Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Böser Wind am Bodensee


Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin over Reichstag One tale from the Hindenburg’s all too brief life story that appears in most of the published works on the subject is the incident in which the ship’s lower tail fin was damaged in a botched takeoff attempt at the beginning of a four-day government-ordered propaganda flight over Germany with her sister ship, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, in late March of 1936.

This episode is often described differently from one published source to the next. What follows here is my attempt to clarify the details of this event by balancing existing accounts with contemporary source material.

*Please note that it was impossible to show the actual fin damage without also showing a number of  conspicuous swastika images. This is not intended to glorify NSDAP ideology, but is merely a matter of historical accuracy.*

Early on the morning of March 26, 1936, the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei’s new flagship, the LZ 129 Hindenburg, prepared to depart her hanger for a four-day flight over Germany. Together with her sister ship, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, the Hindenburg was to fly over Germany dropping leaflets and broadcasting party political messages in support of Adolf Hitler's remilitarization of the Rheinland, on which the German people would be casting a referendum vote on March 29.

It was a sign of the times, and not an entirely welcome one. In order to obtain the necessary capital to finish construction of the Hindenburg, which had begun in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, the flight operations wing of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin had been nationalized as the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei in early 1935. Up to that point, the flights of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin’s airships had been scheduled and coordinated internally, largely under the control of Dr. Hugo Eckener, the company’s director. 

EckenerDr. Hugo Eckener

Dr. Eckener’s chief operational priority, aside from the obvious goal of making the airships profitable, had always been safety. In more than a quarter century since the first DELAG sightseeing flights, not a single passenger had ever been killed or even seriously injured aboard a Zeppelin, and this was largely due to Eckener’s insistence on safe, conservative flight practices. This prudent, safety-minded approach grew out of direct personal experience. Although by 1936 he was widely considered to be one of the most gifted airship commanders in the world, Hugo Eckener’s flight career had begun on a decidedly ignominious note.
                                                                                                                                              In 1911, after a decade of association with Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and numerous flights aboard his airships, Eckener was given his very first command, the LZ 8 Deutschland II. It was a small passenger airship, primarily used for pleasure cruises lasting a couple of hours. On May 16, 1911, Eckener was preparing for his first flight as the ship’s commander. The Deutschland II was still in its hangar, and Eckener was concerned that the blustery wind conditions could cause major problems in undocking the airship. However, the passengers were already aboard and there were several very influential individuals among them. In addition, a large crowd of spectators had gathered near the hangar and everyone was clearly anxious for the flight to begin.

Eckener and Count von Zeppelin on SchwabenDr. Hugo Eckener (at right, in dark cap with goggles) and Count von Zeppelin
(left, in white cap) in the control gondola of the LZ 10 Schwaben in 1910.

(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Dr. Eckener, noting the growing impatience of the passengers and the onlookers, went against his own better judgment and ordered the Deutschland II to be walked from her hangar. A large windscreen had been erected to one side of the hangar doors, designed to prevent a crosswind from sending the airship out of control while she was being undocked. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. As she cleared the hangar, a stiff wind caught the Deutschland II and drove her up and backward, dropping her bow onto the hangar roof and impaling her aft section on the very windscreen that had been meant to protect her. Amazingly, nobody was injured, and the passengers were all safely brought down from the ship via a large fire ladder.

Deutschland II  Deutschland II after being blown into her own hangar in 1911. Note the passengers
descending the fire ladder below the row of observation windows along the airship’s keel.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Dr. Eckener, however, was chastened by what had happened. As he later wrote, “I paid for my weak-kneed decision by damaging the ship so badly that she had to be almost completely rebuilt, and thereafter was cured of such compulsive acts.” Never again would Eckener allow himself to be goaded into such a reckless decision in order to cater to public opinion or political pressure, and he drilled this same caution into the airship commanders he trained. The safety of the passengers and crew (and therefore, by extension, the airship) would henceforth be the first and most important consideration at all times.

By March of 1936, however, much had changed. Although he was on the DZR’s board of directors, Dr. Eckener no longer had much say over the flights of the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg. Captain Ernst Lehmann, the Hindenburg’s commander, was also Director of Flight Operations for the DZR. Unlike Eckener, who had little use for the new Nazi regime (and was not afraid to voice such opinions when the mood struck him), Ernst Lehmann was far more willing to curry favor with the Berlin government. Whether this was for practical reasons or because of an actual belief in Nazi ideals on Lehmann’s part is unknown. He was indeed an official member of the Nazi Party, but then again a number of his colleagues had also joined the Party, more for the good of their careers than for ideological reasons.

Ernst A LehmannCaptain Ernst A. Lehmann

Since the DZR fell under the aegis of Hermann Goering’s Air Ministry, the Berlin government had the prerogative to use the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg as they saw fit. In this case, Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda ordered the four-day propaganda flight as a way of publicly legitimizing Hitler’s abrogation of key terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaties through his decision to send German troops into the Rheinland. In addition, the flight would also be the Berlin government’s first opportunity to show off the new Hindenburg, its tail fins emblazoned with 30-foot high scarlet, black and white swastika flags proclaiming the might of the Third Reich.

The flight was technically a charter, with the Air Ministry paying 88,900 Reichsmarks to the DZR for use of both airships for the four-day period. However, the flight would also come at a cost – one that barely registered to the government in Berlin, but which weighed heavily upon Dr. Eckener’s mind. In order to schedule the propaganda flight, it would be necessary to forego the Hindenburg’s final 12-hour full-speed engine trials. The airship was scheduled to depart on her first transoceanic flight, to Rio de Janeiro, early on the morning of March 31. With the propaganda flight lasting until the evening of March 29, there simply would not be time to prepare her for her South America flight and also to fly the 12-hour engine test flight.

Berlin had already asked Dr. Eckener to join other prominent Germans in going on the radio and publicly proclaiming his support for the Führer’s Rheinland policies. Eckener refused, of course. He had always refused the Nazis’ attempts to convince him to lend his approval to what he considered to be a culture of thuggish madness. In 1932 when the growing Nazi Party asked him to join them and requested his permission to allow them to use the giant Zeppelin hangar at Friedrichshafen to hold one of their rallies, Eckener turned them down flat. And in fact, shortly after refusing the Nazis’ requests, he had gone on the radio and made a nationwide address to garner public support for the policies of then-Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, leaving no doubt as to where his political sympathies lay. This led to a movement among the left-leaning Social Democratic Party and the German Centre Party to draft Eckener to run against Hitler in Germany’s 1932 presidential election in place of their aging candidate, incumbent President Paul von Hindenburg. Eckener, flattered though he was by the offer, declined, citing his preference to continue his life’s work with the Zeppelins.

President von Hindenburg won his re-election bid, and immediately appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. Eckener, clearly disgusted by this turn of events, continued to turn down Nazi requests for his public support, which created more and more friction between himself and Nazi Party officials as their hold over the German government intensified. However, the order to fly the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg over Germany in support of those policies was something that Eckener was in no position to deny. His seat on the DZR’s board of directors was largely an honorary one, and the government now held partial ownership of the two Zeppelins. The propaganda flight would proceed as ordered.

Eckener also refused to take part in the flight itself. As he would later write, “Apart from my political convictions, I considered this misuse of the airships in bad taste, a sort of sacrilege, and I refused to participate myself.” To colleagues at the time, he was even more blunt in his assessment of the situation, saying, “If the airships are used for political purposes, it will be the end of the airship.”

Dr. Eckener, therefore, was not present at the Löwenthal airfield when the Hindenburg was brought out of her hangar on the morning of March 26, 1936. Aboard were 58 passengers, including representatives of both the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Propaganda, members of the Plebiscite Commission that would be managing the March 29 national vote, and reporters from the press and the radio. The Hindenburg’s control car had been equipped with a loudspeaker, from which martial music and electioneering messages encouraging Germans to vote “ja” on the upcoming referendum would be broadcast to the crowds below. Boxes full of political leaflets and small parachutes with tiny swastika flags had been stowed in one of the airship’s freight rooms to be dropped during the flight.

Propaganda leafletOne of the pamphlets dropped from the Graf Zeppelin and
Hindenburg during their four-day propaganda flight.

Departure had already been delayed for two hours due to a gusty northeast wind of 6-8 knots complicating the undocking of the Hindenburg, which was in her hangar facing due west. Captain Lehmann, however, was anxious to get started. There was a large crowd onhand at the airfield to watch the new ship take off, including a number of important government dignitaries for whom Lehmann wanted to put on a good show – shades of Dr. Eckener’s experience with the Deutschland II twenty-five years earlier.

Among the crowd of onlookers were two Americans. Lt. Commander Scott E. “Scotty” Peck had been sent to Germany by the US Navy to observe the new Zeppelin and to take part in her test flights. This had been arranged by Dr. Eckener and Admiral Ernest King, Chief of the US Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, and Peck had been in Germany since mid-February. He had originally been scheduled to fly aboard the Hindenburg for the propaganda flight, but had been informed the previous evening by Captain Lehmann that word had come from Berlin that Peck, as a foreign national, would not be allowed to make the flight.

Peck and Lehmann in Hindenburg control carScotty Peck (left) and Ernst Lehmann in the control car of the Hindenburg,
following her first transatlantic flight to the United States, May 9, 1936.

Another who had also planned to participate in the flight, but who now watched the proceedings from the ground due to the edict from Berlin, was Harold G. “Hal” Dick. Dick, a skilled engineer as well as a licensed pilot, had been in Friedrichshafen as a technical observer since 1934 via an arrangement between the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and his employer, the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company in Akron, OH. He had flown numerous times on the Graf Zeppelin, and on the Hindenburg’s early test flights, often standing watches in the control car along with the regular crew. 

Harold G Dick b-w2Harold Dick, circa 1934

A close friend of Dr. Eckener and his son, Knut Eckener, Hal Dick’s presence at the Friedrichshafen airship works continued to be tolerated by the Berlin government even after the nationalization of flight operations in 1935, due to Dick’s having been at the Luftschiffbau for so long that they considered him to be, as Dr. Eckener put it, “like an old piece of furniture.” However, Berlin’s courtesies did not extend to this propaganda flight, and Dick had also been informed that he would have to sit this flight out.         

Graf Zeppelin awaits Hindenburg 3-26-36   The Graf Zeppelin circles overhead as the Hindenburg is removed from her mooring mast.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The Graf Zeppelin, meanwhile was already in the air and circling the Löwenthal field. She had been berthed at the airfield at Friedrichshafen a few miles away, and her commander, Hans von Schiller, had not had any trouble bringing the Graf out of her hangar, which was oriented in a more favorable direction in relation to that morning’s northeast wind. Lehmann decided that, given the fact that the wind was coming from almost directly aft of the Hindenburg, the airship would make a downwind takeoff.

Normally, a Zeppelin took off with its bow into the wind, so as to immediately catch the wind with its aft control surfaces and generate aerodynamic lift. A downwind takeoff was more difficult, riskier and considerably less than ideal. In this case, the ship’s stern, rather than its bow, would be pointed into the wind:

Downwind Takeoff - Diagram 1

The aft mooring ropes would be cast off and her tail pushed into the air while the nose remained held down by the ground crew. This was to allow the wind to get up under the tail fins in order to generate lift and forward speed:

Downwind Takeoff - Diagram 2

Once the tail had risen approximately 30 or 40 feet (10-12 meters) into the air, the bow would be released and the ship allowed to move forward with the wind, gaining altitude through a combination of her own lift and the force of the wind:

Downwind Takeoff - Diagram 3

What made this maneuver tricky was the fact that once the airship’s bow was released, it would tend to rise, encouraging the ship to pivot on her center of gravity and push the ship’s tail down. Water ballast would therefore be dropped from the aft end of the ship in order to keep the tail up until the ship was underway.

Downwind Takeoff - Diagram 4

However, despite the risks of such a takeoff, Ernst Lehmann had decades of experience flying Zeppelins under all weather conditions, and he had made many successful downwind takeoffs before. There was no reason to believe that this time would be any different.

Just before 6:00 AM, Lehmann ordered the ground crew to walk the Hindenburg out of her shed, her nose cone still held by the mobile mooring mast and her aft section held by landing ropes attached to trolleys running along rails to port and starboard.

Ground crew with mooring tackle trolleyOne of the docking rail trolleys can be seen at lower left as members of the
ground crew bring the Hindenburg out of her hangar on an earlier test flight.

As her bow emerged, the assembled crowd saw, for the first time, the red gothic lettering bearing her name along the side of her hull, above and slightly forward of the control car. Designed by Georg Wagner of Berlin, the lettering had been applied to the Hindenburg following her 6th trial flight a few days before. It had not gone unnoticed that the first half-dozen flights had been carried out without the ship bearing her name – long considered an ill omen among mariners.

Early flight - no nameThe as-yet unchristened LZ 129 begins a test flight in early March of 1936
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)


3-23-36  The Hindenburg, her name freshly painted on her hull, is led from her hangar on March 26, 1936
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Once the Hindenburg was clear of the hangar doors, Lehmann ordered the ground crew to uncouple the portside ropes from trolleys and to haul her bow to port, so that the ship would be oriented with her stern into the northeast wind. As the ground crew pulled the ship into position, one of the starboard ropes snapped loose from its trolley, and according to witnesses “the ship began to walk the men across the field instead of the men walking the ship.”

3-26-36 takeoff - Diagram 1

Lehmann, seeing this, gave the order, “Up ship! Stern first!” The ground crew released the Hindenburg’s tail, which ascended before the wind as planned. In the control car, the man at the elevator wheel (later identified by Harold Dick as senior rudderman Kurt Schönherr – though it is unknown why Captain Lehmann would have put a rudderman on the elevators for such a delicate takeoff maneuver) kept the horizontal control surfaces in the “up” position so as to allow the wind to more easily get under the fins and lift the tail.

3-26-36 takeoff - Diagram 2

Once the ship’s stern had risen about 30 feet into the air, Lehmann ordered the bow to be released.

3-26-36 takeoff - Diagram 3

And then, inexplicably, Captain Lehmann ordered water ballast to be dropped from the bow. This was, of course, the exact opposite of what the downwind takeoff procedure called for, and it had the expected effect.

3-26-36 takeoff - Diagram 4

With the bow now lightened and rising fast, the tail began to drop. The horizontal tail fins, which had been aligned to catch the wind underneath them, suddenly began catching the prevailing wind on their topside surfaces.

3-26-36 takeoff - Diagram 5

To make matters worse, there was also wind spilling downward onto the horizontal fins from the top of the hangar, which was still a relatively short distance aft of the ship. This hit the control surfaces, pushing them downward with enough force to rip the wheel out of the elevatorman’s hands and send him sprawling across the control car. Furthermore, the control chains attached to the elevator wheel were brought up against their stops so sharply that they snapped.

3-26-36 takeoff - Diagram 6

By now, the Hindenburg’s bow had risen high into the air (Lt. Commander Peck estimated that her nose was up by approximately 15 degrees) and the stern had seesawed down far enough to slam the rear of the lower tail fin into the ground, crumpling the aft-most third of the fin’s lower edge and damaging the rudder. Lehmann immediately ordered multiple ballast drops to lighten the ship and get her airborne. With the lower rudder damaged and the elevators temporarily out of commission, the Hindenburg rose into the air and then free-ballooned over the town of Friedrichshafen and out over Lake Constance.

3-26-36 takeoff - Diagram 7

Lehmann immediately ordered elevator control transferred to the emergency control stand in the forward part of the lower tail fin. The lower rudder cables were also unshipped from the rudder wheel, leaving only the upper rudder for lateral control. The Hindenburg cruised over the lake for an hour or so as the riggers and flight engineers made a thorough internal inspection of the aft portion of the ship in order to determine the extent of the damage. As it turned out, the damage seemed to be confined to the impact area.

The wind that had plagued the Löwenthal airfield died down to a couple of knots by mid-morning, and Captain Lehmann brought the Hindenburg in to land. As she was walked back to her hangar, people in the crowd began snapping photos of her damaged tail fin. Security officers and DZR personnel quickly swept through the crowd, grabbing cameras and yanking the film out. A few quick-thinking individuals – including Hal Dick, whose photos appear here – managed to hide their cameras and preserve their photos of the Hindenburg’s crumpled fin.

hd-fins1(photo courtesy of Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives,
Wichita State University Libraries)

Meanwhile, as Lehmann climbed down from the control car to survey the damage, a furious Dr. Eckener stormed up to him and let him have it, in full earshot of the crowd of onlookers. Their new airship had come perilously close to being wrecked, and Eckener was in no mood to mince words.

“How could you, Herr Lehmann, order the ship to be brought out under these wind conditions?!” Eckener bellowed. “You had the best excuse in the world to postpone this Scheissfahrt [literally,shit flight”], but instead you risk the ship merely to avoid annoying Herr Goebbels! Do you call this showing a sense of responsibility toward our enterprise?!”

Lehmann reminded Eckener that he was under direct orders from the government to make the flight, and had little choice but to carry out those orders.

Eckener turned and regarded the damaged airship. “What do you want to do with it?” he asked.

Lehmann replied that he could have temporary repairs made within a couple of hours and get the Hindenburg back into the air to join the Graf Zeppelin. This infuriated Eckener even further.

"So this is your only concern?! To take off quickly on this mad flight and drop pamphlets for Dr. Goebbels?! The fact that we have to take off for Rio in four days and have made no flights to test the engines apparently means nothing to you!"

Lehmann, unshaken (outwardly, at least) by Dr. Eckener’s rebukes, ordered the Hindenburg to be returned to her hangar for repairs. Fortunately, the damage was relatively minor. A 6-foot section at the bottom of the lower rudder had broken off and hung loose by a few girders, and a 10- to 15-foot span of the fin’s lower edge was smashed and bent.

Hindenburg lower fin under repair (large)(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The damaged section of the rudder was removed and the crushed area along the edge of the lower fin was faired in. After cutting away the bent girders and replacing the outer cover, Luftschiffbau workers had the Hindenburg ready to go once again within two hours, at about noon.

Repaired fin 3-26-36(photo courtesy of Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives,
Wichita State University Libraries)

Meanwhile, the wind had shifted from northeast to northwest, picking up again to about 6-8 knots. Unfortunately, the Hindenburg had been returned to her hangar in the opposite direction she had been earlier in the morning, and so Lehmann was faced with almost identical wind conditions when it was time to take off again. He waited until 3:00 that afternoon for the wind to die down, which it eventually did somewhat. Once more, the Hindenburg was walked from its hangar onto the airfield, this time with a conspicuous “bite” out of its lower tail fin.


Graf Zeppelin flying over Hindenburg(photo courtesy of Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives,
Wichita State University Libraries)


429638_4794150811363_65731422_n(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Two views of the Hindenburg being brought out onto the airfield after her repairs.
The Graf Zeppelin, which had been in the air since early morning, flies overhead.

As a matter of expediency, or perhaps even somewhat out of a need to prove his skills as an airshipman after the morning’s fiasco, Lehmann decided to proceed with another downwind takeoff. This time, Dr. Eckener was present on the airfield, standing with the ground crew beneath the Hindenburg’s tail, which was released and rose to a height of about 30 feet. Then, the forward ground crew pushed the bow into the air. Dr. Eckener watched incredulously as Lehmann once again dropped water ballast in two streams from the Hindenburg’s bow. The stern began dropping, and one of the ground crewmen standing near Dr. Eckener exclaimed, “It’s coming back down again, just like this morning!”

Fortunately, with the wind not being quite as strong as it had been that morning, Lehmann had time to order ballast dropped from the stern of the ship in time to check its descent. The Hindenburg now rose into the air, although according to Lt. Commander Scott Peck, the ship was now visibly and badly out of trim after throwing out so much ballast. Once the engines had been started, however, and the ship had forward speed, her elevatorman was able to hold the Hindenburg on an even keel as the engineering crew redistributed fuel and water along the keel to bring the ship back into balance. The Hindenburg now, at last, joined the Graf Zeppelin (still circling overhead) and the two ships proceeded with their four-day tour of Germany, flying over every town with a population greater than 100,000.


LZ 129 pamphlet dropAs the Hindenburg flew over various German cities, election officials dropped
reams of leaflets from open portholes in the airship’s lower tail fin.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The next day, Dr. Eckener drafted a letter which he subsequently distributed to each of his captains. In it, he recounted the events of the previous day, including both the morning’s botched downwind takeoff and the near-miss that had occurred in the afternoon. Captain Lehmann, who was writing his autobiography at the time, would dismiss the incident in that volume as being “meaningless in itself,” describing it thusly: “The unpracticed ground crew tore one of the steel spiders which held the stern of the ship and a gust of wind, blowing at a thirty-five degree angle to the hangar, pushed the stern fins to the earth and bent them.” It is entirely possible that Lehmann had attempted to shift blame to the ground crew in a similar fashion during his confrontation with Dr. Eckener on the airfield at Löwenthal, as Eckener made a point of prefacing his examination of the incident in his letter by stating, “I do not wish to examine whether or not the ground crew behaved incorrectly (which, by the way, I doubt.)”

In the letter, Eckener also outlined the precise procedures that were to be observed and followed for any downwind takeoffs from that point forward (and which form the basis for the first set of diagrams shown above.) Though he had no official control over the actions of the DZR command crews, the crew members themselves had long served under Eckener’s command and were well acquainted with his prodigious expertise when it came to piloting. Especially given the operational near-disaster that the Hindenburg had just experienced, the DZR’s commanders and watch officers would almost certainly take heed of “The Old Man’s” words on the matter.

In Berlin, however, Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels had been informed of “The Old Man’s words” to Captain Lehmann after the Hindenburg had landed for repairs. There were, of course, representatives of the Ministry onhand, both as passengers and as spectators on the ground, and it did not take long for Dr. Eckener’s enraged outburst to be relayed back up the chain of command. Goebbels responded swiftly by essentially declaring Eckener to be, for all intents and purposes, a non-person. At a press conference less than a week later, as the Hindenburg, with Eckener aboard, was making her first flight to South America, Goebbels issued the following proclamation to members of the press:

“Dr. Eckener has alienated himself from the nation. In the future, his name may no longer be mentioned in the newspapers, nor may his picture be further used.”

Upon his return from South America the following week, Eckener met with Air Minister Goering and managed to get the whole mess straightened out. He explained to Goering that his primary concern, and the main reason for his having taken Captain Lehmann to task and disparaging the propaganda flight the way he did was the fact that vital engine tests had to be canceled in favor of the electioneering charter, and that they would have to take the Hindenburg across the Atlantic for the first time without having given her engines their necessary 12-hour full-speed trials. And, as it turned out, the Hindenburg experienced multiple engine breakdowns during the South America flight that may well have been prevented had the airship been able to complete her full battery of test flights. At the end of the return leg of the voyage, Eckener had brought the Hindenburg back to Friedrichshafen on two of her four engines, with a third operating at half speed.

Schaedler in engine car 4Flight Engineer Raphael Schädler examines the LOF-6
diesel in engine car #4 during the
Hindenburg’s first
flight to South America. This was one of the engines
that experienced problems during the voyage.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Air Minister Goering had never been a fan of the Zeppelin concept, often privately dismissing them as “Dr. Eckener’s gas bags.” Nevertheless, as an experienced pilot and decorated WWI fighter ace, he could not deny the fact that Eckener’s operational concerns had been valid. However, during their meeting he focused largely on the perception in Berlin that Eckener had a history of disrespect toward Hitler and his government. There was Eckener’s repeated refusal to publicly support the Nazi Party, as well as his penchant for outspoken public statements that made light of the government. Goering referred specifically to an occasion when, asked by a foreign journalist why he did not use the de rigueur “Heil Hitler!” greeting, Eckener had responded, “When I get up in the morning, I don’t say ‘Heil Hitler!’ to my wife, but rather, ‘Good morning.’ “

According to Eckener’s later memoir, Goering seemed to come to the heart of the matter, however, when he remarked to Eckener, “They say you would have liked to have succeeded von Hindenburg as president.” Eckener assured Goering that the notion had come from others and not himself, and that he had never entertained thoughts of leaving his life’s work behind for a career in politics. Whether or not Goering was truly convinced of Eckener’s sincerity, he did pull the necessary strings to get the press ban lifted and to have Eckener’s name cleared.

The Hindenburg would receive more extensive repairs to her lower tail fin following her return to Germany from her maiden transatlantic voyage to South America. An overhaul of all four of her diesel engines to correct the problems that arose during the flight to Rio would require the airship to be laid up in her hangar for at least a couple of weeks. This gave Luftschiffbau construction crews time to rework the damaged section of the fin, permanently fairing it in so that the lower edge curved up from the forward-most point of the damaged section to the bottom edge of a slightly shortened lower rudder.

Hindenburg - original lower fin designThe Hindenburg’s original lower fin configuration prior to the March 26, 1936 incident.
Note the straight line along the lower edge of the fin, continuing out to the aft edge of the rudder.

(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Hindenburg with reworked fin - summer 1936
The Hindenburg with her reworked tail fin. Note the slight upward curve to the fin’s lower edge that
cuts off the lower aft corner of the red field of the flag, as well as the curved lower edge of the rudder.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Meanwhile, the public referendum vote on the Rheinland issue had gone as Berlin had planned. Aboard the Hindenburg itself, on the final day of the flight, 104 “ja” ballots were cast by 104 passengers and crew – though scuttlebutt among the crew was that there had actually been two “nein” votes that onboard election officials had secretly changed to “ja” votes to avoid Hindenburg and Graf over Brandenburg Gate b-wembarrassment for the Zeppelin company. Throughout Germany, 99% of the people reportedly voted in favor of Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rheinland, although it is likely that the near-unanimous vote totals as reported by official sources were deliberately inflated by Plebiscite Commission members in order to create the illusion of stronger public support of the Third Reich’s policies. The Rheinland, which the Germans had retaken without a shot being fired, was only the first of many military incursions by the Reich into neighboring lands, and the first step along the road that would lead Europe back to war.



Special thanks to Dennis Kromm for his generosity in providing me with his rough sketches that I used to create the diagrams presented here, illustrating the downwind takeoff – both the proper procedure, and the procedure that Captain Lehmann followed on March 26, 1936.

Dennis was also kind enough to provide a copy of the letter from Dr. Eckener to his captains, dated March 27, 1936, in which he outlines the correct procedure for a downwind takeoff in response to the previous day’s mishap. Dennis also shared with me his own written notes on the incident as well as the official USN report on the incident that Lt. Cmdr. Scott Peck submitted to Admiral King at the Bureau of Aeronautics.

The Eckener letter itself comes courtesy of Cheryl Ganz, whose late husband, Felix Ganz, translated the letter into English.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Allen Orlando Hagaman (1885-1937)


Of the 36 people who died as a result of the Hindenburg disaster, one who is very often overlooked is the sole casualty among the ground crew, Allen Hagaman. Little has been written about him, possibly because so little is known about him, and unfortunately what has been published about him is very often plagued by factual errors.

Today, on the 77th anniversary of his death, I hope to correct at least some of these errors with the following article.

Allen Orlando Hagaman was a civilian laborer at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Born in Cassville, NJ to Charles and Jane Hagaman in 1885, he had lived in Lakehurst since 1912 and had operated a grocery store there at one time. He was married, and he and his wife Anna had a teenaged daughter named Sarah. Hagaman’s sister, May Hagaman, lived in nearby Van Hiseville.

As of May 6th, 1937, the 51 year-old Hagaman had been employed by the Lakehurst Naval Air Station for approximately a month, and was hired by the Zeppelin Company to serve as a member of the civilian ground crew that would help to land the Hindenburg. To augment the 92-man US Navy ground crew, 139 local men from the Lakehurst area would be paid a dollar each to work the giant airship’s landing ropes and guide her in to her mooring mast at the end of her first North American flight of the 1937 season.

The Hindenburg had first arrived over Lakehurst on the afternoon of May 6th at about 4:15 PM, Eastern Daylight Time, running almost half a day behind schedule due to persistent headwinds during her North Atlantic crossing. However, the ground crew were not scheduled to be mustered for another 45 minutes, as many of the civilians would still be working their day jobs. Getting the ground crew into position on the airfield would take an additional half hour or so. The Hindenburg flew on toward the New Jersey coast to wait.

At 5:00 PM, the Lakehurst air station’s steam whistle blew, calling the local members of the landing crew to report to the air base’s vast Hangar One, which had housed the Hindenburg on two of her flights the previous year. Once Allen Hagaman and the others arrived, they were each handed an ID button which they would wear while working out on the airfield. Once the Hindenburg had been safely landed, they would turn their buttons in and receive their dollar payment.

Hindenburg civilian landing crew buttonOne of the ID buttons distributed to the civilian ground crew on May 6th, 1937. 

After receiving their buttons, the men walked out to the mooring mast, where they were divided up into groups by Chief Boatswain William A. Buckley. Some would handle the Zeppelin’s long manila landing ropes, while others would hook up the various mooring connections.

Allen Hagaman was assigned to the aft ground handling team, led by Chief Boatswain’s Mate George Moser. The aft team was further divided into three groups. The port and starboard groups would handle the aft landing lines. The stern car group, to which Hagaman was assigned, would remain directly under the Hindenburg’s tail and attach the ship’s lower tail fin to a specially designed rail car that ran along the outer rail of the mooring circle. The stern car would keep the Hindenburg’s tail anchored while she was in port and allow the ship to easily rotate around the mooring mast with the wind. Hagaman and several others reported to Chief Boatswain’s Mate James Edward Wescott, who was in charge of the stern car group.

SternRideOutCarThe ground crew attaches the Hindenburg’s aft mooring spindle to the stern car at Lakehurst during a landing in 1936.

SternMooring The Hindenburg’s lower tail fin secured to the stern car in 1936.

By 5:30 PM, the ground crew was in position and ready to land the Hindenburg. However, at about 5:45, the wind shifted and a light rain began to fall. The ground crew was called back to the mooring mast, though it provided scant shelter from the rain. Somebody spotted the Hindenburg off in the distance, flying south along the New Jersey coastline as it waited for the weather over Lakehurst to clear.

After about 20 minutes the rain let up and the ground crew returned to their positions out on the field.  Within minutes, a heavier rain arrived and the men were once more called back to “shelter” next to the mooring mast.  This time, the men waited for about 45 minutes for the rain to pass, and by the time they were sent back out to their positions on the airfield again, the Hindenburg was approaching the landing field. It was just after 7:00 PM.

This time the rain did not return, and the Hindenburg made a wide circle around the airfield as she prepared to land. Allen Hagaman and the others were lined up directly to the north of the mooring mast so that the airship could be held with her bow into the wind while her landing lines were being connected to the winches that surrounded the mooring area. By 7:21 PM, the ship was directly overhead and Hagaman and the others watched as her bow lines were dropped. The stern car group kept themselves positioned beneath the ship’s gigantic tail fins, talking amongst themselves as they waited for the ship to descend

Several minutes later, there was a sudden light underneath the Hindenburg’s hull, and the men in the stern car group realized that the ship was on fire. From this point onward, until he was admitted to the base hospital half an hour later, nobody really knows exactly what happened to Allen Hagaman. None of the rest of the men in his group saw him, as they were all trying to get out from under the burning Zeppelin before it fell on them. Many of them were either knocked to the ground by the sudden blast of heat or tripped in the wet sand as they attempted to run. The ship’s tail fell to the ground almost immediately, and several members of the ground crew were caught under the wreckage, including U.S. Navy Machinist’s Mates Arthur Clarence Terry and Charles Henry Barnes as well as two civilian ground crew members – Charles Exel and Allen Hagaman.

Image1 Image2b
Photo of the Hindenburg’s tail moments after the outbreak of the fire with cropped detail (right) showing the stern car group (just beneath the bright white horizontal line) just as they began to run for their lives. Allan Hagaman may be one of the men seen in this photo.

Three of the four men escaped from the wreck with relatively minor injuries, due largely to the fact that their clothes were still wet from the rain storms. Terry suffered a compound fracture of his left arm, and Barnes and Exel received minor burns. Charles Barnes later gave his account of what happened to US Navy investigators.

“I was running with the ship and saw that I couldn’t get out from under it, so I turned around the other way when I was either tripped or thrown. I was in that position when the fin settled on me. I got a glimpse of one man to the right and a little in back of me. As I recall, he had on a blue sweater. He was a civilian. I couldn’t see. I could hear him coming out after me, but I couldn’t see him distinctly. He was close behind me when I got out. I turned around to look at the ship, but there was no one there.”

When asked by investigators if he believed the man behind him would have been badly burned, had he remained inside the wreckage, Barnes replied, “He was closer to the keel than I was, and would have had a better chance of burning than I.”

It is unknown whether the man Barnes heard trying to escape the wreck behind him was Allen Hagaman or not. Hagaman either managed to crawl out of the wreckage or was dragged out by rescuers, but not before he had suffered third-degree burns over much of his body. He was brought into the air station’s dispensary at approximately 8:00 PM, most of his outer clothing burned away. Hagaman was in severe shock and uncommunicative, and it was some time before doctors could determine his identity. The physician on duty, Lt. Carl V. Green, ordered that Hagaman be placed in one of the dispensary’s beds and given first aid for his burns.

Meanwhile, Bart Donahue, another member of the civilian ground crew who has been in charge of gathering men from Lakehurst to join the landing crew, had finished aiding in rescue work and decided to check on the men from his town. He walked back to Lakehurst and went to each man’s house to make sure that everyone was accounted for. Everyone had reported home except for Charles Exel and Allen Hagaman.

At about 9:30 PM, Hagaman’s daughter Sarah knocked on Donahue’s door and asked after her father. Donahue told her that he was sure that her father was fine, and after she left he called the air station’s dispensary. Doctor Green was put on the line, and he told Donahue that they had indeed admitted a man named Hagaman. Donahue immediately went over to the Hagaman home over on Cedar Street and learned that two nurses had already come to the house and taken his wife and daughter to the base dispensary.

Donahue hurried back to the dispensary to find Hagaman in one of the beds with Anna and Sarah sitting at his side. Hagaman was still in shock, but recognized his family. Allen Hagaman passed away shortly before 10:30 PM, approximately three hours after the disaster.

Following a funeral ceremony at the family home on Cedar Street in Lakehurst, Allen Orlando Hagaman was buried on Monday, May 10th, at the cemetery in his home town of Cassville.


9038713_130578037065Allen and Anna Hagaman’s gravestone at Cassville Cemetery. 



Most of this article was based largely on information from two sources – Allen Hagaman’s obituary from the May 14, 1937 edition of the Lakewood Citizen, and the official transcript of the US Navy Board of Inquiry into the Hindenburg disaster (which had just enough time to interview 12 witnesses about the death of Allen Hagaman before being closed down due to jurisdictional conflict with the US Commerce Department’s investigation.) Additional information was drawn from John Toland’s Ships in the Sky: The Story of the Great Dirigibles (New York: Henry Holt; London: F. Muller, 1957).

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any further sources of information about Allen Hagaman’s life. Nor have I been able to locate a photo of him.

As I mentioned above, what has appeared in print about Hagaman is often at odds with more reputable sources such as the two listed above. For instance, it has variously been reported that Hagaman tripped over a landing circle rail and the ship’s burning hull fell on him, or that he was crushed beneath one of the Hindenburg’s aft engine cars when it fell to the ground – neither of which are accurate. There were no landing rails within at least 50 feet of where the Hindenburg’s tail fell, and Hagaman died of burns and not from injuries consistent with having been crushed beneath a diesel engine. In fact, many online sources continue to list Hagaman, a member of the civilian ground crew, as a “Navy linesman” – an inaccuracy that originated almost 40 years ago in director Robert Wise’s heavily fictionalized movie “The Hindenburg”.

I have made every effort to correct these errors without adding new ones. If anyone has any further information about Mr. Hagaman’s life, please contact me at
Rumi68@gmail.com. I would greatly welcome the opportunity to expand the scope of this article beyond the last few hours of his life.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Lunch and Dinner Menus from the Hindenburg’s Last Flight


Deeg serving

Prior to each of the Hindenburg’s flights, Head Chef Xaver Maier and his staff would  would plan out the midday and evening meals ahead of time, so that menus could be printed up for the passengers. Breakfasts were continental style, and therefore had no printed menus.

For the Hindenburg’s final flight, there were five meals planned. The ship departed from Frankfurt at approximately 8:15 PM on the evening of Monday, May 3rd, 1937, after the normal dinner hour. However, the cooks prepared a light supper of salad and cold meats to be served to the passengers at 10:00 PM, after the flight had gotten underway.

For the remainder of the flight, breakfast, lunch and dinner were served on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 4th and 5th. Here are the menus from those two days, in both German and English:

Tuesday, May 4th, 1937

Mittagessen                                             (Lunch)

         Kraftbrühe Gutenberg                              (Consommé Gutenberg)


             Englische Hochrippe                           (English Prime Ribs of Beef
      mit Kohlrabigemüse                                  with Young Turnips)

      Gefüllte Tomaten                                     (Stuffed Tomato)

     Pflaumenkartoffel                                       (Plum Potatoes)


         Richelieu Pudding                                  (Richelieu Pudding)


          Mokka                                                (Demi-Tasse)



Abendessen                                           (Dinner)

  Legierte Cremesuppe                                     (Cream Soup)


    Frischer Schweizinger                                 (Fresh Whole Swiss
    Stangenspargel                                              Asparagus
      mit rohrem Schinken – zerl. Butter                 with Smoked Westphalian Ham
                                                                          and Melted Butter)


   Farciertes Kalbskotelette                                    (Veal Cutlet Farci
        mit Malta Kartoffeln                                       with Malta Potatoes)

          Gurkensalat in Sahnen-Marinade                      (Cucumber Salad in Cream Sauce)


  Gemischtes Kompott                                          (Mixed Compote)


Wednesday, May 5th, 1937

Mittagessen                                                (Lunch)

       Kraftbrühe Germinal                                       (Consommé Germinal)


  Junter Lammbraten                                              (Roast Lamb
         mit Prinzessbohnen                                      (with Princess Beans)

     Bäckerinkartoffel                                             (Baker’s Potatoes)

       Kopfsalat                                                      (Lettuce Salad)


   Diplomaten-Crème                                            (Diplomat Crème)


       Mokka                                                        (Demi-Tasse)


Tapiokasuppe                                              (Tapioca Soup
    mit Gemüsestreifen                                   with Julienne Vegetables)


Heilbuttschnitte gekocht                                    (Boiled Halibut)

    Mouseline Tunke                                           (Mousseline Sauce)

    Salzkartoffel                                                 (Salted Potatoes)


Brüssler Mastpoularde                                   (Capon a’la Brussels
   mit Gemüse umlegt                                  with Mixed Vegetables)


  Gemischte Käseplatte                                (Assorted Cheese Platter)

  Pumpernickel-Knäckebrot                             (Pumpernickel Crisp Bread)

   Westfälisches Schwarzbrot                            (Westfalian Dark Rye Bread)


On Thursday, May 6th, since the Hindenburg was originally due to arrive at Lakehurst at 6:00 AM, Eastern Daylight Time, it is assumed that no lunch menu had been prepared ahead of time. However, stiff headwinds delayed the ship’s arrival until 5:30 PM, and so Chef Maier presumably improvised a lunch menu for that day. When the Hindenburg’s landing  was further delayed by storms, the kitchen sent up a tray of sandwiches for the passengers at approximately 6:00 PM. Steward Eugen Nunnenmacher had just set the empty silver tray in the ship’s pantry as the Hindenburg finally began her approach to the landing field just after 7:00 PM.

Friday, April 11, 2014

“Alle Motoren, Marsch voraus!”


Engine car #2


“Now it is time to board the ship. At my bunk I quickly change out of my "blues" and into my overall, scarf, and leather helmet. I pull on my sneakers, and then hurry forward along the keel catwalk and out to my engine gondola. The order comes through to test the engines. In a few minutes, the four Daimler-Benz diesel engines begin the prelude to the long concert that awaits them. The dust in the hangar swirls and the ship begins to tremble like a racehorse ready to charge out of its gate. Then it is quiet in the hangar again, with only the sounds of the ground crew working diligently to make sure that everything is ready. We then stand on the catwalk leading to the access hatch into the ship and talk about this and that until we hear the command "all aboard".

The command comes, and since I'm on watch I go into my gondola. Soon afterward comes the long-awaited order, "Airship march!" Slowly and ponderously, the airship is hauled from the hangar, drawn by the able hands of the ground crew. Handkerchiefs flutter, and I see the Flughafen cafeteria once more and for a moment I imagine a glass of Dortmunder sitting in front of me. I chase that thought away – now it's time to work, and that means that I have to pay attention so that everything goes smoothly.

The ship is brought about so that it is facing into the wind. The passengers are all aboard, and an S.A. band plays a spirited march. Suddenly the ground is dropping away beneath us and the inevitable "Muss I Denn Zum Städtele Hinaus" plays. We're on our way.

The bell on the engine telegraph rings, and the lever shifts to "Marsch". I grab the throttle and the propeller begins turning, first slowly and fitfully, then after a few seconds and a couple of knocks, the engine is running. It quickly revs up, black smoke streams out of the exhaust tubes, and the ship begins moving forward.”

Thus began a typical Hindenburg flight, described here by trainee engine mechanic Theodor Ritter. making his very first (and, as it turned out, only) transatlantic crossing – May 3rd to May 6th, 1937.

Engine mechanics comprised by far the largest group of crew members aboard the Hindenburg. A minimum of 15 mechanics were carried on each flight, which allowed for a three-watch rotation in each of the four outboard engine gondolas, plus three floaters for the Trimm Wach rotation (see below). The engine mechanics were responsible for the operation and maintenance of the Hindenburg's four Daimler-Benz 16-cylinder LOF-6 diesel engines. The engines were started using compressed air, and were also designed for direct switchover from forward to reverse and back again, also by means of compressed air.

 Engine car #3 before propaganda flightA group of engine mechanics gather on the access catwalk for engine car #3 to watch as the Hindenburg is led from her hangar on March 26, 1936, in preparation for a three-day propaganda flight over Germany. Engine car #1 can be seen in the background, positioned lower on the hull to avoid the slipstream from the forward engine. Days later, these same men would be forced to make major in-flight repairs to most of the ship’s engines while over the South Atlantic due to vital engine tests that had to be canceled in order to accommodate Propaganda Ministry demands that this three-day “circus flight” be made. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The engine cars themselves were referred to by number, beginning with the starboard aft car (#1), portside aft (#2), starboard forward (#3), and portside forward (#4). Each engine mechanic was assigned to a specific engine for the duration of a given flight. For the Hindenburg’s earliest flights, the engine car assignments tended to be fairly consistent: Josef Schreibmüller, Eugen Bentele and Hermann Rothfuss in car #1, Eugen Schäuble, Richard Halder and August Deutschle in #2, Wilhelm Dimmler, German Zettel and Willi Scheef in #3, and Raphael Schädler, Adolf Fischer and either Walter Banholzer or Wilhelm Döbler in #4. However, as the 1936 flight season progressed, new men were added to the mechanics roster while Schäuble, Dimmler and Schädler transitioned over to flight engineer roles, and the engine car assignments became less static.

New mechanics were typically recruited from the Daimler-Benz motor works in Untertürkheim (where the LOF-6 was produced) just as the older mechanics who had previously served aboard the Graf Zeppelin had mostly been drawn from the Maybach factory in Friedrichshafen, which had produced the Graf’s VL-2 engines. The idea was to have the ship's engines manned by men who had built them and spent months working on them in the factory. By the time an engine mechanic began serving aboard the Hindenburg, he was intimately familiar with the ship's engines.


A Mechanic’s Life

Engine mechanics stood a two-hour watch during the day, and three at night, and their time on duty was adjusted so that each mechanic would go on watch at the same time every fourth day. In addition, as the Hindenburg passed from one time zone to the next during transatlantic flights, engine mechanic watches would be extended or shortened by half an hour to account for the time difference.

All engine mechanics (and all members of the maintenance crew, including the riggers an the electricians) wore a grey cotton one-piece overall while working in the ship’s interior. The overall was free of any buttons or metal fastenings that might strike sparks against the ship’s framework, and mechanics also wore rubber-soled sneakers to provide further protection against an errant cobbler’s nail sparking against a girder or ladder rung. Engine mechanics on duty in the engine cars also wore a leather flight helmet and goggles as well as earplugs to protect their ears from the prodigious roar of the engines.

Banholzer in Engine Car #4 Walter Banholzer on duty in engine car #4 during a flight in early 1936. Engine car #2 can be seen in the background beyond the engine’s exhaust pipes. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

To reach their engine cars, the mechanics would either climb down a ladder to reach the aft cars, or cross a short lateral catwalk to reach the forward cars. Neither was for the faint of heart. Theodor Ritter would later describe his first time traversing the catwalk to his forward portside engine car in broad daylight with the North Atlantic ocean far below. His watch at the beginning of the flight had ended at 11:00 PM the previous evening, and his walk back to the ship’s interior, in the comfort of darkness, had seemed unremarkable. His trek back across to his engine car for his watch the next morning, however, made somewhat more of an impression on him.

“I open the hatch that separates the gondola from the ship and a sharp wind blows in. It's sea air, and below me is the blue, endless ocean – nothing but water as far as the eye can see. You really get a sinking feeling the first time you are over the ocean and have to cross that tiny catwalk to the gondola. But this "Schweinehund" [inner fear] is quickly suppressed and I step across. And it goes marvelously, it's just that it's my first time.

As I walk along the short catwalk, the wind grabs hold of me, pressing my cheeks in and inflating my pockets – bad news for anything that isn't tightly fastened. The wind is very cold, and I can tell that the ship is making good speed. It's blowing the water right out of my eyes by the time I make my way across.”

Engine gondola walkwayLeaning into the 80 MPH slipstream, an engine mechanic (probably Adolf Fischer) makes his way across to the ship from engine car #4. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The trip between the ship and the aft engine cars, which were slung lower beneath the hull, could be even more of a challenge. Chief Mechanic Eugen Bentele, a veteran of approximately 80 Graf Zeppelin flights and 50 Hindenburg flights, would later write:

“Getting into and out of the [aft] engine car when watches were changed or for repairs meant climbing along a ladder that could be folded up to make a streamlined spar. For protection from the propeller wash when climbing into the car, there was a strut which you could hook your arm over. Mind you, the whole thing was a lot more difficult when you had to clamber along the ladder with an awkward, heavy engine cylinder.”

mechanicAn engine mechanic climbs the ladder from engine car #2.
Note his arm crooked around the windward spar.

While on watch in his assigned engine car, each mechanic would monitor engine performance using the rev counter, water and oil temperature gauges, and indicators for oil level and pressure. However, it was not enough to simply watch the engine. A good mechanic also had to continuously listen to his engine – still clearly audible even through the ear protection they wore – to make sure that it was running smoothly.

Mechanic listening to engineAn engine mechanic listens closely to identify an irregularity in his motor.

This became such a habit that when a mechanic was off watch in his bunk, the noise from the engines rarely interfered with their sleep. Eugen Bentele later recalled this for his autobiography:

“The bunks for the mechanics were in the stern of the ship on either side of the gangway around which so much of our lives on board revolved. Despite the noise from the engines in the stern, we slept well – we were certainly tired enough. In fact, the change in the monotonous hum of the engines when one of them was shut down would actually wake us up.”

The noise from the engine was such, however, that verbal communication between mechanics inside the engine cars could be challenging when the motors were being run at cruising speed. Theodor Ritter would later recall that there was rarely a great deal of conversation between them when relieving one another at the end of a watch.

“I do a quick clean-up of my gondola, and my relief, Chief Mechanic Eugen Bentele, arrives at 11:00 sharp. We exchange a quick greeting. You can't really talk above the noise of the engine, so a friendly smile and I'm off.”

Sauter and Schaedler 3 Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter (left) tries to speak to mechanic (and later flight engineer) Raphael Schädler over the roar of the LOF-6 in engine car #4. The car’s instrument panel and engine telegraph can be seen at right. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Though engine repairs were not uncommon, the engine mechanics often found that entire two-hour watches would pass without so much as a knock to be attended to. At these times, they would take advantage of a special fringe benefit of their engine car duty – one of the best, most expansive and unobstructed views on the entire ship. With an open aft end of the car, a pair of broad clamshell radiator shutters on the forward end that was often thrown wide open, a door-sized access hatch on the inboard side of the car and a porthole on the outboard side, the engine mechanics had their pick of vantage points from which to view the scenery that often slid by only a few hundred feet below. Forests, cities and rivers while over land, sharks and rays sunning themselves beneath the surface of the warm South Atlantic on South American flights, icebergs and even occasionally the aurora borealis while soaring high over the North Atlantic on voyages to the United States… the engine mechanics had no shortage of amazing sights to occupy their time during a particularly quiet watch, and some of them even took photos with small Leica cameras that they could tuck safely away inside their overalls for the wind-swept trek between the ship and the engine car.

MoserPhoto2A photo of the New York skyline, taken in 1936 by Robert Moser while on duty in engine car #1 
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)



With each mechanic’s watch lasting two to three hours, depending on the time of day, there wasn’t a lot of time for off-duty socialization. “And so it goes – work, eat, sleep, work,” Theodor Ritter would later write. When one’s engine car watch was over and the mechanic’s relief arrived, he usually lost little time in getting some chow and hitting his bunk for a few hours’ sleep. Ritter described this very well in his memoir:

“Soon I'm hanging up my overall and my leather helmet on the hook by my bunk, and then I go down to the washroom to wash my hands. Seldom does a mechanic leave his gondola without dirty, oily fingers, unless he has kept them in his pockets the whole time he was on duty. It has been known to have happened!

Now comes the enjoyable part. The crew's mess smells so enticing that you couldn't pass it by if your life depended on it. So, you have a cup (or five) of coffee or tea, and a good-sized helping of sausage or kippers, cheese, jelly, et cetera. After I have fortified myself, I walk contentedly back along the keel gangway. I joke good naturedly with the men on keel watch, and talk turns to how sad the girls in Frankfurt must be, or whether "she" will be at the airfield at Lakehurst. Naturally, this is all out of the question for me, since I've been raised well and I'm already engaged!

Back in the crew's quarters, my bunkmate Fred Stöckle is already sawing a huge log, practically drowning out the humming of the engines. Quickly, I get out of my clothes and into some warm pajamas, because it is still somewhat cool. Then I pull the camel-hair blanket over my head and soon I'm in the realm of dreams. I am off watch until 5:00 in the morning, so I can get plenty of sleep. One of the men on keel watch wakes me up. The next morning I'm woken rather roughly at about 4:30, but we're not babes in diapers anymore. So it's up, wash, have breakfast, and then into the gondola right at 5:00.”

The mechanics’ bunks were almost all the way aft along the keel, directly beneath gas cell #5. Unlike on the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, on which there were only enough crew bunks to accommodate the off-watch men, the Hindenburg had sufficient sleeping space so that each man theoretically had his own bunk – theoretically, because the ship often carried extra trainees, and because by the end of 1936 another section of crew bunks just aft of the passenger decks had been removed to make room for additional passenger cabins. Still, the mechanics had plenty of space to get as much sleep as their watch rotation allowed, and there was even a row of windows along each side of the keel through which the men could watch the scenery as they drifted off to sleep.

Crew bunks2 Mechanic’s quarters on the Hindenburg, showing the upper of the two bunks. Though obviously set up for a publicity shot, with the newspaper propped up and a trio of mineral water bottles arranged on top of the room’s small footlocker, this gives a good idea of what the bunk rooms looked like. The illumination in the background is from the windows built into the outboard side of the bunk room floor.

The mechanics on standby watch also shared shipwide cleaning and sanitation duties with the rest of the crew, and would assist with repairs and other projects as the need arose. But for the most part, life aboard the Hindenburg for an engine mechanic was very much as Theodor Ritter described – work, eat, sleep, work.


Engine Telegraphs

Engine speed was generally determined by the watch officer, whose orders were transmitted from the control car to each engine gondola via a mechanical ship's telegraph. The mechanic on watch in a given engine car would then adjust the speed of his engine accordingly. Much as with telegraphs on ocean-going vessels, The Hindenburg’s watch officers would pull a toggle to ring a bell in the corresponding engine cars a certain number of times to indicate a given engine speed, and then move the indicator handle for that engine to the correct dial position. Forward (Voraus) engine speeds included Leer (idle – one bell), Langsam (slow), Halb (half) and Marsch (full or cruising speed – three bells) while reverse settings included merely Leer (idle – two bells) and Voll (full – four bells). There was, of course, also an Abstellen setting (five bells) to order that an engine be stopped.

Engine telegraph (control car) The engine telegraph in the Hindenburg’s control car. Note the various speed settings around the dial face, and the individual engine car numbers marked on the rotary indicator handles. The bell toggles for each car hang from the bottom of the telegraph. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Once the mechanic on duty had received a telegraph order in his engine car, he would respond by repeating the order on the telegraph and ringing the bell accordingly as confirmation that the order had been received.

Most speed adjustments occurred during landings and takeoffs, when changes in engine speed and direction were needed to maneuver the ship to or from the hangar or the mooring mast. However, there would occasionally be instances during flight when the engines needed to be slowed or stopped on orders from the control car for things like mail drops or to give the passengers an opportunity to get a good look at a particularly noteworthy sight.

The mechanics would also maintain communication via telegraph with the ship’s main engineering station, located amidships on the starboard side of the keel, so that the Chief Engineer could be kept apprised of the current state of each engine. In addition to specific settings showing the general speed of each engine, under the general dial indication Drehzahl (“engine speed”) there were also settings that indicated the current revolutions-per-minute at which a given engine was operating. Standard cruising speed was 1350 RPM, which produced 820 horsepower for a forward airspeed of 125 kilometers per hour (approximately 67 knots, or 76 MPH). The engines could also be set at maximum speed (indicated by the telegraph setting “A.K.” or Äußerste Kraft – full power) for short periods of time, generating 1400 RPM from the engines.

 BenteleOlder - telegraph detail The dial face of an engine car telegraph, showing the different settings, including current engine RPM.


Complete List Of Engine Car Telegraph Settings

Voraus (Forward): Leer (idle), Langsam (slow), Halb (half), Marsch (full)

Zurück (Reverse): Leer (idle), Voll (full)

Abstellen (Stop)

Drehzahl (Revolutions): Leer (idle), 1200, 1250, 1300, 1325, 1350, 1375, A.K.(1400)


Pressluft (Compressed air)

Motor Unklar (Motor inoperable/not ready)


In-Flight Repairs

Telegraph communications with the engineering station were usually in connection with repairs of some sort. This was, after all, one of an engine mechanic's primary duties – to monitor their engine for problems, and to fix these problems when they arose.

“Of course,” senior engine mechanic Eugen Bentele would later recall, “during repairs all three of the engine mechanics for that car had to get to work. If your luck was out and there was a big repair when you were off duty, you had to go for a night without sleep.

Perhaps the most significant of these major in-flight repairs occurred during the Hindenburg’s first round-trip transatlantic flight to and from South America, which took place between March 31 and April 10, 1936. It is a prime example of the dedication, expertise and inventiveness that was the mark of a Zeppelin mechanic.

Rothfuss in Engine Car #1 Hermann Rothfuss on watch in engine car #1 during the Hindenburg’s first flight to South America.

The Hindenburg had made her first test flight less than a month earlier, on March 3, and her final 12-hour test flight had been canceled in favor of a three-day propaganda flight over Germany, as ordered by the Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin. Many of the Hindenburg’s crew members derided this type of propaganda and publicity activity, calling them “circus flights.” But as the Nazi government had funded a great deal of the Hindenburg’s construction, and had thereafter absorbed control of Zeppelin flight operations into the Air Ministry under the auspices of the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei (DZR), Berlin was able to call the shots as they saw fit. Thus, on March 31st, the Hindenburg set out on her first transoceanic flight without having been subjected to full-speed engine tests.

During the flight to Rio, the mechanics in all four engine cars had noticed that their motors were burning more and more oil, and that they were throwing bright blue exhaust as well as smoke from the housing vents. During their stopover in Rio, they removed the cylinders from the engines and noted that a significant amount of carbon buildup had caused the piston rings to stick in their grooves, and some had actually seized up.

Zettel at work stationGerman Zettel (white shirt) and flight engineer Wilhelm Dimmler work at one of the small
repair benches alongside the keel walkway during one of the Hindenburg’s early flights.
                     (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Mechanic Richard Halder also looked into the crankshaft housing on one of the engines and discovered that the shank had snapped on one of the four connecting rod bearing bolts. Since they didn’t happen to have a spare aboard, nor was there one to be found at the airfield, Chief Mechanic German Zettel improvised a new bolt from a lathe tool, and the mechanics hoped that it would suffice for the flight home. To be on the safe side, they refrained from running that particular engine at full speed for the duration of the flight.

However, the damage the mechanics repaired while at the airfield in Rio was only the beginning of their troubles.

Eugen Bentele would later describe the additional engine problems that they suffered during their flight back to Germany:

“One engine [engine #4, portside forward] was shut down between St. Paul’s Rock and the Cape Verde Islands because it started to run unevenly. After taking off one row of cylinders we found that a gudgeon pin had broken. Replacing one of these normally took about an hour. But because the broken pin had caused the connecting rod to bend, the cylinder couldn’t be put back on. Our rough-and-ready attempt at using a crowbar to bend the rod back into shape was unsuccessful, and so we used a reamer we had on board to file the connecting rod bush till it was oval, but this still left the piston out of line.

Heaven helps those who help themselves, and our last resort was to use an aluminum rasp to remove enough metal from the top left and bottom right of the piston so we could fit the cylinder back on. The injection pump was adjusted so that the cylinder only received half as much fuel as the others, and the engine ran until we landed, although not at full power. In all, the repairs took 16 hours.

Whilst repairs on the gudgeon pin were continuing, another engine [engine #2, portside aft] spluttered to a halt and wouldn’t restart. After inspecting it, we found the bolts securing another connecting rod bearing had broken and the bearing was so badly damaged that the engine had seized up. This was now critical for the control of the ship, because we were butting into a northeast trade wind, and it seemed this would carry on all the way to Gibraltar.”

We mechanics had no intention of giving up. After all, we were flying on only two engines! August Grözinger, our experienced flight engineer, came up with the solution. He had been in Zeppelins since before the first World War, and had cracked many hard nuts in his time. He suggested sawing through the damaged connecting rod above the seized bearing and running the engine on two pistons less.

The engine housing vents on both sides of the crankshaft housing were removed and two mechanics, one lying on either side of the engine, set about trying to saw through the chrome-nickel steel of the connecting rod with a normal hacksaw blade. Each mechanic worked for an hour at a time, and after 30 hours, the rod was cut. Although the engine started, it was so rough at high speeds that it was only to be used in emergencies. Luckily our old enemy the Mistral wasn’t blowing, and we were able to fly quickly up the Rhône valley to Basel on only two and a half engines.”

After the flight, the engineers at Daimler-Benz identified two design flaws in the connecting rod bolts that had led to fatigue failure. The bolt threads had been cut with a sharp root and the bolt itself had been drilled out – likely to save weight, as was common practice in airship design. Replacement bolts with round-cut threads and a solid core were created and installed, and the breakage problem did not recur.

Bolt failure sketchesComparison of old and new connecting rod bolts in the Hindenburg’s engines, drawn by Harold G. Dick, a Goodyear-Zeppelin representative who flew on many Hindenburg flights as an official observer. The sharp thread roots and hollowed out area of the bolt can be seen above,  with the new, stronger bolt design shown below.

The ship’s engine mechanics, meanwhile, had determined that the issue with the seized piston rings had been caused by bubbles forming in the coolant on its way through the cooling system and collecting near the cylinder head, causing the pistons to overheat. The mechanics corrected this by extending the coolant circuit to allow the coolant more time to settle.

Thus, when unexpected problems arose, a Zeppelin mechanic often had to exercise his engineering instincts in addition to his operational expertise with his engine. And, in fact, most of the Hindenburg’s flight engineers, to whom the Chief Mechanics reported, had started out as engine mechanics.


Trimm Wach

In addition to the watch rotation for each of the four engine cars, there was a separate fifth designation on the Hindenburg’s flight logs for engine mechanics assigned to what was listed as Trimm Wach – trim watch. Oddly, the specific duties of the men on trim watch do not seem to have been recorded in any detail. This crew designation is not covered in the DZR crew handbook from 1937, and sadly, none of the three men who served on trim watch on the last flight (Robert Moser, Albert Holderried and Alois Reisacher) survived the crash at Lakehurst to describe their duties to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Board of Inquiry.

It was, however, a distinct crew assignment from that of the engine mechanics and the flight engineers, and had its own watch rotation. This much can be confirmed by looking at crew lists from the Hindenburg's various flights. Most of the men assigned to trim watch served as engine mechanics on other flights, although some, like Robert Moser, tended to be on trim watch on a fairly consistent basis.

Trim watch seems to have been something similar to keel watch on the American airships, and was probably concerned largely with the transfer of fuel and water between tanks along the keel, and also out to the gravity tanks that fed the engines. Not only did the engine mechanics on duty need somebody inside the ship to keep fuel and coolant water flowing their way, but the command crew and the Chief Engineer also needed somebody to keep track of the dispersion of the ship's fuel and water supplies along the ship’s keel, so that the ship could more easily be kept in trim and as close to level in the air as possible. Various other crew members, such as the riggers, would sometimes take care of replenishing ballast bags during their standby watch, but it would seem likely that a man would be assigned to oversee the fuel and water tanks and their pumping systems on a regular basis.

Moser on engine crosswalk Robert Moser makes an adjustment along the lateral crosswalk
leading to the access hatch for one of the forward engine cars.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The men on trim watch could also very likely have been used as "floaters" when more hands were needed for a particularly tricky repair, and they were probably also tasked with a variety of miscellaneous duties, such as waking the off-duty crew members in time for the watch change. Mechanic trainee Theodor Ritter, in a later memoir, specifically mentioned being awoken by the man on keel watch half an hour before he was due in his engine gondola.

It is possible that a trim watch assignment may have also been something of a transitional duty that allowed engine mechanics to expand their skills in preparation for eventual promotion to flight engineer. Standing watch along the ship’s keel would certainly have afforded them the opportunity to work with the flight engineers on projects that they wouldn’t have been able to take part in while monitoring the engines in the outrigger engine cars.

Moser at work station Robert Moser (dark shirt) and another crew member at an engineering work station.
The keel walkway can be seen along the extreme right edge of the photo.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

However, Hindenburg crew lists from late 1936 and early 1937 indicate that some new engine mechanics were initially put on trim watch duty before being assigned an engine car watch. So it’s difficult to say for certain where keel watch fell in the hierarchy of engine/engineering designations. It is entirely possible that it was simply instituted on the Hindenburg as an effective way to get flight time for a larger number of mechanics in preparation for the DZR’s expanded service.

The Trimm Wach designation doesn’t seem to have been added to the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin’s crew roster, in all likelihood because the smaller Graf Zeppelin couldn’t carry as many passengers and crew as the Hindenburg. The Graf’s engine mechanics most likely split keel watch duty amongst themselves during standby watches. But by the time the Hindenburg entered service in 1936, there was a very real need to get crew trained and given sufficient flight time. The DZR was ramping up for a multi-airship international passenger line, with the new LZ 130 scheduled to begin test flights in autumn of 1937. This required a more intensive in-flight training schedule to ensure that there would be a large enough pool of crew members to draw from as new airships were put into service. The Hindenburg, with its significant amount of extra lifting capacity, certainly fit the bill.


Flight Engineers

The engine mechanics and the Chief Mechanics for each engine car reported to the ship’s Chief Engineer, Rudolf Sauter, and his team of flight engineers. The Hindenburg's flight engineers, of which there were usually 2-3 assigned to each flight, were to the ship's mechanics as the watch officers were to the command crew. They supervised engine mechanics and assisted with any major in-flight repairs to the engines. They were also in charge of the overall physical structure of the ship, except for maintenance of the gas cells and the outer cover, which was the duty of the riggers, and the ship's electrical systems, which were under the care of the electricians. But any mechanical or structural problems that occurred fell to the engineers to resolve.

SauterEngineeringStation2Chief Engineer Sauter (right) and flight engineer Eugen Schäuble (left, back to camera) in the Hindenburg’s main engineering station. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)


The flight engineers also assisted the Chief Mechanics in mentoring trainees, which became  more and more common as the 1936 flight season progressed and more new men were being brought up from Untertürkheim. Flight engineers stood four-hour watches, while the Chief Engineer did not stand a specific watch, but was constantly making inspection tours of the ship and was always available when needed.

On the Hindenburg’s early test flights, veteran Graf Zeppelin flight engineers August Grözinger and Albert Thasler filled the same role on the Zeppelin Company’s new flagship. By the time of the March 26-29, 1936 propaganda flight, Thasler had returned to duty on the Graf Zeppelin, and Fritz Sturm, head of the engine development team at Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, took his place – probably in part to observe how the new LOF-6 diesels performed so that further refinements could be made to future engine design. By June, however, three of the Chief Mechanics, Eugen Schäuble, Wilhelm Dimmler and Raphael Schädler, began to be rotated into the flight engineer positions. The three men, also veteran members of the Graf Zeppelin’s flight crew, were mentored by Grözinger and Sauter, and by the end of the 1936 season all three were flying as the ship’s regular crew of flight engineers.

Chief Engineer Sauter was, for all intents and purposes, the commanding officer of the maintenance department – the Hindenburg's "blue collar" crew. He was responsible for the engineers, the engine mechanics, and the electricians and held virtually autonomous authority over the maintenance department, as well as the engines and mechanical installations. If, for example, one or more of the engines had to be stopped in flight for repairs, the Chief Engineer was not required to consult with the ship's commander or the watch officers. Generally, the command crew would inquire only about how long the engine in question would be out of use.

Sauter-Engineering Station3Chief Engineer Sauter sends a telegraph signal to one of the engine cars from the central engineering room, located amidships. The second telegraph in the background was used to communicate with the control car.  (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The Chief Engineer would thoroughly inspect the ship before and after each flight, and make regular inspection tours during the flights. He also had to keep track, using a metal board in his office, of the amount of fuel and water in each tank aboard, as well as its current effect on the ship's trim. Each tank's status was indicated by a small tab that showed the tank as "Full", "Empty", or "In Use". The Chief Engineer or one of his flight engineers would routinely report to the control car on the overall status of the engines and the ship’s interior once every 12 hours.


Landing Stations

When the bell sounded for landing stations (one long bell, two short bells and one long bell), the mechanic on watch would be joined in his assigned engine car by the standby watch, and the off-watch tended to remain in the crew's mess unless otherwise ordered. This was not strictly followed, and the Chief Engineer had significant latitude in assigning specific landing stations to specific mechanics. For instance, Richard Kollmer, regardless of his watch status, would generally man the landing wheel in the lower tail fin.

e77fbb5a95a5c018_largeThe interior of the Hindenburg’s lower tail fin. The starboard access hatch can be seen at lower right, and the control area for the aft landing wheel can be seen between the pair of V-shaped girder arrangements at lower center. Further forward from this position, a trio of portholes in the starboard side of the fin mark the location of the emergency helm control stand. The man in the photo is standing at roughly the same spot as the Chief Engineer’s landing station. 

(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)


During landings, the Chief Engineer took his position at the telephone at the emergency control stand in the lower tail fin, ready to relay orders to the other men stationed there. The on-watch and off-watch engineers each took landing stations in one of the engine cars, and the standby watch remained in the engineering station along the starboard side of the keel amidships.

As far as the landing stations for the crew on trim watch, this is not outlined in the DZR crew handbook either. The reported locations of the three men on trim watch at the time of the Hindenburg’s final landing approach were as follows: one man (Albert Holderried) at the crosswalk between the keel and engines 1 and 2, one man (Alois Reisacher) at the crosswalk between the keel and engines 3 and 4, and one man (Robert Moser) in the engineering center amidships. Whether or not these were standard landing stations and how this broke down by watch status, however, is unknown.

After landing, the mechanics would remain at their landing stations until the signal to secure from landing stations was sounded (three long bells.) Then the senior mechanic in each engine car drained the engine oil and cleaned the filters before running one last check of the engine and the propeller. The rest of the mechanics would assist with the loading of fuel and lubricating oil and other supplies.

Mechanics loading oil drums at Lakehurst 1936Hermann Rothfuss (left) and two other unidentified engine mechanics take a moment to pose with a Veedol Oil crew (supervised by Emil Hoff, in hat and tie at right) and an unidentified friend while loading oil barrels during a stopover at Lakehurst in 1936.


Uniform Insignia

As with all other members of the Hindenburg’s crew, the engine mechanics and flight engineers all wore specific uniform insignias on their dress blues and their tropical whites. All wore a brass badge denoting their branch of service, and the engineers also wore sleeve stripes and cap cords as an insignia of rank. Per the 1936 DZR crew’s manual, uniform insignias for engine mechanics and the engineering staff were as follows:


Branch of service badge:      Gold stamped cog wheel (large for chief mechanics)


Branch of service badge:      Large gold stamped cog wheel
                                             (gold stamped lightning bolt if promoted from electrical personnel.)

Insignia of rank:

            Chief Engineer –         Three gold sleeve stripes (on shoulder boards for white jacket)
                                             Thin gold cap cord

            Second Engineer –      Two gold sleeve stripes (on shoulder boards for white jacket.)
                                              Thin gold cap cord

            Third Engineer –          One sleeve stripe (on shoulder boards for white jacket)
                                              Thin gold cap cord interwoven with black

            Fourth Engineer –        One sleeve stripe (on shoulder boards for white jacket)
                                              Thin gold cap cord interwoven with black

Sauter after crash In this photograph, taken as Chief Engineer Sauter left the first aid station following his escape from the Hindenburg wreck, his badge of service can be seen on his right arm, just above his rank stripes.



Engine Maintenance Personnel List – 1936-37

The following crewmen flew as engine mechanics and flight engineers during the Hindenburg’s 14-month operational life. Alternate duties are noted for each, as some of the men were assigned to different duties from flight to flight.

Those who served aboard the Hindenburg on her final voyage are listed in boldface.
Those who did not survive the Lakehurst disaster are listed in boldface italic.


German Zettel
(Chief Mechanic)

Josef Schreibmüller
(Chief Mechanic)

Eugen Bentele
(Chief Mechanic)

Walter Banholzer
(also trim watch)

August Deutschle

Wilhelm Döbler (also trim watch)

Rudi Bialas (trainee)

Jonny Dörflein (also trim watch)

Hans Fiedler (also trim watch)

Adolf Fischer

Richard Halder

Albert Holderried
(exclusively trim watch)

Richard Kollmer
(also trim watch)

Robert Moser (also trim watch)

Alois Reisacher (exclusively trim watch)

Theodor Ritter

Hermann Rothfuss (also trim watch)

Alfons Schäfer (also trim watch)

Willi Scheef


Wilhelm Steeb (trainee)

Alfred Stöckle (also trim watch)


Rudolf Sauter



Eugen Schäuble
(also engine mechanic)

Wilhelm Dimmler
(also engine mechanic)

Raphael Schädler
(also engine mechanic)

AGroezinger 1924
August Grözinger

Fritz Sturm (from Luftschiffbau Zeppelin)

Thasler 4
Albert Thasler