‘Flying Dinosaur’ Still Offers Joy Rides in South Africa
It lumbers across the skies looking like an arthritic dragonfly that has run out of painkillers. It flies so slowly that it gives the impression of being not quite sure what it is doing.
Many people on the ground, seeing this peculiar aircraft for the first time, are convinced that what it should do is stand motionless in a museum.
No way, says a group of enthusiasts who keep this aviation dinosaur in operation. The aircraft is in mint condition, they say, just as good as when it was designed 60 years ago.
It is a Junkers JU-52, a transport-cum-passenger aircraft designed in Germany in the 1920s, a workhorse for the German armed forces in World War II and presumed by most people to have disappeared in 1945 at the same time as the Third Reich.
Made Until 1954
The Spanish company Casa continued to make the aircraft as a paratroop carrier until 1954. The one now in loving South African hands was built then, making it a mere 34 years old.
Superficially, it resembles another prewar veteran transport, the Douglas DC-3 Dakota, hundreds of which are still flying.
The main difference is that instead of the DC-3’s two engines the Junkers has three, one on each wing and the third perched incongruously on the nose.
It cruises at a stately 90 knots, slow enough to allow the 16 passengers to do something unthinkable in a modern airliner--roll down the windows for fresh air.
The Junkers, one of only six believed to be still flying, is owned by South African Airways, which invites the public to take half-hour joy rides for $20 each.
There is no shortage of takers and the Junkers adds a modest amount to the airline’s balance sheet.
20 Pilots Available
Five technicians work on keeping the Junkers airworthy and 20-odd pilots vie for the privilege of flying it on a voluntary basis.
“It looks like a plumber’s nightmare,” said Capt. Karl Jensen, whose job is piloting a Boeing 747 but who happily turns back the clock to fly the Junkers in his spare time.
“But it’s a dream to fly, an absolute dream. It’s real seat-of-the pants flying,” Jensen enthused.
“It’s in magnificent shape,” he adds. “Those engines have never missed a beat. If anything breaks, we make it.”
No Champagne Spills
Soundproofing in the cabin makes the engine noise tolerable, and the ride is smooth enough to allow passengers to have champagne parties without spilling a drop.
They may be doing so for many years to come because Jensen and his fellow enthusiasts have no intention of allowing the Junkers to take even belated retirement.
Unlike modern aircraft, the Junkers’ airframe has no specified limit on its life.
How long will it go on flying?
“Forever,” Jensen said.