The Labor of Love That Gave a ‘Graf Zeppelin II’ Model Lift

The scratch-built 1:36 scale airship hanging in the EAA Aviation Museum took 17 years to construct.

The LZ130 Graf Zeppelin II that hangs from the ceiling of the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was built as a flying model to a scale of 1:36. [Courtesy: Meg Godlewski]

Full disclosure: Dirigibles, in particular zeppelins, are part of my interior decorating. The ceiling of my home office looks like an airshow—with no fewer than five airships on display. 

They adorn the tops of bookcases, and photographs, paintings, and prints are framed on the wall. They range from the Graf Zeppelin to the Zeppelin NT, and  are kitbuilt. So imagine how impressed I was by the scratch-built model of the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II hanging from the ceiling of the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

The airship, done in 1:36 scale, was crafted by John Mellberg of Menasha, Wisconsin. Mellberg says his interest in aviation began early in life, thanks to his father who built and flew radio-controlled aircraft. Mellberg’s dad spent 17 years building a model of the Spirit of St. Louis, as Charles Lindbergh was one of his heroes. That model, flown 25 times before it was retired, is hanging in the EAA museum near the gift shop.

Mellberg, who had a career creating models for General Motors, began the zeppelin project by doing research. His fascination was triggered in childhood by a photograph of the Graf Zeppelin II, the sistership to the Hindenburg. He has a fond memory of getting a Hawk Model plastic kit of the D-LZ127 Graf Zeppelin for Christmas in 1955. 

"I promptly built it," he said.

Among the other airships he has built are a D-LZ127, which sits in a display case at the EAA museum, a tissue/stick model of the LZ126, the ship given to the U.S. Navy as part of reparations from World War I by Germany, and other plastic-kit models of the Goodyear Blimp, the Navy K-Airships, and tabletop models of the two Graf zeppelins, the Hindenburg and the British R-100.

The Graf II

"My model of the D-LZ130 Graf Zeppelin II was built as a flying model, and it is built to a scale of 1:36 because when I was considering its size, I was advised that the model would need at least 150 cubic feet interior volume for helium to provide lift to deem the model airworthy," Mellberg said. "The 1:36 scale would give me 156 cubic feet of volume and would lift 9-plus pounds of model structure." The model did not fly beyond being hung from the ceiling of museums.

The model weighs 8.5 pounds. As there was no kit for something that large, Mellberg had to create his own plans, and for that he needed to do research in his spare time.

[Courtesy: John Mellberg]

"I began thinking about the model while working at General Motors Styling in the late 1960s, and I utilized the GM research library over my lunch hour to go through old Scientific American magazine albums to find the many articles they had written about the zeppelins and their technology to gain further insights," he said. "I started making my 1:36 scale drawings in 1972, based on a ‘side-view' drawing of the Hindenburg that was in a book I got from Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH that was printed honoring the 50th anniversary of the LZ. The drawing was roughly 6 inches long, and I enlarged it with a drafting divider tool to the 1:36 scale of my planned model."

[Courtesy: John Mellberg]

Today research is easily done with the click of a mouse and Google search. Back then, it was done by writing letters that could be painfully slow. Mellberg wrote to the LZ requesting drawings. 

"Eventually, they sent me blueprints that were of a larger size that I used to cross-check that which I had already drawn," he said.

Once he had the drawings, he began building the more detailed and tedious parts of the airship from Vacuform plastic, such as the control car, four engine cars, two landing wheel assemblies, and the 12 gas vent hoods that were atop the hull.

Most of the model is made from balsa wood. If you have ever worked with it, you know that it can be unforgiving—measure twice, and cut once carefully.

The bulk of the build took place in Mellberg's garage, which was space limited, so he decided to construct the hull in three sections. The model has 48 ring frames for the bulkheads, from nose to tail.

"I also built the 36 longitudinals, which ran through all the bulkheads from nose to tail, and the fabrication of the cruciform tail fins,” he said. “Each section was built on a vertical column/fixture using a cross-hatch scaffold arrangement, which could be removed when each section was completed. Then each section was lifted over and off the column/fixture, and the next section began."

To facilitate the process, as Mellberg crafted the components, he put them in numbered bags, similar to the way mass-produced kits are done. These were then assembled in half sections where each segment butted up against the next.

"I placed and glued a U-shaped, three-ply aircraft plywood gusset at 1/64-inch thick for reinforcement, and a place for all the longitudinal sticks to fit during the assembly process," he said, noting that he also drilled out lightening holes with a stainless-steel tube with a knife edge on the drill ends to reduce the weight of the model.

Building the assembly column and fixture jig was no small effort: It consisted of a tower 8 feet tall and took about eight hours to build.

Like many experimental aircraft builders, Mellberg realized he didn't have the space to perform the final assembly. Like so many builders, he opted to move the project out to the airport.

"Dick Wagner of Wag-Aero [in Lyons, Wisconsin] offered his hangar for the final assembly," Mellberg said.

A small army of aircraft modelers were recruited to help with the application of the outer fabric covering and painting.

"The skin is aircraft Dacron that could be ironed on to the balsa skeletal structure, and then stretched tight using a heat gun, and then sprayed with a metallic silver coat of paint," Mellburg said.

The model was finished in October 1989. In the museum there is a sign thanking all those who helped it along its 17-year journey. Mentioned are the Mellberg family along with Klaus Brink, Eric Brothers, Franklin Buckley, Robert Deschamps, Harold Dick, Chris Fenger, Arthus Forester, Mark Forss, Bill Kerka, Earl Kiernan, Hans Georg Knausel, William  Kramer, Ed Kurek, Daniel Maust, Bauken Noack, Benjamin Page, Vladimir Pavlecka, Bob Petak, Dick Pop, Douglas Robinson, Mike Robson, Admiral C.E. Rosendahl, George Schroeder, Dave Schrubbe, David Smith, Max Spielberg, Joe Stanton, Hendrick Stoops, F.W. Von Meister, Captain Hans Von Schiller, Elisabeth Pletch Von Schiller, Ralph Warner, Bernard Weisbrod, Richard Wagner, and the Wagner Foundation volunteer team,  Bud, Dave, Ernie, and Earl, Bill Walsh, and Hepburn Walker.

[Courtesy: John Mellberg]

Mellberg estimated the model required more than $1,000 in materials but said the cost was not terribly painful because, like the build process, it was spread over 17 years.

In 1989 the model was put on display at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (KMKE)  at the Mitchell Gallery of Flight Museum. In 2019 the Mitchell gallery was relocated to a smaller space. 

"The model was placed in storage, later to be given to the EAA’s Aviation Museum in March of 2020," Mellberg said.

Bonus Display

The EAA museum hung the Graf airship from the ceiling in the main gallery near other historical aircraft. Along with a 1:36 scale model of a Douglas DC-3 nearby, it represents the beginning of commercial air travel. 

The DC-3 was also used for commercial travel in the 1930s, and sometimes it worked with the airships. 

The Graf airship hangs next to a Douglas DC-3 model at the EAA Aviation Museum/ [Courtesy: Meg Godlewski]

The model was built out of aluminized paper by Bob Lutz. It wears the livery of American Airlines, which used DC-3s to carry passengers to and from New York City when the Hindenburg, the sister ship to the Graf II, arrived and departed from Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey.

The last trip of the Hindenburg—and its violent demiseput an end to airship travel, and Graf II never saw passenger use. The LZ-130 and  its namesake LZ-127 were both scrapped in 1940, and the zeppelin factory was taken over by the Nazis for the war effort.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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