When IWC offer you the opportunity to fly on-board their Junkers JU-52 aircraft, you take it. This trip was to coincide with the launch of the new pilots range, which we covered here and here. As you would expect, it is far from just any aircraft. For many years, the Schaffhausen based manufacturer have nurtured a partnership with Swiss airline JU-AIR through their mutual admiration of the Junkers JU-52 aircraft. It is fair to say, this aircraft has a fairly significant story to tell in aviation history.
It was brisk Monday afternoon at the Air force Center Dubendorf (near Zurich). 10 or so international press gathered to share this unique experience with me. There were representatives from Germany, Denmark and Portugal. My heart started to beat just a little faster when I witnessed the pilot starting the aircraft manually, by rotating a wooden wheel at the base of his chair. This was followed by an ‘engine test’ of 5 or so minutes to ensure they were operating correctly. Before getting on-board I had to do my research, to fully appreciate this aircrafts history.
Just eight vintage JU-52s worldwide are currently airworthy. One of them has carried the IWC logo for two decades and, in the year 2000, started out on a circumnavigation of the globe to publicize a new IWC Pilot’s Watch. The JU-52 history is extensive. Nicknamed “Tante Ju” (Auntie Ju) and “Iron Annie” by Axis and Allied troops, the Junkers Ju-52 was the most famous German transport of the war. The Ju-52 was built of corrugated metal skin, as you can see, parts and pieces stuck out of the airframe. It was built to be functional that’s for sure! It was April 1931, when the Ju-52 prototype was first developed. The Ju-52 went on to serve as an airliner for a number of nations which include Finland, Spain, Sweden and Germany. It served as a mail carrier in China, and, fitted with floats, hauled lumber in remote places in Canada.
The brunt of it’s working life was spent with the German Lufthansa. Equipped with luxuries like a typewriter and oxygen masks, the Ju-52 could fly from Berlin to Rome in eight hours over the Alps, an impressive feat for contemporary aircraft, let alone an airliner. In World War II, the Ju-52 served in every theatre in which Germany participated. It dropped paratroopers in the Netherlands, Crete and later the Ardennes. It carried supplies to beleaguered troops in North Africa, Stalingrad and the Baltic states. The Ju-52 was slow and very lightly armed against fighters. As a result, it suffered horrible losses in almost all actions, especially over Crete, the Mediterranean and Stalingrad. Many types of replacement were built, but none was as popular or reliable as good old Auntie Ju.
Before I knew it, we were airborne. Our flight took us around Zurich. We darted in and out of the Alps at a low enough altitude to almost touch the cliff faces. We past some areas of outstanding natural beauty, including glacias. You soon appreciate the age of such an aircraft when you start to climb in altitude and its starts getting increasingly cold in the cabin. We were warned prior to take-off that it may get chilly up there with no heaters! We were even given the opportunity to wander into the cockpit. I got the sense the pilots thrived on this old school form of flying. The fixtures in the cockpit were just as you would expect. Beautifully crafted from various woods, but with a patina that told stories of the past.
The last Ju-52s went out of service with the Swiss Air Force in the late 1980s over 50 years after the first of these aircraft first took to the air. After our round trip, it is fair to say, as a rather nervous flyer, I was pleased to be back on dry land – but what an experience! It was also a joy to see a number of IWC Pilot’s watches in their nature surroundings.