Image: "Auntie Ju"
Yves Logghe  /  AP
A Junckers JU-52/3 stands on the tarmac of Brussels Airport. In the 1930s, "Auntie Ju" was the absolute pinnacle of airliner comfort, reliability and range.
updated 7/16/2009 11:21:59 AM ET 2009-07-16T15:21:59

In the 1930s, "Auntie Ju" was considered the absolute pinnacle of airliners — comfortable, reliable, even beautiful, despite its strange warehouse-like corrugated aluminum skin.

The Junkers Ju-52/3 was the star of Lufthansa's fleet then, even operating long-range service to Beijing. It also flew for a number of other airlines including Swissair and South African Airlines.

But Lufthansa's pristinely rebuilt Junkers is now providing pleasure flights to nostalgic aviation enthusiasts, and other passengers seeking a flight back into history.

Tickets for the junkets on the 73-year old plane nicknamed "Auntie Ju" — which alternate between various German cities during the summer and early autumn — are being snapped up on Lufthansa's Junkers Web site. Fares range from $93 to $415 (euro67-euro299) and flights run 10 to 110 minutes.

During World War II, some of the German air force's most daring exploits — such as the glider raid on the Belgian super-fortress of Eben Emael, or the parachute assault on the British-held island of Crete — were carried out using Ju-52/3s.

The type was considered so reliable that a special VIP version of the aircraft was built for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who used it as his personal transport throughout the war.

The plane's now defunct tri-engine layout was cutting-edge at the dawn of civil aviation. It was used widely in American planes such as as the Ford Tri-Motor — or "Tin Goose" — and in several Italian types, but was sidelined as obsolete with the advent of World War II, when it was superseded by more modern designs such as the Douglas DC-3 "Gooney Bird."

The antique plane, which still bears the original registration of D-AQUI it received when it entered service in 1936 with the German national carrier, was completely refurbished after Lufthansa bought it back from an American collector in 1984.

Although it retains its panoramic windows, nine-cylinder radial engines, and fixed landing gear, it has been outfitted with a brand new passenger interior, and state-of-the art navigation, engine and flight instruments that did not exist in the 1930s. Furthermore, the black boxes without which modern aircraft cannot be certified to carry passengers were installed in a new electronics bay under the cockpit floor.

One of the few original items left in the large, glazed cockpit is the oversized, 1930s-style wooden steering columns.

Since the Junkers company stopped making planes in 1945, and the BMW plant in Berlin that built the original engines now turns out high-performance motorcycles, many of the parts used in the renovation had to be rebuilt from scratch by Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg, where D-AQUI is hangered in wintertime.

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The airline's maintenance crew is also restoring a new addition for the historic flight section. The classic Lockheed Constellation, which served its long-range routes in the 1950s, will join Lufthansa's collection.

The airline has a contingent of 10 crews, or 20 pilots, qualified to fly the Ju-52/3. They are all regular commercial fliers who volunteered to pilot the old plane.

"I'm just happy to be able to fly it in my spare time," said Capt. Burkhard Jacobfeuerborn, who normally commands Boeing 737s on Lufthansa's European routes. "For me as a professional pilot, it's an honor and a privilege."

Capt. Mathias Schultz, an Airbus A300 pilot, is one of the rotating volunteers. "On average it works out to about three days of flying the Junkers each month," he said.

"Auntie Ju" also occasionally travels to neighboring countries. Its visit to Belgium on a recent day coincided with Lufthansa receiving approval from the European Union's anti-trust body to take over Brussels Airlines.

The plane performed several low-level passes over Brussels, flying just below the cloud line at about 1,500 feet (about 500 meters). People on the ground below stared up at the plane, and the Brussels airport baggage handlers and other staff pulled out cameras as the Junkers taxied past the line of modern jets waiting for take-off.

If you go ...
FLYING AUNTIE JU: Historic 1930s-era German plane offers panoramic tourist flights from various German cities including Frankfurt and Berlin. Flights range from 10-110 minutes, $93-$415 (euro67-euro299). Most are round-trip; a few are one-way. Click here for schedule, fares and reservations.

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