|Last updated 17 July 2023
|AUSTRALIAN JUNKERS Ju 52/3m TRIMOTORS
Compiled by Geoff Goodall
|Gibbes Sepik Airways Junkers Ju 52/3m VH-BUV in 1958 at home base Goroka, in the New Guinea Sepik District.
It has been re-engined with RAAF CAC Wirraway P&W R-1340 Wasp power plants with 3 bladed propellers.
Photo by Brian Horsey via Ron Cuskelly collection
Three of these venerable German
transports came to Australia
in 1955-1956, many years after the majority had been retired by
military and civilian owners around the world. The trio were imported
Gibbes Sepik Airways, an Australian airline company operating in Papua
Guinea, then administered by Australia.
Ju 52 development goes back to 1930 with the original single-engined
aircraft. The first tri-motor Ju 52/3m variant was flown in 1932 and
became the standard transport for the pre-war and wartime Luftwaffe.
It was a rugged all-metal utility transport, strengthend by the Junkers
trade-mark corrugated duralumin metal skin. For freight or troop
carrying it had a large open cabin unobstructed by a wingspar.
Ju 52/3m trimotors were extensively flown as civil airliners by Lufthansa and many other European airlines, also in South America.
Total production was 4,845 aircraft, including Ju 52/3m variants built in Spain as CASA 352 and France as Amiot AAC.1 Toucan
|The Ju 52/3m was developed to replace the Junkers G.31 trimotors. These three G.31s were flown in New Guinea
by Guinea Airways 1931-1941 and set world air freight records. Note the open roof hatch to load bulky cargo.
Photo at Lae by Guinea Airways G.31 pilot Bert Heath, courtesy Ben Dannecker collection
Cargo was the life blood of New Guinea operators before a road network
was constructed between major towns.
By 1954 Gibbes Sepik Airways at Goroka desperately needed larger capacity aircraft to handle the amount of air freight being offered. Founder Bobby Gibbes wanted to supplement his fleet of Noorduyn Norseman freighters with DC-3 size transports, but lacked the financial backing required. He was well aware of the remarkable feats carried out by the pre-war Guinea Airways Junkers G.31 trimotors and began to seriously consider that their replacement, the Ju 52/3m, would be a much cheaper compromise. However Gibbes' early enquiries brought the news that he was too late - the last of the civil Ju 52s in Europe had been retired and were gone.
|Gibbes Sepik Airways
Established in September 1947 at Goroka, New Guinea by Robert H. M.
Gibbes, former RAAF Wing Commander and WWII fighter ace. He was a
popular character in the New Guinea Sepik District where he had been
flying a Dragon for Mandated Airlines. Gibbes started his airline
with Austers then purchased ex RAAF Noorduyn Norsemans. Gibbes Sepik
Airways grew to be an established charter operation with a good
Early 1955 Bobby Gibbes heard that a Swedish airline was advertising three Ju 52s for sale in "fly-away" condition, but at a high price. He travelled to Stockholm where he was disappointed to find them in a poor state, parked in the open winter weather with u/s engines and several engines missing. In his autobiography You Live But Once, Gibbes describes his frustrating negotiations that eventually brought the price down from £15,000 Sterling each to a more realistic £1,500 each, including a good stock of spare parts. Because of their neglected condition he intended to dismantle them for shipping to Australia, but the quoted sea freight costs were prohibitive. There was no choice but to overhaul each at Stockholm and fly them back. A Swedish engineer was employed to work on the best of the three, SE-BUE, while Gibbes chased up spare German BMW 132Z radial engines and parts.
His application to the Department of Civil Aviation for Australian registration of his veteran trimotors was met with little enthusiasm. As a new type, he had to satisfy DCA's strict airworthiness requirements which included a copy (in English) of the manufacturer's strength and stress design calculations plus all the aircraft manuals. Some of these he managed to provide, thanks to the help of British European Airways in London, which had operated 12 captured Luftwaffe Ju 52/3ms immediately after the end of the war.
On 8 October 1955 Gibbes departed Stockholm in the first Junkers, now
painted as VH-BUU with Gibbes Sepik Airways name on the fuselage.
He had hired aGerman engineer/pilot as his
copilot and carried Gibbes' coysin and her girlfriend as passengers.
After numerous delays and adventures, reached Goroka six weeks
later on 18 November. The Australian certification overhaul began
in the GSA hangar at Goroka. DCA allowed the company
further time to submit required manuals because of the
difficulty in dealing with the Junkers company at Dassau which was now
in communist East Germany. VH-BUU completed its overhaul in December
that year and entered cargo service.
|Re-engining the Ju 52s
Gibbes knew the aging BMW engines would be a continuing problem. He decided that the 590hp BMWs could be replaced by 600hp P&W R-1340 Wasps. He had earlier re-engined his Norseman fleet with the Australian built R-1340-S1H1-G geared engine running 3 bladed Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers. This power plant was used by RAAF CAC Wirraway trainers and Gibbes had purchased a number from RAAF Disposals. He was determined to install them in his Ju 52s using Wirraway engine cowlings. Because the engineering aspects were complex, Marshall Airways at Sydney-Bankstown were contracted to install the Wasps and handle DCA certification of the modification.
DCA required a detailed stress analysis of the modified engine mounts and effects of the different engines before approving the modification drawings. Gibbes engaged Melbourne aviation engineering consultant M. Molyneaux to carry out this work, which extended to the strength of the wing structure and an analysis of the wartime German alloy used in the wing spar.
In June 1956 VH-BUU set off from Goroka for the ferry flight to Sydney, flown by GSA pilot John McDermott. The starboard BMW engine failed over Torres Strait and McDermott made a forced landing at Horn Island where they were stranded. Gibbes quickly arranged for a P&W R-1340-S1H1G to be flown from Sydney to Horn Island by wartime friend Brian Blackjack Walker, now chief test pilot for De Havilland Aircraft in Sydney. Walker delivered the dismantled power plant in a DHA-3 Drover, and despite minimum facilities at Horn Island, the u/s starboard BMW engine was removed and replaced by the nose BMW, and the P&W Wasp fitted in the nose position. McDermott continued the flight to Bankstown, where Sid Marshall's crew under chief engineer Jack Davidson and Eric Cross went to work replacing all engines. Sid himself knew the earlier Junkers G.31 trimotors well from his pre-war days as a ground engineer in New Guinea with Guinea Airways. In addition to the engine controls and fuel systems, the modifications included improved firewall sealing, flexible fuel lines replaced by fire-resistant materials, and installation of fire detection and extinguishing systems.
Brian Walker was also called on for the test flying, with Sid Marshall in the right hand seat for the early flights, followed by DCA performance trials with the lower-powered engines. The Department was satisfied and the CofA was amended to show the P&W engines. VH-BUU returned to New Guinea in September 1956 to commence freight work. Walker resigned from De Havilland Aircraft to join Bobby Gibbes as GSA Manager and Junkers pilot
Gibbes was so disenchanted with the BMW engines that he gained DCA approval for a field-modification to have the two Junkers at Stockholm re-engined with P&W Wasps prior to their delivery flights. GSA senior pilot Robin Gray had been sent to Sweden to supervise the preparation of the two aircraft, engaging experienced German engineer Paul Raasch, ex Lufthansa, to complete the overhauls then crew the delivery flights and remain with the airline in New Guinea. Two more engineers were employed, Eddie Halle from Germany and Swede Sten-Erik Molker. Six P&W Wasp power plants were shipped from Australia to Helsinki and installed - the removed BMW engines being sold in Europe to recoup some of the mounting costs.
Having experienced many radio problems on his Junkers ferry flight, Gibbes sent pilot Tony Chadim to Sweden to install modern Lear radio and navigation equipment to both aircraft, then crew the delivery flights to New Guinea.
|The other two Junkers arrive from Sweden
In early 1957 the two Junkers at Helsinki completed their long rebuilds
and re-engining with the P&W Wasp power plants. This generated
a flurry of telegrams between DCA Head Office in Melbourne and the
Civil Aviation Liasion Officer at Australia House, London. Their
certification to satisfy international regulations presented an
administrative dilemma, which was solved when the Swedish authorities
agreed to issue Swedish CofA to both aircraft, despite them being
Australian registered and the Wasp re-engining modification not having
Swedish approval. The CALO was instructed in addition to also
issue an Interim Australian CofA for one month to cover the ferry
They departed Sweden on 13 January 1957 on the VFR delivery flight to New Guinea in formation. On board were:
VH-BUV: Pilots Brian Blackjack Walker and Englishman John Green, engineers Paul Raasch and Eddie Halle, passengers Green's and Raasch's families, loaded with their household effects.
VH-BUW: Pilots Robin Gray and Tony Chadim, engineer Sten-Erik Molker, passengers Chadim's wife & daughter. Loaded with spare parts.
Previous owner Albin Ahrenberg accompanied them for the early stages across Europe.
They reached Goroka 26 days later to a great welcome as they circled the town in formation. They went to work as freighters. Despite the reduced power of the P&W Wasps, they quickly proved themselves worthy competition for the DC-3s of Qantas and Mandated Airlines. They were well-known across New Guinea and were referred to as "JUs". After the massive effort and expense of getting these other two Junkers to New Guinea, only days after going into service VH-BUW was wrecked in a takeoff accident on the notorious goldfields downhill sloping strip at Wau. Gibbes flew to Wau with his Junkers specialist engineer Paul Raasch, who said it could be repaired.
Such was Bobby Gibbes determination, a truck convoy and a team of drivers was contracted to move the dismantled aircraft down the mountains from Wau to Lae on a narrow winding road, then to Goroka, 300 miles. The rebuild in the airline maintenance hangar at Goroka was an aeronautical engineering triumph, taking 5 engineers a year to complete. It was achieved without manufacturer's drawings, equipment or jigs, using Americad Alcad to replace the wartime alloys, the properties of which were unknown. The skinning Alcad was in sheets, which had to be pressed into the corrugations that were an essential part of thge aircraft's design strength. DCA inspectors monitored the rebuild, their tests revealing that the tolerances achieved were better than those of the other two Junkers.
Some Gibbes Sepik pilot recollections sum up the Junkers period:
Ivan Bennett: "You didn't need a pilot's licence to fly the old JU, you needed a plumber's certificate. But it was a bloody good aeroplane. The corrugated metal construction made them very strong and gave them a much greater wing area than was apparent. They had great ability on short fields. I did a lot of air drops in the JU. You could get back to 65 knots which made the job easier. One of the worst I did was at Simbai, to drop a roller to Jim McKinnon who was building a strip there. We landed at Aiome to get the metal roller. Jim gave us a detailed plan to fly up the Simbai valley and drop the roller. All well in theory, but the Simbai valley did not have enough room to complete a 360 degree turn in the old JU. Coming around in the turn I could see we were in deep trouble, so just as we missed a ridge I gave the signal to drop the roller because I had to climb out of there. The roller went into the next valley and took 3 weeks to get it out."
Adrian Nisbet: "Those JUs were terrible things, heavy as a brick, but magnificent aircraft for the job. Imagine getting into the old Maprik strip only 1,600 feet long, with a trimotor carrying 7,500 pounds - as much as a DC-3. They were an extraordinary aircraft for their time. Qantas in New Guinea were stripping down their DC-3s to try to get a bit more payload out of them to compete with the Ju 52s."
Unfortunately the harsh New Guinea operating conditions took their toll
on the P&W Wasps, which, although reliable in the company Norsemans,
were blowing cylinders with increasing frequency in the Junkers. This was
believed to be caused by excess vibration associated with the engine
installations. With one Wasp shut down, a Ju 52 was able to
maintain altitude at most loads.
They had several accidents, described in their individual histories below, but by the end of 1957 DCA had accepted the Ju 52s as part of New Guinea civil aviation operations. At this same time the Department was concerned by the inability of DC-3s to meet ICAO climb performance requirements after losing an engine on takeoff. Restrictions were imposed on the payload for New Guinea DC-3s, giving the Gibbes Sepik Airways Ju 52s a distinct advantage.
|Almost two more Junkers
At the beginning of 1958 Gibbes Sepik Airways was suffering a
cash-flow crisis because of lost revenue and repair costs caused by Norseman and Junkers
accidents. The big Ju 52s were money-makers and Bobby Gibbes seriously
considered obtaining two more as quickly as possible. He was aware of
two Ju 52s available for sale in Mozambique and commenced
negotiations for their purchase.
In March 1958 Gibbes applied to Australian Customs to import the pair, and import licences were issued. Senior pilot Robin Gray was sent to Africa the following month to organise delivery arrangements. A week after Gray had departed, Gibbes received a telegram stating that DCA Head Office had deferred a decision on his application for additional Junkers aircraft pending an Australian Federal Government Policy review into airline services in New Guinea - which was expected to commence in June 1958. Gibbes appealed to the Minister for Aviation in Canberra, who responded that the Customs import licences had been issued in error. Gibbes was beaten and recalled Gray from Africa before the purchase had been finalised.
|The end of Gibbes Sepik Airways - and the Ju 52s
While fighting the bureaucratic decision to block additional Ju 52s,
the final straw for Bobby Gibbes came in July 1958 when Norseman VH-GSA
crashed in a valley near Mendi with the loss of pilot Ron De Forest. It was
the first fatality in the history of the airline. Gibbes put his airline
up for sale as a going concern. In November 1958 his
competitor Mandated Airlines (MAL) purchased Gibbes Sepik Airways and
all its assets including the three Ju 52s and five Norseman aircraft. The airline's maintenance
Gibbes Sepik Airways continued to operate under its own name as part of the MAL organisation until April 1960. However MAL management was modernising its fleet and did not intend to keep the Junkers. VH-BUU was declared a write-off after being damaged in October 1959, despite engineers saying it could be repaired with spares stock inherited from GSA. The other two were retired the following year at Madang, left in the weather until sold for scrap metal.
at Stockholm in 1952 in service with Firma M. Ahrenberg.
John Hopton Collection
|VH-BUU at Minj, New Guinea in early 1956 with Gibbes Sepik Airways, soon after arrival from Sweden.
It still had the BMW radial engines with two bladed propellers. Photo by Robert Blaklie
VH-BUU at Brisbane-Eagle Farm, probably during the return from Sydney to New Guinea in September 1956 after
the original BMW radials had been replaced by P&W Wasps. Geoff Goodall collection
in Gibbes Sepik Airways service at
Ben Dannecker collection
|Baiyer River, New Guinea in October 1959 after VH-BUU ground-looped off the strip.
The wheel skid tracks tell the story. John Hopton Collection
view of the damage sustained at Baiyer River, October 1959.
John Hopton Collection
stripped remains of VH-BUU abandoned at Baiyer River airfield circa
1966. Photo by Alan
VH-BUV during its lengthy pre-delivery overhaul at Bromma, Sweden. John Wegg collection
VH-BUV's P&W Wasp engine installation being inspected at Bromma. Photo by Paul Raasch
|VH-BUV in Gibbes Sepik Airways service soon after delivery to New Guinea. John Wegg collection
|This and the next two photographs of VH-BUV were taken at Madang during 1959 by Kevin Pavlich,
who was flying an Adastra Aerial Surveys Lockheed Hudson on a New Guinea survey at the time.
Courtesy Ron Cuskelly collection
VH-GSS and repainted cream and green, Goroka 1960
52/3m WNr 641375 VH-BUW, VH-GSW
VH-BUW at Bromma, Sweden ready for delivery flight to New Guinea following installation of P&W Wasp engines.
John Wegg collection
|VH-BUW after the Wau accident March 1957. It has been secured at the top end of the downhill sloping airstrip.
Damage was far more than it appears - the rear fuselage, tailplane and 12 feet of port wing were torn away.
The wrecked Qantas terminal which it struck is on the left. Photo: Ben Dannecker collection
|This view of VH-BUW at Wau shows
the extent of
|A tropics-damaged colour slide of the truck convoy carrying VH-BUW down the mountain from Wau.
The Junkers was rebuilt and flew again. Source unknown, via Greg Thom
|The following two
photographs were taken by German film maker Dietrich Wawzyn who visited
New Guinea in 1957. They were sent by his nephew Dirk Wojcik.
They show a Gibbes Sepik Ju 52 having the port engine replaced,
location not given:
This 1960-61 view from Madang Tower shows the retired Junkers VH-GSS & GSW parked on the far side of the airfield.
Photo: Civil Aviation Historical Society
|Outer Harbour, Port Adelaide SA June 1962 - scrapped aircraft unloaded from a ship from New Guinea, salvaged
by an Adelaide metal dealer. It included Japanese wartime aircraft wrecks and Ju 52s VH-GSS & VH-GSW.
Photo by Geoff Goodall
|- Australian Civil Aircraft Register, Department of Civil Aviation
- DCA Annual Survey of Accidents to Australian Civil Aircraft: 1957, 1959
- DCA Head Office initial registration files Ju 52s: National Archives of Australia, Melbourne
- Balus - The Aeroplane in Papua New Guinea, Volume 1, James Sinclair, Robert Brown, 1996
- Sepik Pilot - Wing Commander Bobby Gibbes, James Sinclair, Robert Brown 1977
- Your Live but Once, Bobby Gibbes, self-published 1994
- Flypast - A Record of Aviation in Australia, Neville Parnell & Trevor Boughton, AGPS 1988
- Swedish Ju 52 listing, Aviation Letter, monthly journal, November 1971
- Stockholm Report August 1956, Air Britain Digest, March-April 1957
- wrecks at Adelaide report: Aviation Historical Society of Australia Journal, June 1962
- Junkers Ju 52 production listing: www.ju52archiv.de
My thanks to Ju 52 historian David Elliston for corrected original manufacture details.