A group of senior citizens in Berlin is restoring an old Soviet propeller plane. The former employees of Interflug and Lufthansa, the national airlines of the two postwar Germanies, collaborate well but still face many hurdles
When they cut back on activities, some people find themselves stumbling into the adventure of a lifetime. Klaus Czepluch quit gardening “due to his age” when he was 68, packed the relics of his working life – instruments, switches, landing lights – into a crate and hauled it over to the Technology Museum in Berlin. “I hear you’re restoring an old IL-14, perhaps some of this will come in handy.” It did, but it wasn’t enough: They wanted him, too. As luck would have it, he had been in charge of maintaining this particular plane when he was an engineer with Interflug, East Germany’s state airline. Luck – or fate? At any rate, Czepluch agreed, saying he’d got a bunch of hobbies, but he’d make room for this.
Nine years later, Czepluch arrives at what was once Tempelhof Airport, where kiteboarders now fly along the runways and frisbees whiz through the air. He parks his Toyota Prius outside a corrugated metal hangar and climbs out. Hair brush cut, tinted sunglasses, wide-wale corduroys and a rag hanging from his belt, it’s time to get his hands dirty. Jacked up under the ceiling is a huge steel tube: the 22-meter-long fuselage of the Ilyushin IL-14. Inside, a burly worker in blue overalls is fiddling with the electrics. “What a mess,” he sighs. “Morning, Czeppi,” the other workers say, “come and see what we’ve found on the steering gear.”
Most of the “Friends of the IL-14” who volunteer here were born during World War II, but this is no hobby space for semi-senile seniors. With blue thumbnails and solder burns, and covered in grease, their mission is to turn the “heap of rubbish” they both love and hate back into a proud plane.
After 1983, the plane stood on a Stasi airfield in Eilenburg, East Germany. When the borders opened, unknown assailants hurled rocks at the windows and tore out the controls, radio equipment and seats. In 1992, in preparation for the trip to Berlin, the fuselage was cut in half with a circular saw, its metal skin, wiring and control cables severed. The aim now is to restore the plane to its original state. In 1958, the IL-14 had a plain, metallic finish, so the paint has to come off and it needs a pressure wash. “We pilots have to do our part,” says Eberhard Steinkopf, a small man with a mop of white hair. He puts on his goggles and the paint starts to fly. Steinkopf flew an Ilyushin as a trainee 46 years ago, when he was 21. “We had no flight simulators back then.” Jürgen Hartmann, 78, is helping him. A former aircraft mechanic, he is familiar with the IL-14 as well. “It’s a great plane, very reliable,” he says. Steinkopf reminisces, too: “We skirted the clouds as we flew the plane manually to Budapest. Today, pilots hit autopilot as soon as they take off.” That’s what his son tells him – he’s a pilot, too. Just like his daughter-in-law. He doesn’t care what his grandchild does later, “as long as he becomes a pilot.”
After reunification, Steinkopf flew for Lufthansa. Many of his colleagues lost their jobs when Interflug folded. “Some people were so distressed they threw themselves in front of a train.” Everyone here has heard stories like this. Mention Treuhand, the agency tasked with privatizing East Germany’s economy, and their blood starts to boil. “They ruined us,” – “They sold us out,” is the bitter response. Reconstructing the IL-14 is an effort partly driven by defiance. “After reunification, we often heard people say that our planes were just American imitations,” says Czepluch. “It’s always bothered me, this ignorance of the fact that we also had people who were good at their job.”
The IL-14 is symbolic of a period of new beginnings in East German aviation. In 1955, the East German airline Deutsche Lufthansa (Ost) undertook its maiden flight to Moscow in the twin-engine propellor plane, and 80 of them were built by aircraft manufacturer Flugzeugwerken Dresden until 1959.
Spare parts are difficult, if not impossible, to find. But this is no problem for Gustav Hassenpflug, 79. At his workbench, the retired toolmaker turns billiard balls into knobs for cotrol sticks and fuel taps, and is greatly admired for his “golden hands.” In a moment of fun, the others presented him, a man from West Berlin, with an East German “best worker” badge. “I was very honored to be told that if they had known me earlier, they would have felt quite differently about people from West Germany,” he says. Other “Wessies” joined the team through the museum’s sponsoring society. Ingrid Andriessen-Beck, 63, was a flight instructor in Landshut. She has no issue with being the only woman in the hangar. “This might have been different if all my colleagues were from the West,” she says, “but having female colleagues was perfectly normal in the East.”
Despite such social successes, there have been setbacks. Five comrades have died, and “time’s not exactly on our side,” the others admit. Nobody knows, either, where the finished aircraft will eventually be exhibited. The mood is subdued. But at lunchtime, it becomes clear what really keeps them going. Drinking coffee from their favorite cup, enjoying sausages, potato salad and pickles, the old-timers start sharing stories: How at an East German Christmas party, someone played the West German national anthem by mistake; or how they made an immersion heater out of razor blades to boil water for coffee in a hotel room in Addis Ababa – boys’ stories with a punchline that has everyone laughing. “If you’re ever in a foul mood, you come to this place and immediately feel better,” says Hassenpflug. Their plane may be a ruin, but the team love their work.
What will they leave behind? Some people have no trouble answering that question: a restored Ilyushin IL-14 with a silver sheen that looks just like it did when it was new.