Historic aircraft JU 52 now a hangar queen in South Africa


The Junkers 52, Lufthansa’s historic plane known lovingly as Auntie Ju. — dpa/Boris Roessler

It's a bitter end for an aircraft that inspires a sense of nostalgia for many: the three-engine, low-wing Junkers JU 52 has been gathering dust in the corner of a hangar at Johannesburg’s international airport for ages.

These days, air-worthy versions of the German-made plane are few and far between, with just a handful left worldwide.

South Africa’s JU 52 had delighted onlookers at air shows and passengers on nostalgia flights for years before being put out to pasture. And the “hangar queen”, as such planes are known by pilots, could be facing eviction from her final resting spot.

That’s because the hangar in which the plane is parked belongs to the fading flag carrier South African Airways (SAA), whose survival in the post-pandemic era is still up in the air.

“The JU 52 will probably fly one last time, from Johannesburg’s or Tambo airport to Rand Airport. There I would have to park it outside, ” says pilot Flippie Vermeulen.

Pilot Flippie Vermeulen is responsible for South African Airways’ collection of historic planes. — dpa/Ralf Krueger Pilot Flippie Vermeulen is responsible for South African Airways’ collection of historic planes. — dpa/Ralf Krueger

He last flew the low-wing aircraft five years ago, recalls the former head of SAA’s now-defunct historical division.

Its assets went to the South African Airways Museum Society based at Rand Airport, which has far too little hangar space.

Vermeulen flew the historical plane more or less regularly, taking a few German captains along for a ride once in a while.

“But then there were increasing problems with the tyres, ” he says. The lack of suitable tyres meant they had to stop flying, according to the pilot who’s flown almost everything with wings, from the single-engine Cessna to a four-engine jet.

The operators sought help from the Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin-Stiftung, which has long offered nostalgic flights with its showpiece, the Junkers JU 52 built in Dessau in 1935 with a traditional registration.

The Swiss who had provided help training South African Junkers pilots and still had the corresponding machines also provided some input.

Eventually the landing gear was replaced but, according to Vermeulen, the move was met with little love from the South African aviation authorities.

Flights of nostalgia

“Our aviation authority was simply afraid to allow old aircraft like the Junkers to be used for nostalgia flights, ” believes SAA Museum director John Austin-Williams.

A serious accident involving such a plane in Switzerland fuelled these fears more.

However, Austin-Williams also has to admit that people with expertise regarding such planes are dying out. And with the pandemic raging, meaning no visitors, he’s also trying to keep the plane collection financially above water; that means the financial leeway for building a new hangar just isn’t there.

A German old-timer plane Ju 52 D-AQUI flies above the city of Hamburg, Germany. Such models are rarely seen in the skies. — dpa/Malte ChristiansA German old-timer plane Ju 52 D-AQUI flies above the city of Hamburg, Germany. Such models are rarely seen in the skies. — dpa/Malte Christians

The last time the Junkers featured at an airshow was in 2015, on the outskirts of Johannesburg at the historic Rand Airport.

Hollywood stars filmed here, the likes of Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, with the old-fashioned planes also getting to play a role – for example “in the film Cry, The Beloved Country or African Express, ” according to Austin-Williams.

SAA’s management had once bought the JU 52 with an eye to its upcoming 50th anniversary: after all, it was once the backbone of the airline. In 1934, the airline ordered the first of 15 aircraft from Germany. However, the plane bought for the jubilee was built in Spain in 1954 as a Junkers-licenced aircraft and had flown for the local air force until 1972.

It then went to a British collector, before being dismantled and shipped to the South African port of Durban, then brought by land to Johannesburg. On Jan 14,1984, a Swiss captain gave the first South African pilots a technical lesson on how to use the lovingly restored vintage aeroplane for its first flight.

Even back then, according to the Swiss captain, the tyres were an Achilles’ heel for the plane. – dpa/Ralf E. Krueger

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