Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Ernst Huchel

Crew Member

Age: 31

Hometown: Friedrichshafen, Germany

Occupation: Senior elevatorman

Location at time of fire: Bow, mooring shelf

Died in wreck

Ernst Huchel was born on February 26, 1906 in the village of Satuelle, which was situated northwest of Magdeburg, the capital of the Prussian province of Sachsen (Saxony.) Apprenticed as an engine fitter, Huchel found work at the Maybach Motorenbau, and at Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in the tank/container division. He later completed engineering school and on August 5th, 1930, he was hired by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin as an engineer in the construction office.

In 1935, Huchel was taken on as part of the crew of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, on which he stood watch as a helmsman, gradually training up to become an elevatorman. The following year, when the LZ 129 Hindenburg was completed, Huchel transferred to the new ship as the ship's senior elevatorman. He flew on the Hindenburg's maiden voyage on March 4th, 1936, and on most flights thereafter.

A senior elevatorman, Huchel was also in charge of the Hindenburg's freight, both loading and unloading it, and keeping the freight logs. In addition, he was also tasked with looking after special freight while the ship was in flight. The Hindenburg would often transport unusual items in its freight compartments, including airplanes, automobiles, and even on one occasion in August of 1936, a pair of live pronghorn antelope.

Huchel had married Else Baumann, and in 1936 he became the father of twin boys. He was also, in his spare time, an avid sailplane pilot, serving as a flight instructor, as well as the leader of the local glider club in Friedrichshafen.

On the Hindenburg's first North American trip of 1937, which left on the evening of May 3rd, Huchel served once again as senior elevatorman, the other two elevatormen aboard the flight being Kurt Bauer and Ludwig Felber. He also handled his usual duties overseeing the ship's freight, of which there wasn't a great deal on this particular flight.

There were, however, two dogs aboard – one being sent to a man named Fred Muller in Philadelphia, and the other being shipped by a passenger named Joseph Späh. Huchel, on his standby watch, would walk aft to the kennel basket at Ring 90 to feed and check in on Mr. Muller's dog, usually with one of the stewards. Mr. Späh insisted on feeding and looking after his dog himself.

Ernst Huchel at the Hindenburg's elevator wheel, circa 1936.

Ernst Huchel was off-watch as the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst at the end of its final flight on the evening of May 6th, 1937, and as such he would normally have taken a landing station above the control car, manning the spider lines. However, since the ship was making a flying moor instead of the usual German-style low landing, the spiders weren’t used. Instead, Huchel took a landing station at the mooring area in the bow with along with helmsman Alfred Bernhardt, rigger Erich Spehl, and trainee elevatorman Ludwig Felber.

Ernst Huchel's approximate location at the time of the fire.
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)

When the fire broke out a short while later, Huchel and the others in the bow were engulfed by fire as the blaze shot up out of the nose of the ship and ignited the forward-most hydrogen cell. Huchel seems to have been standing on the lower mooring platform, from which the forward yaw lines had been dropped. While Bernhardt, Felber, and Spehl remained in the ship until it was on the ground, Huchel tried to escape the flames by leaping from the four-paned observation window between the mooring rope hatches. Unfortunately, the ship's bow was still several hundred feet in the air, and Huchel was killed when he hit the ground.

A crewman, probably Ernst Huchel, plunges to earth after having leapt from the tip of the Hindenburg's bow.

Ernst Huchel's body (foreground) after having been dragged away from the wreckage.

Ernst Huchel's body was shipped back to Germany the following week, May 13th, aboard the steamship Hamburg.

Ironically, Jakob Baumann, the father of Ernst Huchel's wife Else had also been killed on a Zeppelin. During World War I, Baumann was chief engine mechanic aboard the German Naval airship SL 11, commanded by Hauptmann Wilhelm Schramm. On the night of September 2-3, 1916, SL 11 took part in a multi-airship bombing raid on London. At approximately 2:30 in the morning, the airship was overtaken and shot down in flames by a biplane flown by Lt. William Leefe Robinson. SL 11 slowly fell to earth, ablaze from end to end, and landed in the London suburb of Cuffley. All aboard, including Jakob Baumann, were killed. The crew was buried in nearby Potter's Bar.

Special thanks to Michael Pavlovic for helping me to confirm the identity of Ernst Huchel in the wreck photos shown above.

Thanks also to Herr Manfred Sauter of the Freundeskreis zur Förderung des Zeppelin Museums e.V., whose memorial article on the Hindenburg crew members who lost their lives at Lakehurst (Zeppelin Brief, No. 59, June 2011) provided additional details on Huchel's career, and to Dr. Cheryl Ganz for providing me with a copy of the article.


Katrin Reichhold said...

I posted a comment last night but do not know if it ever got posted. I came across this site because of a project my son has to do for school, and I wanted to include the information about my uncle, Otto Reichhold, who was a passenger on the Hindenburg and didn't survive.

My father, Henry, and Otto's brother, was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the zeppelin, and he witnesses the entire crash.

In a comment I read, it says that Henry, (Helmuth) Reichhold was accompanied by his wife, Ilse, but that is incorrect. he and a friend, Dr. Baum, were waiting to greet Otto, and who lived in berlin, Germany.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Katrin,

Thanks so much for posting a comment. I would like to talk with you about your Uncle Otto, if that's okay with you. Please email me at Rumi68@gmail.com when you get some time.

I will correct the article on your uncle in a few minutes. Thanks for the info about Dr. Baum being there instead of Henry's wife.

Best wishes,