Herman De Wulf/BRUSSELS
How long do aircraft last? The legendary Junkers Ju-52/3m tri-motor transport is 60 years old and still extremely popular - especially for pleasure-trips. One airworthy example is operated in Lufthansa colours, and is booked to capacity most of the time.
People pay DM260 ($166) for a scenic flight lasting no more than 45min. "Tante Ju" (Auntie Junkers), as the historic Junkers airliner is affectionately known in Germany, cruises at a sedate 100kt (185km/h), rarely any higher than 2,000ft above ground level, and operates only in visual-flight-rules conditions. It carries just16 passengers, but they travel in pre-Second World War leather-seated luxury, watching the landscape moving slowly through large windows while enjoying plenty of elbow room. By today's standards, the corrugated duraluminium Ju-52/3m is a simple aircraft, with fixed landing-gear, propelled by three thirsty air-cooled engines (Pratt & Whitney Hornets in this case) which burn 400 litres of 100LL Avgas an hour at 2,200RPM to achieve the performance of a Cessna 172.
Its design goes back to the 1930s, when Dipl Ing Ernst Zindel, making full use of Professor Hugo Junkers' experience with corrugated aluminium skins, built a single-engined freighter, which became the Ju-52. In 1932, the design was developed into a three-engined variant, the Ju-52/3m, which became an immediate success. Lufthansa ordered the type as its standard airliner and, at one time, operated a fleet of 230. The type was exported worldwide, rivalling the Douglas DC-3 for success in the 1930s. The demands of the Second World War led to 3,500 aircraft eventually being built.
In 1936, Lufthansa had acquired an example, which was registered as D-AQUI. It served with the airline until it was sold to Norway. There it was captured by the Wehrmacht in 1940 and turned into a floatplane. After the war, it was returned to Norway, and was flown on domestic services between fjords until being sold to a South American operator in Ecuador, which used it extensively in the Amazon jungle. At the end of what was thought to be its useful economic life it was left to rot at Quito Airport. It was discovered by a US aircraft enthusiast, who restored it and flew it to the USA, where it joined the US air-show circuit as "Iron Anny". By 1986, Lufthansa was looking for an old timer to be used as a "tradizionsflugzug" for public-relations reasons.
The airline, which at one time had operated 230 of the type, bought its aircraft back for an undisclosed sum (said to be "slightly less than $1 million, including freight). It was flown across the Atlantic by its former owner to Hamburg, where it was dismantled and completely overhauled in Lufthansa's maintenance department. Corrosion had taken its toll and many pieces had to be remanufactured. When rolled out it was effectively a new aircraft. For historical reasons, it bears its original registration D-AQUI, but it is entered as D-CDLH in the German aircraft register.
The Ju-52/3m is seen by many as a clever public-relations instrument. It certainly is a flying museum piece. Yet the aircraft is operated under the latest European regulations governing commercial flying. As such it does not fit into Lufthansa's normal operation, so a specialised non-profit organisation was set up: the Deutshe Lufthansa Berlin-Tempelhof (DLBT), heavily sponsored by the parent airline. Then the European Community (EC) set rules to allow it to continue flying the aircraft with fare-paying passengers. Dlbt thus became a commercial enterprise, with an airline structure.
Capt Heinz Bonsman is the full-time technical director of DLBT. He used to fly Airbus A300s for Lufthansa and was a check-pilot and training captain. Now he is one of 20 volunteer Ju-52 pilots.
"We look for tail-dragger experience when new candidates apply, which is a rare skill these days. So we train candidates on a Do.27 we received from Dornier. We operate other tail-dragging old timers as well, such as a Messerschmitt Bf-108, a Focke-Wulf FW-44 Stieglitz and a low-wing retractable gear Arado Ar-79," says Bonsman.
He confirms that piloting the aircraft is as much fun as it sounds - "But we really operate like an airline," he adds. To be allowed to operate in such a way, a regular staff had to be hired. DLBT now has 15 staff. Bonsman is in charge of flight operations at DLBT's base at Frankfurt Airport. There is a also a director of the technical department at Hamburg, where maintenance and overhaul is carried out, and eight mechanics look after the aircraft.
Despite flying only in summer, the Ju-52 clocks up 350h a year. "Maintenance is expensive and our operating cost is high," says Bonsman. "To carry 16 passengers in state-of-the-art technology today you would fly a twin-turbine aircraft of 5.5t, but the 1930s' technology Ju-52 comes in at double that weight: 10.5t. Each time we touch down, we have to pay double the amount of landing tax charged for a current state-of-the-art aircraft of that capacity. With all the overheads, the cost per flying hour is around DM 10,000," Bonsman adds.
To recover those costs from passengers alone would mean that fares would be too expensive. DLBT keeps the fee down to an artificial, affordable DM260 and relies on sponsorship, which is tax-deductible in Germany, to make up the remainder. Lufthansa is the main sponsor; Daimler- Benz is another. In total, there are 20 companies helping to keep the Ju-52 in the air.
Bonsman says that the aircraft has been flown on some 7,000 flights since 1986 and carries an average total of 8,000 passengers a year. In all, 70,000 passengers have been carried since 1986. "We tour the air-show scene in Europe, to show the flag. We do so literally, hoisting the company flag after each landing, while taxiing to the ramp, as pilots did in the pre-Second World War days. We also fly to the UK," he adds.
DLBT has also taken the aircraft on a US tour, taking it across the Atlantic in an Antonov An-124. "Wherever we go, the aircraft is a great success," says Bonsman.
"We've had to comply with environmental rules. We replaced the two-bladed propellers with more recent three-bladed ones, to reduce noise, and found that it gave us the extra benefit of cruising faster, at 110kt, at reduced RPM," he adds. Maintenance is carried out in the winter. Every two years, the wings come off and wiring, push rods and steel cables are checked. "Flying a legend is not cheap," says Bonsman.
Source: Flight International