time. It was over 800 feet long and with its state of the art Mercedes Benz engine, it flew at 85 miles per hour, and had a range of 8,000 miles. The Hindenburg carried 97 passengers, and made ten successful ocean crossings the year before the disaster. It was Germany’s Nazi government’s symbol of national pride, but it held a secret mistake that, on May 6, 1937, exploded into one of Germany’s biggest failures.
The Hindenburg was filled with seven million cubic feet of Hydrogen. The Germans used Hydrogen because of its maneuverability, even though Helium would have been much safer. The Hindenburg was supposed to arrive in New Jersey at 5:00am on that fateful day, but bad weather delayed its arrival until the later afternoon. Even then, the weather was not ideal. Rain further delayed the docking at Lakehurst. When they were finally cleared to dock, Captain Max Pruss brought the ship in too fast and had to order a reverse engine thrust. At 7:20pm a gas leak was noticed. Within minutes, the tail blew up, sending flames hundreds of feet in the air and as far down as the ground below.
The chain reaction that followed caused the entire vessel to burst into flames. There were nearly 1,000 spectators awaiting the arival, who could feel the heat of the fire from a mile away. Those on the Hindenburg tried to jump. Some tried to jump to the docking cables, and when they fell, they were killed or critically injured. Others tried to jump as they got closer to the ground. Many were critically burned. In all 36 people lost their lives, while 56 managed to survive. Probably the main reason this crash has stayed in the minds of people over the years is that there were so many cameras to document the event. The photographs have become well known. Announcer Herbert Morrison, on WLS radio gave an unforgettably harrowing live account of the disaster, “Oh, oh, oh. It’s burst into flames. Get out of the way, please . . . this is terrible . . . it’s burning, bursting into flames, and is falling . . . Oh! This is one of the worst . . . it’s a terrific sight . . .oh, the humanity.” This truly was a disaster of monumental proportion, and it will never be forgotten.