A visit with an old lady

Junkers Ju 52

  • TEXT MARC BIELEFELD
  • PHOTOS JENS GÖRLICH

Each winter, thousands of hours of work go into keeping the Ju 52, owned by the Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin foundation, airborne. Such dedication demonstrates a true love of aviation

Gerhard Stelling is a quiet man, and when he walks around his old lady, he speaks even less. His fingers caress the round rivets on the fuselage as he silently inspects the gray, three-blade Hamilton Standard propeller with its yellow tips. Then he climbs up onto the broad wing and takes a close look at the fuel indicator, the little float that shows the oil level and the small mirror that lets the pilots check how engines are turning over from inside the cockpit. All is well! The old lady is doing just fine.

Junkers Ju 52

Parking position in the capital: The Ju 52 at the famous airport which gave her her name – Berlin-Tempelhof

© Jens Görlich

 And a good job, too, because Gerhard Stelling, 55, is very fussy when it comes to this particular plane. He leaves nothing to chance. That’s why he pulls on a pair of gloves, climbs a short ladder and thrusts his upper body into the plane head first. It doesn’t take long before he has almost entirely vanished behind the open engine covers. Mr. Stelling loves closely inspecting every single detail, no matter how small: rubber gaskets, filters, fine aluminum chips. He knows his plane like his back pocket. Reaching deep into the entrails of the 9-cylinder radial engine, the chief mechanic loosens the screw to the sump and the surplus oil that has collected behind it trickles into a metal basin.

Ten minutes later his head reappears. “This is still very much a hands-on job,” he says. “After all, we’re dealing with a real character here. She’s like an old leather sofa compared with the modern jets.” Mr. Stelling is standing with two of his coworkers inside Lufthansa Technik’s huge Hangar 6 at Frankfurt Airport. All three are dressed in blue T-shirts and blue workpants and they’re busy schmoozing their large, silver, corrugated-sheet darling, the Junkers Ju 52, also known as “Auntie Ju.”

Junkers Ju 52

Hands-on maintenance: A mechanic drains the oil from the large radial engine; the air is filled with the scent of the past

© Jens Görlich
Junkers Ju 52

The flag on the cockpit is taken down before each flight, by hand, of course

© Jens Görlich

 A milestone in civil aviation, she first emerged from the assembly hangar in 1936. The Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin foundation bought one of the few remaining models in 1984 and set to work. Its members spent 16 months studying historical plans and asking old hands at Lufthansa Technik for advice. Exact replicas of some tools, like dollies, were made to use on the wing spars. Screws were tightened and new parts installed until the Ju 52 was ready to rumble back into the sky.

Today, the matte metal beauty is the pride and joy of the foundation, which has devoted itself to preserving culture in civil aviation and carrying 10,000 passengers on old-fashioned flights aboard the Auntie Ju between April and October each year. The plane takes off gently from the runway in Frankfurt, and as it takes you up into the clouds, it seems to say: No, thanks, I’d rather not have anything to do with today’s hectic pace!

Junkers Ju 52

Pilot Karsten Badow rests his hands lovingly on the old yoke in the cockpit

© Jens Görlich
Junkers Ju 52

The cabin of the plane seats 16

© Jens Görlich

 You gaze calmly out of the window while the plane good-naturedly banks, and climbs as comfortably and slowly as if it were cushioned on air. This is sightseeing at its best! Each beige-colored seat has its own curtained window from which to view the countryside, but when it gets hot in the summer at low cruising altitudes of only 600 meters, no air-conditioning switches on. You just open the window a crack. The Ju 52 takes passengers back to the roots of civil aviation. For crews, almost everything is different from the scheduled flights to which they are accustomed. Starting the engines, for instance, or the total lack of any kind of automation. But that’s precisely the beauty of it. What’s more, the old plane is also something of a time machine.

A team of 50 volunteer pilots, flight engineers and flight attendants plus 12 full-time staff keep the Ju 52 flying. Over 3,500 hours are needed every winter to keep the old lady fit. And no later than November, the chief mechanic once again pokes his head deep inside the engine. Dipping into the mobile spare-parts warehouse that constantly accompanies the plane, he rummages around for the timing micrometer tool to adjust the ignition. Hibernation is certainly not an issue here. Keeping old ladies in the air just happens to be a full-time job.