At Airbus Bremen, a group of pensioners is restoring what is thought to be the last Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, the first commercial airliner to cross the Atlantic. The workers are facing a giant jigsaw puzzle: blueprints are missing and many original parts are unobtainable.
Condor: voyage to the bottom of the sea
For 57 years, a Condor aircraft lay 60 metres deep at the bottom of the Norwegian Trondheimsfjord. Then, in 1999, the plane was salvaged at the behest of the German Museum of Technology in Berlin.
Günter Büker, an Airbus controlling manager at the time, was there. He travelled to Norway on his own initiative and at his own expense. Büker, who has now retired, feels an affinity to the plane: his father was an aircraft engineer who worked on the Condor’s vertical stabiliser before being called up for military service, and his mother had a kiosk on the premises of Focke-Wulf Flugzeugbau AG in Bremen, the company that built the aircraft.
In Norway, Büker was one of the many people waiting and watching near the salvage platform. Everyone was holding their breath as the crane lifted the wreck clear of the water.
“The machine weighed about 15 tonnes more than it should have, as it was full of mud and sediment,” Büker remembers. When the crane tried to set it down, disaster struck: the machine broke into countless individual pieces. He returned home “really frustrated. I thought that was it”.
When disaster struck
In February 1942, the aircraft ditched because of a technical fault and has lain since then at a depth of over 60 meters (197 feet). The plane was acquired for the German Museum of Technology in Berlin, but recovery proved complicated because corrosion was worse than under-water inspections initially suggested.
In 1981, the remains of this aircraft were for the first time located in a Norwegian fjord near Trondheim. Experts soon realised the value of the wreck. The remains of a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 were an absolute rarity – the world's only known airplane of this type!
The Condor wreck disintegrated on being set down on the recovery platform on May 26, 1999. Despite all odds, the parties involved decided to embark on the ambitious restoration project.
Despite the setback, a group of Airbus pensioners have been turnning the badly damaged aircraft into a handsome piece of commercial aviation history, together with tthe German Museum of Technology in Berlin, Rolls-Royce and Lufthansa Berlin-Stiftung.
But it wasn’t the end. For Büker and many others, that failed recovery was just the beginning of a long journey and in 2002, reconstruction began under the lead of the German Museum of Technology in Berlin.
A group of 15 pensioners began to renovate the tail at the Lufthansa Berlin-Stiftung in Hamburg. Work started on the engines at Rolls-Royce in Berlin and Oberursel, and restoration and reconstruction of the wings and fuselage began at Airbus in Bremen.
Not giving up
In Hangar 5 at Airbus in Bremen a worker in blue overalls is standing on a scaffold working on the fuselage. On the ground three of his colleagues are busy assembling a radial engine. In one corner of the workshop a man is talking to a supplier on the phone. He wants to know why the delivered part does not fit. He listens for a while and then says: “Ah, I understand.”
He has to raise his voice to make himself heard over the noise in the room. All around him people are drilling, grinding and hammering. Just as in every other hangar on the site, people are hard at work, but with one major difference: none of the workers in this hangar is under the age of 60, and the oldest is 92.
For 14 years, this group of 60 volunteers, nearly all pensioners, has been meeting twice a week to restore the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor.
Their project leader is 70-year-old Günter Büker, the man who witnessed the salvation of the aircraft. In Bremen, he was one of the first workers to set eyes on the wreck, together with his fellow enthusiast Peter Wiesner.
One for all, all for one
The restoration is being possible with widely ranging specialised knowledge from many different experts, broad-based honorary involvement and people willing to make generous donations.
There is no doubt in the minds of the Airbus' experts: it will all be worth it even though the plane will never fly again.
With a span of 33 metres, the Condor wings were only 1.5 metres shorter than those of an A320.
Rebuilding the Fw 200 'Condor' is one of the most significant aircraft restoration projects in Europe.
Aeronautical engineer Peter Wiesner has been involved in the restoration project since the beginning.
The performance of the Fw 200 provided a major boost to transatlantic air travel. In 1938, the aircraft was the first land-based passenger plane to fly non-stop from Berlin to New York.
The 74-year-old Wiesner was an aeronautical engineering officer in the German air force before his retirement. He says that there is something he remembers very vividly from that moment: the smell. It stank of fish, mud and mouldy water.
“The wreck looked so bad that many Airbus colleagues told us to just throw the thing back into the water,” he recalls. Instead, Wiesner started salvaging parts and removing the mud, while Büker was looking for more volunteers to help restore the aircraft to its former glory.
In Germany, the Condor was considered the apogee of civil aviation in the 1930s and it was the largest aircraft ever fully constructed and serially produced in Bremen.
Measuring 24 metres long, there was room for up to 26 passengers. With a span of 33 metres, the wings were only 1.5 metres shorter than those of an A320.
The plane was designed by engineer Kurt Tank, who was head of Focke-Wulf Flugzeugbau AG in Bremen, and built in just over a year.
“This was an incredible achievement by all those involved – from apprentice to plant manager”, explains work shop manager Peter Wiesner. “Everything had to be done by hand, even the design engineers had to use slide-rules for the calculations and draw the designs manually.”
On 27 July 1937, the Condor took off in Bremen and only one year later it had completed its record-breaking flight: in August 1938, the 18-tonne Condor flew non-stop from Berlin to New York and was the first landplane to cross the Atlantic – in 24 hours.
Fritz Schneider still remembers the attention it drew. The 92-year-old began an apprenticeship as an aircraft engineer at Focke-Wulf in 1939. He was still a youngster then and was proud to be one of the 176 apprentices with the airplane manufacturer in Bremen.
“Everyone was talking about the first flight of the Condor and it was reported in all the newspapers in Bremen,” he says.
After the war, the aircraft production was stopped and he joined the railways and became a train driver.
It feels good to return to the Condor after so many years, Schneider says. He knows techniques that are no longer used in aircraft manufacturing, but are very useful for the restoration of the old plane. Former Airbus employees that are now part of the team show him modern production techniques.
Giant jigsaw puzzle
What the team in Bremen has achieved so far looks promising. In 2016, the workers managed to connect the right outer wing of the aircraft with its inner wing. In addition, two 10-metre long fuselage parts were joined together for the first time: a major milestone in the project.
Now the restoration team is working on the left wing and the fuselage. While the wings could mostly be reconstructed using restored parts, the fuselage was damaged to such an extent that it has to be completely rebuilt.
It’s difficult work – like a giant jigsaw puzzle with a lot of pieces missing. The blueprints and many original parts no longer exist, so the Condor engineers have to construct new parts and then adapt them, which is painstakingly detailed work.
The aircraft will never fly again, but everyone hopes to see the day when it rolls out of the hangar once more. As Büker says: “We’ve already lost a few colleagues, and the health of one or two is deteriorating. But we all hope that we will bring this to a successful end together. This project has become an important part of the lives of everyone who works here.”
Büker estimates that it will be around another two years before the plane will look like it used to. Then it will be displayed in the German Museum of Technology in Berlin.
But the pensioners still have a lot of work to do first, including one of their greatest challenges: at some point, all individual structural elements of the plane will have to be assembled.
“Firstly, everything has to fit and secondly, we don’t have the space,” says Büker. The hangar is too small for the whole plane, but giving up is not an option: “After all, this is not a hobby but a calling. Hobbies are something we pursue in our free time.”
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