|There is much to be said of South African politics. Not surprisingly, the real country was different from the media hype. I'm not defending anything or anybody. This article deals strictly with a once in a lifetime flying experience.|
Back in the summer of 1986 my company was involved in a long distance MG car rally. There were several international participants, including a small contingent from South Africa. Three weeks, and 7,000 miles later, they had gone a long way toward convincing me I should fly to South Africa in October for a large MG event of their own.
As it turned out, the departure date coincided with the last direct flight from New York to Johannesburg. October 1986 was right at the heart of the American media's full court press on sanctions. Arriving at the South African Airways counter, multiple reporters were standing about speculating for the cameras as t why so many people were getting on the plane. I wonder if anyone bothered to point out the fact sanctions would not stop airline travel, and in future the trip would be more difficult, so why not get on the last direct flight?
The trip almost ended at South African customs when I foolishly listed my occupation as "editor." While a true statement, the fact is I was editor of a small in house trade publication. Next time I'll put "businessman" and be done with it. With customs issued resolved, the small group of Americans, myself included, blended into the general milieu of the event.
Knowing of my interest in aviation, I was asked one morning if I would be interested in ride aboard SAA's newly restored Junkers 52. This aircraft was lovingly restored with the help of the German government to commemorate the first aircraft with which South African Airways was started. Not one to pass such an opportunity, the appropriate affirmative was given and we were off to the airport.
As luck would have it, SAA's chief training pilot was one of the group who had flown to the US for our event. In fact, he had brought over a car with which to participate. As a thank you for our efforts in the US, he scheduled a training flight in the Junkers to coincide with my visit. In addition to seeing the aircraft up close, and getting a ride, I received one more unexpected gift. After a short time in the air, I was invited up to the cockpit and offered the left seat. "okay, if you insist."
After a few minutes of familiarization with the controls, we headed toward a small local airport. I guided the plane into the pattern as instructed. As we flew the base leg and turned on final approach I was more than a little excited. Was he really going to let me land this thing? Sadly no, there were other passengers aboard, and air regs would not allow a curly headed American to pancake this precious machine.
After landing, we taxied in. A group of us exited the plane and watched as it practiced a series of touch and goes. This was in fact a legitimate training exercise. Once the flight instruction was done, we re boarded and headed for home. This was a unique and unexpected experience. Speaking about it with my host a few days later led to one of my favorite comeuppance stories.
A couple we weeks later I was at the American consulate. I wanted to extend my stay, but wasn't about to take any risks with an expired entry visa. On the way out, on an elevator, I was bemoaning the fact I did not have my log book. I could have had an entry for the Ju 52 flight. Another fellow riding in the elevator suddenly perked up and blurted out there was no way I would ever get to fly SAA's prized Junkers. In fact, I would lucky to get aboard at all. My host calmly retorted that not only had I been for a ride, but had in fact flown the airplane. For the rest of the ride down, that elevator sure seemed small.
Junkers 52 Stats:
Gross: 24,250 lbs.
Max Speed: 178
Range: 810 miles
Service Ceiling: 19,360 ft.
Engines: Three BMW engines , 700-800 hp. ea.
This aircraft was built in Spain after the war by CASA.