Soaring Into Zürich Clouds With RIMOWA's Junkers Aircraft
Plus a list of special interests to pursue upon touchdown.
BY Wayne Cheong | Feb 17, 2017 | Travel
Even with the roar of the engines, I can hear tiny gasps from a passenger seated diagonally behind me.
High above, cutting through clouds, the plane that we are in is considered a vintage model. A tri-motor beast. In my thin seat, I look up to see the corrugated ceiling, which looks like the tin roof of a makeshift shack, the sort that would be blown away by a gale. That sort of imagery would be worrying, especially when the entire plane that we’re in is made up of the stuff.
But then, a heavy, metal object shouldn’t be able to hover in the air but here we are, thanks to the miracle of aerodynamics (to further break your brain, take a video of a spinning propeller with your smartphone and you’ll see one of the trippiest things to ever emerge from a Salvador Dali painting; it’s called the Progressive Scan Effect, google it).
Another gasp ensues from behind as the plane banks a right turn. Another journalist to my immediate front tightens her grip around the armrest. I look at my watch. There’s still 30 minutes left of this.
I once read a listicle with a click-baity sounding headline about the things that science can’t answer. It started with how bicycles work, and then I tumbled into a rabbit hole of scientific impossibilities that would rob me of an hour of my life. One of the interesting bits that I picked up was the perplexity of bee flight. Someone posits that given the shape of its body and wingspan, it shouldn’t be able to fly, and yet there it is, oblivious to its affront against aerodynamics, going from bloom to bloom.
Of course, it’s a misconception. Scientists have already figured out the physics of bee flight (in short: unlike birds, bees do not engage in fixed-wing flight; a bee’s lift is a combination of short, choppy wing strokes) but it made for an engaging read.
This memory pops up when, the day before we sit in a Junkers Ju 52, we are firmly rooted in terra firma, waiting with our cameras to witness the maiden flight of the Junkers F13. This is a different model than the commercial ones operated by JU-AIR, based at the Dübendorf Air Base in Switzerland where we find ourselves.
About 20 minutes from Zürich, we are here at the behest of German luggage manufacturer, RIMOWA. The Junkers F13 flight is the culmination of a vanity project by Dieter Morszeck, CEO and President of RIMOWA, which was seven years in the making. The present Junkers F13 is a reconstruction of the world’s first all-metal transport plane that “revolutionised aircraft construction and form the foundation of modern air travel”.
Morszeck, who is the third generation managing RIMOWA, sees parallels between his company and the original Junkers F13: both originated in Germany; both use the material duralumin, the former incorporating the same material for their suitcases; both companies shook up their respective fields with new innovations.
The original Junkers F13, like all the Junkers models, was made up of a duralumin structure. Beneath the corrugated metal exterior was a single Mercedes D IIIa inline upright water-cooled engine; a semi-closed cockpit (the front is a small windscreen for the pilot to fly by sight as flying instruments had not been invented yet) for the crew; and four passenger seats outfitted with seat belts. It first took off on June 25, 1919 and was a hit internationally, thanks to its landing gear that converts into floats; the early years of commercial aviation were not able to provide enough landing strips but, haha, 70 percent of the world is made up of water, so why not use that to our advantage?
The present-day Junkers F13 has a few technical modifications (the radial engine, the braked landing gear, an improved tail unit) to comply with modern flight safety standards. And we get to see history repeating itself, this time with Morszeck, who has held a private pilot’s licence for 34 years, at the controls. We continue to wait, some admiring the wide expanse of blue sky, others through the viewfinders of their cameras. A few impatient ones (the number increases with each full wipe of a clock face) turn their attention to their watches.
The narrow steps of the Grossmünster do not seem to end. It’s just 187 steps but the dark, enclosed space and stifling heat are turning this ascension into a labour. There is also a spooky legend attached to the Romanesque-designed Protestant church: Zürich’s patron saints and siblings, Felix and Regula, were beheaded but someone forgot to tell them that decapitation was fatal so the sibling saints picked up their heads, walked (the story isn’t clear if they ambulated in a straight line, y’know with them being headless and all) 40 paces up a hill, and finally died. Their final resting place would be the site for the Grossmünster.
Out of the four main churches in Zürich, the Grossmünster provides a stunning view of the city as we find out when we finally reach the viewing platforms. You can see the sun sparkle on the blue waters of Lake Zürich and the rows of medieval-looking establishments separated by cobblestone streets. It looks fairy tale-ish. Like I’m peering through a portal into the past. The waters of the lake run into the river Limmat that stretches as far as 35km. It bisects Zürich’s Altstadt, or Old Town, that the Grossmünster is in.
This is the beating heart of Switzerland. As the country’s largest city, Zürich is also the world’s largest financial centre. Thanks to its low tax rate, it drew banking behemoths to establish their bases here. Yet, with its temple ripe for Mammon worship, the city was able to loosen its tie to allow the flourish of history, art and culture to take centre stage.
Days later, we are nursing hot chocolate and a banana split on the second floor of Confiserie Sprüngli in Paradeplatz, a square at Bahnhofstrasse in downtown Zürich. As this is the area synonymous with expensive real estate, I muse about the killing founder Rudolf Sprüngli might have made if he had sold the confectionery he purchased back in 1836.
When the rain lets up, we leave to wander the streets before heading into kreis (district in German) six, north of Altstadt. It’s quieter than the busy centre of Bahnhofstrasse. Made up of two neighbourhoods, Oberstrass and Unterstrass, if you head to the latter, you’ll find the largest park in Zürich. Irchelpark is part of the University of Zürich and it’s open to the public. Sure, the lake is fake, but it’s created to be as natural as it can be. Even mallards can be seen preening in its waters. If it’s good enough for a duck, it’s good enough for anyone.
We arrive at Restaurant Drei Stuben for dinner. It’s a little sparse at first, but slowly fills up as the darkness settles. From the outside, the restaurant looks like a country inn. It has a whiff of the rustic thanks to the lights suffusing an orange glow in a low-ceilinged room and cliché red-and-white chequered napkins on wood tables. We try the cordon bleu, which is the restaurant’s speciality, and Swiss white wine (whose name I misplaced). Strangely, I find what looks like sediments at the bottom of my glass. It turns out to be tartrate crystals. Harmless. The wait staff, a pretty blonde with a tiny wrist tattoo, explains in halting English that these can occur in good quality wine after extended storage in colder climates. “These are wine diamonds,” she adds. Wine diamonds? She nods. I drain my glass. Diamonds taste tart.
At the site for the Junkers F13’s maiden flight, the wait staff generously ply us with alcohol. The whole event is done up to look like something out of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. An all-girl band belts out ragtime with a contemporary feel. The models, dressed in ’20s garb (peak lapel suits; unironic hats; slip dresses that shimmy) lounge about, partaking in secret conversations with one another. There’s even a photographer taking pictures with a tintype camera.
Then, the replica Junkers F13 taxis out onto the grassy airstrip. Morszeck and his flight engineer, Oliver Bachmann, enter the cockpit. The aircraft moves slowly, but it picks up speed before it lifts. Morszeck will later describe piloting the F13 as “a different feeling”.
It takes to the sky and almost becomes a dot in the distance before it returns to land. Moeszeck gets out of the cockpit; his face is beaming, triumphant. He’s mobbed by a crowd fielding questions and congratulations. If you have loose change lying about, you’ll be interested to know that the Junkers F13 can be purchased.
If you walk along the river Limmat, you’ll come to Drahtschmidlisteg bridge, where the locals and a few adventurous tourists leap from the handrails and into the waters below. As a Singaporean, it’s freeing to see people jumping into a body of water without any concern for underwater parasites. Behind me, two men set up a webbing between the bridge and the bank by Unterstrass. Waterlining. One of them, a Caucasian with dreadlocks, tries to traverse the webbing before he loses his balance.
After a while, it starts to feel a little voyeuristic, watching these free, young folks hurl themselves into the depths below. I still have photos of them in the middle of their plunge, a freeze-frame of when they are in flight. We move on, strolling along the riverbank further up north. We pass by murals and a skatepark beneath Kornhausbrücke bridge, until we hit the west of Zürich, the industrial zone in district five.
This area is a hotbed of hipster activity. Factories and warehouses are now boutiques, cafés and restaurants. The tract of 36 railway viaducts arches is Im Viadukt, part of the bustling shopping sector.
You can also find the flagship store of FREITAG, which is made out of recycled shipping containers, here. Inside are four storeys of retail space. One of the staff, aware that we’re strangers to this land, ask if we would like to see the viewing tower. There’s a viewing tower? I count five more storeys before we reach the top. Not giving myself a chance to formulate an excuse, my feet start to climb the stairs. Again, you’re rewarded with a dazzling view of the industrial area: smoke pouring out of factory chimneys, brutalism in some of the building’s architecture.
A few feet away, is Frau Gerolds Garten, a beer garden where you can grab a craft brew and chill at one of the tables, just contemplating life or people watch. From the top FREITAG’s viewing tower, I had wondered if it would have been faster just to vault over the edge.
Before we sit in the Junkers Ju 52, I read up everything about the aircraft, which led me to scanning Junkers crashes. November 6, 1934, during an emergency landing, a Junkers Ju 52 crashed in Gross-Rackitt, Pommern, Germany. Five crew members died. November 6, 1929, a Junkers G 24 crashed in Godstone, Surrey, United Kingdom. It was on its way to the Amsterdam-Schiphol Municipal Airport in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Only one out of the eight on board survived. July 26, 1936, while out on a test run, the Junkers G38 crashed due to a technical failure. Test pilot Wilhelm Zimmerman survived.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t worried that the aircraft might crash, but I actually felt excited. It’s not every day that you get to ride in a Junkers. It’s the same sort of palpable elation that Hans Walter-Bender, now 94, might have had when he first flew the original Junkers F13 on September 8, 1929.
I spot Walter-Bender among the crowd. He’s a small man, made smaller by his “a-size-too-large” suit; his mustard yellow silk ascot is coiled around his neck adding a touch of class to his appearance. As the guest-of-honour, Walter-Bender would later, during dinner, present Morszeck with a framed photo of a six-year-old Walter-Bender along with the original ticket stub for that flight.
He would relate his experience in another interview about his mum booking a pleasure flight, how bumpy it was when the aircraft taxied along the grassy airfield. He would remark on the price for the 30-minute flight: five Deutsche Mark, a king’s ransom in those days. He’d marvel at the magnificence of travelling at that time in something so advanced, so magical that it opened up a realm of possibilities.
The modern popularity of commercial flight has not dulled his wonderment for aviation, a sentiment that you notice as he peers through coke-bottle glasses as the F13 flies above us. You can almost picture Walter-Bender, his head in the clouds as the scene of himself as a young boy, with his parents riding in the F13 so long ago, plays in his mind.
From Esquire Singapore's February 2017 issue