History hour: Tragedy of Angel of the Skies
27 July 1934: While Ellen Church is recorded as the first airline flight attendant, or “stewardess,” in America, Fräulein Nelly Hedwig Diener was Europe’s first airline hostess. She began flying for Swissair 1 May 1934. She was known as the Engel der Lüfte (“Angel of the Skies”).
Her 79th flight departed Zürich-Dübendorf Airport enroute Stuttgart-Echterdingen Airport and then on to Berlin. The pilot was Armin Mühlematter and radio operator/navigator was Hans Daschinger. There were nine passengers on board.
Nelly Diener in the passenger cabin of Swissair’s AT-32C Condor II. (Swissair)
The airliner was a Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company AT-32C Condor II, a one-of-a-kind variant of the AT-32 which was built specifically for Swissair. It carried identification number CH-170 on its wings and fuselage. The airliner was registered HB-LAP.
The Curtiss Condor was flying in a thunderstorm at approximately 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) when the right wing structure failed and separated from the airplane. CH-170 crashed into a forest between Wurmlingen and Tuttlingen, Germany, and caught fire. All twelve persons aboard were killed.
Investigators found that a fracture had developed in the welded structure of the engine mount and wing. It was believed that it was caused by defective construction and welding techniques combined with vibration of the engine. A second fracture was caused by the violent weather.
This accident was the first for Swissair, the national airline of Switzerland.
Swissair Curtiss AT-32C Condor II, CH-170, in flight.
CH-170 was one of 45 T-32 Condor II airplanes built by Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company for use as both a civil transport and a military transport or bomber. It was a twin-engine biplane with retractable landing gear. CH-170 entered service with Swissair 28 March 1934, configured with 15 passenger seats.
The airliner was 15.0 meters (49.2 feet) long with a wingspan of 25.9 meters (85 feet) and height of 4.4 meters (14.4 feet). CH-170 had an empty weight of 5,192 kilograms (11,446 pounds) and loaded weight of 7,620 kilograms (16,799 pounds).
It was powered by two air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.13-cubic-inch-displacement (29.875 liter) Wright Cyclone SGR-1820-F3 (R-1820-33) single-row nine-cylinder radial engines which produced 700 horsepower at 1950 r.p.m., each, and drove three-bladed variable-pitch propellers through a 16:11 gear reduction. The SGR-1820-F3 was 3 feet, 11.8125 inches (1.214 meters) long, 4 feet, 5.75 inches (1.365 meters) in diameter and weighed 1,047 pounds 475 kilograms).
The AT-32C had a cruising speed of 235 kilometers per hour (146 miles per hour) and maximum speed of 274 kilometers per hour (170 miles per hour). The service ceiling was 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) and range was 2,700 kilometers (1,678 miles).
Curtiss AT-32C Condor II, CH-170, at the Swissair base at Dübendorf. (Swissair)
On the main photo: Nelly Hedwig Diener, Swissair flight attendant, with the airline’s blue and white Curtiss AT-32C Condor II. Ms. Diener’s uniform is azure blue.