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Alpine Air

The only thing more durable than these Junkers Ju 52s are the mountains over which they now fly sightseers.

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REMEMBER THE SCRAMBLE AT THE END OF 1999 to find a New Year’s celebration of millennial significance? With very little expense, a Swiss friend of mine outdid all the extravaganzas staged from Times Square to the Great Pyramids at Giza. She—and 67 fellow citizens—watched Zurich’s midnight fireworks from the air, as passengers aboard one of the passing century’s most significant airplanes, the Junkers Ju 52/3m. Four of the 17-passenger, 1930s-vintage airliners flew over Zurich that night (the only aircraft to do so), thanks to an operation launched 15 years earlier by Kurt Waldmeier, the director of the Swiss air force museum in Dübendorf, who believes life is not worth living unless you accomplish the extraordinary.

In 1981, Waldmeier was presented with an extraordinary opportunity: The Swiss air force retired its three Ju 52s, which for 42 years had hauled equipment, supplies, and Swiss paratroopers-in-training, but in the process had accumulated very few hours; one of them, less than 2,500. “It was like new,” says Waldmeier, “and [we] thought we should keep it in the air.”

The BMW 132 Hornet engines (so called because they were built under license from Pratt & Whitney) were “unserviceable,” according to Waldmeier, and the military hadn’t wanted to pay for an overhaul. The air force museum couldn’t afford it either, so Waldmeier announced on Swiss national radio in September 1982 that a Junkers Ju 52 could once again fly passengers if the museum raised enough money to restore it. He gave a call-in telephone number. In a single day, radio listeners pledged 600,000 Swiss francs (about $450,000). BMW threw in another 500,000. The phone number has since become the reservation line for JU-AIR, a little museum-run airline offering sightseeing flights over the Alps as well as charters. Fundraising and ticket sales were so successful that the museum was able to restore all three aircraft; a fourth—license-built in 1949 by the Spanish manufacturer Construcciones Aeronauticas S.A. (CASA)—was donated in 1991 by the Dübendorf airport. In 2002, on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, JU-AIR flew 12,000 passengers.

Why such an outpouring of enthusiasm for an old Junkers built by Switzerland’s big and not always friendly neighbor to the north? Not because of its beauty; look at that snout. Its German crews called it “Tante Ju” partly because its sturdy construction and squat, stocky fuselage suggest an unlovely Teutonic maiden aunt. The nickname, however, also conveyed fondness. According to historians, crews loved the 52 because it was a simple, straightforward aircraft they could count on.

The aircraft was to Europe what the more modern Douglas DC-3 was to the United States in the 1930s and ’40s: Anyone who flew commercially in Europe before World War II probably did so on the Junkers. The children of those travelers, having heard their stories of first airplane flights, are the ones lining up for JU-AIR. Almost 5,000 of the transports were built, and they flew in 30 countries. The 52 carried troops in World War II and was vital in supplying them, a role so well remembered by the Russian government that it refused JU-AIR’s request for overflight during an around-the-world attempt in 2000.

One Saturday I toured the JU-AIR maintenance hangar at the Air Force Flight Center in Dübendorf, which is as clean as an operating room. Chief technician Hanspeter Sennhauser showed me through one of the airplanes while he waited for another to return from its sightseeing tour. Sennhauser, who previously had done maintenance with SwissAir, working mainly on Douglas DC-6s to -10s, said that every engine in the JU-AIR fleet is checked after 105 hours of flight and pulled off for inspection after 1,500 hours. “Some people think Oh, these are very old aircraft. They could fall down from the sky,” he said. “But nothing breaks on these old aircraft. The paint will fade first.” Judging from the way the airplanes gleamed, in bright blue and polished aluminum, I very much doubt that the chief technician will let the paint fade either.

Sennhauser and a small crew performed extensive work on the engines—the JU-AIR maintenance shop is now licensed by the Swiss aviation authority to overhaul the BMW 132—including plating the cylinders with channeled chromium that holds oil in the channels, resists corrosion, and adds hundreds of hours to the engine life. The team also replaced fuel tanks, updated cockpit instruments, and refurbished the cabins, using seats donated by SwissAir, in one case from the first DC-9 Douglas manufactured.

The cabins are small but inviting. With a row of seats on either side of the aisle and large rectangular windows, they have the atmosphere, if not the arrangement, of European train compartments. Ear protectors hang at each seat to dim the noise of the BMWs and allow passengers to enjoy the mountain views in relative peace.

After a one-hour flight, the working 52 returned. The aircraft, which flies at about 75 mph with flaps extended, seemed to approach in slow motion. When it rolled to a stop, Sennhauser placed a ladder at the cabin door. Two smartly uniformed flight attendants descended, then helped the passengers disembark. They stood chatting and laughing as the pilot shook each hand. “That’s a good airline, huh?” said Sennhauser. “If you shook hands with everyone on a 747, you’d have two days.”

If you define a good airline as one that regards every flight as a celebration, then JU-AIR is indeed top-notch. You can make reservations at its Web site: www.airforcecenter.ch.

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