Monday, December 22, 2008

German Zettel

Crew Member

Age: 36

Hometown: Buchschlag, Hessen, Germany

Occupation: Chief mechanic

Location at time of fire: Engine gondola #3, starboard forward


German Zettel had been a Zeppelin mechanic since 1928, when he was employed by the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. Prior to this, Zettel had apprenticed at the Maybach motor company, and was eventually assigned to the Zeppelin engine division. He became familiar enough with Zeppelin engines that he could, he said, "assemble them in the dark." He was subsequently hired by Luftshiffbau Zeppelin.

He flew as an engine mechanic on the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, including the round-the-world flight in 1929. Zettel continued to fly aboard the Graf Zeppelin until 1936, when the LZ-129 Hindenburg was commissioned and Zettel transferred to the new ship, making all flights from the first test flight March 4, 1936 onward.

German Zettel (left) with fellow mechanic Raphael Schädler in the portside aft engine car of the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

German Zettel (left) and one of his crewmates at one of the mechanics' workstations alongside the Hindenburg's lower keel walkway.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

German Zettel was one of the chief mechanics aboard the Hindenburg on its first North American flight of 1937. His primary duty on that trip involved overseeing engine #3, starboard side forward, and supervision of the other mechanics assigned to that engine car. The engine behaved normally throughout the trip, and as the flight neared its end and the signal for landing stations sounded at approximately 7:00 on the evening of May 6th, Zettel was on watch in engine gondola #3, along with mechanic trainee Wilhelm Steeb. Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter had also been in gondola #3 observing, but when landing stations were signaled for, Chief Sauter left the car to take his landing station in the ship's lower tail fin. Fellow mechanic Jonny Dörflein, answering the call to landing stations, arrived in the engine car shortly thereafter, and took over on the engine throttle. Flight engineer Eugen Schäuble then appeared in the doorway to the gondola, but remained out on the catwalk leading to the ship, and watched the landing maneuver from there.

As the Hindenburg made its final approach to the mooring circle at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, Zettel was standing between the engine and the outer wall of the gondola, observing operations. He also occasionally glanced back at engine #1, aft of them, and noted that it was also running satisfactorily. As the ship approached the mooring mast, engine #3 was reversed on orders from the control car, and then set to the idle forward position.

German Zettel's location at the time of the fire (diagram is top view of the ship.)

Shortly after this, Zettel felt a jolt and looked aft, out the back of the gondola. He saw that the ship was in flames above the #1 engine car. The ship almost immediately went down by the stern, and as he hung on, he saw Dörflein shut the engine down. The engine car hit the ground, and the impact caused Zettel to fall to the floor between the engine and the outer wall of the gondola. He got immediately back to his feet and jumped out through the outboard window, ran away from the ship for about 60 feet, then turned back around to look and saw the ship's framework collapse over the engine gondola. Glancing forward toward the bow, Zettel saw Captain Lehmann and another member of the command crew emerging from the ship somewhere near where the control car had been.

Three of the men from engine gondola #3, German Zettel, Eugen Schäuble, and Wilhelm Steeb (shown in probably just about that order, left to right) stumble away from the Hindenburg as it settles to earth. Their engine car can be seen lying on the ground just to the right of them.

Zettel managed to escape the Hindenburg wreck with only minor injuries. He gave testimony to the Commerce Department’s Board of Inquiry on May 19th, returning home a couple of days afterwards with a group of fellow crew members on the steamship Bremen. The next year, Zettel joined a number of other Hindenburg crew survivors on the maiden flight of the Hindenburg’s sister ship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin, stationed in the #2 portside aft engine.

German Zettel later retired in Friedrichshafen, and passed away in the 1980s.

German Zettel circa 1984


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