Beautiful old ladies of the skies

Now a feature of the Transnet Heritage Foundation stable, following the restructuring of South African Airways, the vintage aircraft has joined a range of Douglas DC-3 and DC-4 aircraft in a captivating display of old-time “angels” at the Swartkop air force base in Pretoria. Affectionately known as “Tante Ju”, the Junker was originally one of three of the highly distinctive aircraft that the fledgling airline received from Germany in 1934, shortly after its formation. These proved to be so successful that 19 of the new, bigger-engined aircraft were ordered in the mid-1930s. The first of the Junkers left the factory in Dessau at the end of December, 1937, under the command of Captain H. Bauer, landing at the Rand Airport in Johannesburg. Only 15 of these aircraft were delivered by the outbreak of the Second World War. They were all immediately commandeered by the South African Air Force and never saw service with SAA again. In the early eighties, the airline’s management expressed the desire to honour its foundation by acquiring a JU-52 for its 50th anniversary celebrations. With the help of Airbus Industries, the magnificent machine was acquired from a private collector in Britain. It was flown to Lernwerder in Germany, disassembled and shipped out to South Africa, where it was painstakingly rebuilt to its original condition. The aircraft, named “Jan van Riebeeck”, painted in the livery of the thirties, took to the air again on 16 January, 1984. Although more than 5 000 were originally built, “Tante Ju” is one of only six airworthy examples left in the world. It is currently used for pleasure flights and charters, accommodating up to 16 passengers. It is from these humble beginnings that the South African Historic Flight has developed into arguably the largest and most diverse vintage operation in the world today. While “Tante Ju” is still very much the grand dame of the fleet, much of her limelight has been stolen by the acquisition and restoration of two of the only passenger-licensed Douglas DC-4 Skymasters in the world. Lemombo and Outeniqua, as they are called, have become great favourites in the tourism industry, travelling as far afield as Europe and America. These 50-seater aircraft were orginally used on the joint SAA-Springbok service between South Africa and England and for many of their passengers this was a great opportunity to relive the romance of a bygone era. In the 1940s the Skymaster flight from Johannesburg (Palmietfontein) via Nairobi, Khartoum and Tripoli to Hurne near Bournemouth took 36 hours. The delivery of four Lockheed Constellation aircraft in 1950, however, spelt the end of an era for the Skymasters on the Springbok service and they were rescheduled to handle all major domestic and regional routes. SAA’s last scheduled DC-4 flight was on 30 September, 1965. During their illustrious airline career, the Skymasters flew for more than 200 000 hours and covered 41 million miles ‘ the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe 1500 times. The Historic Flight is also home to two Douglas DC-3 Dakotas named Klapperdop and Zwartkop. The former was delivered to the United States Army Air Force in December, 1943. One month later, it was transferred to the No.5 wing of the South African Air Force in Cairo. In 1948 it became part of the fleet of South African Airways until it was returned to 44 Squadron in 1971. Twenty years later it found its home with the Historic Flight, where it was restored to its present immaculate condition. Since its reintroduction into service, Klapperdop has made safari tours to many destinations in the region, especially to game lodges in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe with Victoria Falls being one of its highlights. Meanwhile, its sister plane, the Zwartkop, remained in-service with the South African Air Force without interruption until its delivery to the Historic Flight in 1996. Swartkop, where all the vintage aircraft are now based, houses the largest portion of the South African Air Force Museum and is therefore the perfect home for these beautiful old ladies of the sky.

April 2006
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