A flight of fancy

Heinz Breitel and his wife are standing on the tarmac at Zurich's Kloten Airport. Along with 25 other people, they are getting ready to board a diminutive plane, which at first glance differs little from small commercial aircraft.

This content was published on May 12, 2000 - 14:22

The metallic, patchwork-like underbody and the fact that the tail rests virtually on the ground give away its age.

Boarding from the rear door entails a bit of an uphill struggle. As he heaves himself into his seat, Breitel says "I'm looking forward to seeing the Alps from a different perspective - it's my 60th birthday, and as a present I was given this flight".

The plane is a Douglas DC-3 and was built in 1942 to transport troops during the war. Some claim its sturdiness and flying capacity even won the war for the allies.

The captain on this day is Claude Tapparel, and he is busy welcoming each passenger on board. He says he will be taking the plane over Lake Zug, past Lucerne, up to Mount Pilatus, across to the Matterhorn, and if the sunny weather holds up, there might be a chance of flying south to Ticino.

The idea of offering anyone - from aviation fanatics to people celebrating a special occasion - the chance to experience flying in a plane from the 1940's was spawned in the mid-1980's. Bruno Dobler, a pilot and an aircraft enthusiast, found two million francs to purchase two DC-3's, refurbished them (bringing the planes fully up-to-scratch from a safety perspective) and the Classic Air concept took off.

Nadia Lohnmüller is the only stewardess on board this day - and with only seven rows of seats, there would not be room for a larger crew. She has been with Classic Air for ten years, and says she thoroughly enjoys working for such a unique airline, "on commercial flights the passengers are often stressed, and they're flying simply because they have to. Here, the passengers are happy to be on our DC-3, and I enjoy making them feel special".

One passenger is Eugen Eichenberger, an electronical engineer who is fully engrossed in working out which part of the country the plane is flying over. He alternately peers at a large map of Switzerland spread out in front of him, rotating it studiously, and glances out of the window. "For me classic planes are a kind of a hobby, like classic trains. The DC-3 is a unique plane because it is from the days of the war, and there are not many of them on which you can fly today."

Eichenberger is not the only one fascinated by the plane. As she served refreshments, Lohnmüller waxed lyrical about what one might assume is simply an out-of-date flying machine. "Once you've flown in one of these aircraft it really leaves a mark on you. For instance, if I'm at home and I hear the sound of a DC-3, I'll always run outside to have a look!"

For SFr400, Classic Air promises to spoil its passengers. "We always serve champagne, and sometimes a nice meal, depending on how long the flight is. We really want to spoil our guests and give them the red-carpet treatment". The highs also include an up close look at the majestic Matterhorn. The only low during this trip is a sweep over Lake Zurich where people can be made out strolling along the shore.

But most passengers are not interested in the service. They are too busy craning their necks out the window for a bird's eye view of Lucerne's Mount Pilatus, and then of Zermatt, and enthusiastically taking photographs of almost every landmark pointed out by Captain Tapparel.

To the lay person, travelling in this war-era aircraft is not really very different to flying in a regular small plane - save perhaps the loud engines, and the military green air vents which clearly date from the 1940's. Actually piloting such a plane, however, is another kettle of fish.

"There are no electronic devices inside the cockpit," co-pilot Thomas Pluss said while pointing to a plethora of buttons, dials and levers. "We have no auto-pilot, just a radio. Everything must be done manually, which is why it's such fun to fly this old lady - we really have to co-operate in the cockpit."

Classic Air's DC-3s are clearly unique, and steeped in history. The Second World War version was called the C-47. Former US president Dwight Eisenhower deemed the plane one of the four weapons that won the war - along with the bulldozer, the jeep and the 2.5 tonne tank. But you do not have to be a nostalgia buff to enjoy the exceptional views of the Swiss landscape afforded by the DC-3.

The passengers applaud the smooth landing back at Kloten. As the whirring engines die down, passenger Heinz Breitel says the flight surpassed all expectations, although the champagne left a little to be desired. The airline obviously does better selling vintage aircraft than vintage wines.

by Juliet Linley

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