Air Mail Service on Bremen and Europa

Shot From Ships
Air Classics, Mar 2002 by Cook, John C


Germany's fledgling Deutsche Lufthansa airline had established a number of "firsts" by the mid1920s - the most notable being the world's first scheduled night-flying passenger service in 1926. Keenly observant of the strides being made in transatlantic flights and eager to gain a competitive edge over the British, French, and Americans, they began to explore ways to capture the lucrative air mail market both between Europe and the United States and Europe and South America.

Over-water flying in that era was rife with hazard and uncertainty for the vagaries of weather - ice, fog, snow and rain - had brought tragic ends to many hope-filled pioneers eager to prove the value of cross-ocean flying. Instrument or "blind flying" was in a primitive state of development and radio homing devices for aerial navigation were at best short-ranged and unreliable. Lufthansa strived to find a way to break the deadlock seemingly held by the awesome expanse of the Atlantic, and the manner in which this obstacle would be overcome was strangely suggested not by aviation pioneers but by the innovative management of the Norddeutsche Lloyd ship line.
In 1927, the Bremen-based ship line had carried a Junkers F-13 floatplane aboard the liner Lutzow to provide pleasure flights for passengers at en route ports of call. The seaplane was water launched and crane retrieved and, while the service proved a popular attraction to passengers, the technical troubles involved in maintaining the aircraft aboard the liner proved more troublesome than it was worth. An outgrowth of the concept was to prompt Ernst Heinkel's Flugzeug-Werke to accelerate their development of a lightweight catapult capable of launching seaplanes from ships at sea.

Still excited with the results of the seaplane based aboard the Lutzow, Norddeutsche Lloyd began to explore the idea of fitting their new liners Bremen and Europa with Heinkel's catapult as a way of garnering worldwide attention in a world that was still somewhat anti-German as a result of World War One. They wanted a gimmick that would demonstrate the technological lead Germany professed to have and what better way could be found than offering the world's fastest air mail service between New York and Berlin?

The Bremen

Joining forces with Lufthansa, both companies speedily set about to conquer the technical problems of operating, launching and retrieving large seaplanes from their new super-liners. The task was an imposing one calling for much ingenuity and improvisation, for the somewhat delicate seaplanes had to withstand the rigors of North Atlantic storms, severe changes in temperature, howling winds and monstrous seas while inertly strapped to their catapult carriages. And the project had to be completed in record time, for the proud new Bremen, flagship of Germany's post-war aspirations on the North Atlantic, hoped to capture the vaunted "Blue Riband" for speed from the Cunard Line's ever-popular Mauretania on its maiden voyage.

The concept itself was simple enough. While still several hundred miles away from its destination, the Bremen would load its seagoing "Air Mail" aboard the seaplane and launch it while underway. The seaplane, by virtue of its speed, would fly off and deliver the mail the better part of a day ahead of the fastest liner afloat. In this way, the mail would arrive in record-breaking time and Norddeutsche Lloyd could claim a service unmatched by anyone. When the Bremen reached port, the seaplane would be re-mounted on its catapult and the procedure repeated as the liner drew within 5/600 miles of Bremerhaven on the homeward run.

The result was the installation of the Heinkel K2 catapult aboard the Bremen, mounted on the sun deck between the twin funnels; compressed air propelled the dolly-mounted aircraft along an 89-ft runway to achieve a maximum velocity of 105 mph. From the 660-hp BMW-powered Heinkel He 9, the company developed the He 12, registered D-1717, for shipboard use -- a 450-hp Pratt & Whitney Hornet A radial endowing the type with a top speed of 134 mph. The craft could trace its design concept back to the World War One aircraft built by Hansa and Brandenburgische Flugzeug-Werke and this was no coincidence since Heinkel was designing aircraft for that company. The wing was all-wood with two spars and covered in wood and fabric. The fuselage was a welded steel tube affair with metal covering on the forward portion, fabric on the aft. Two cockpits were placed in tandem and the tail was braced by struts to the fuselage. The floats were also built out of wood and were fairly blunt in design.


Heinkel 12 aboard the Bremen

Responsibility was given to Lufthansa and on 16 July 1929, airline personnel headed by Captain Jobst von Strudnitz were aboard Bremen when it left Bremerhaven on the maiden voyage. On 22 July, 248 miles out from New York, von Strudnitz was catapulted into the air in the He 12 which carried 660 lbs of mail. The Heinkel landed 2.5 hours later in New York Harbor where it was met by the mayor and other officials who christened the plane New York. During the return voyage the aircraft was launched near Cherbourg on 1 August, while still in the English Channel, and it reached Bremerhaven more than 24 hours before its parent vessel after a 600-mile flight. The 18,000-letter express mail cargo was immediately flown on to Berlin in a waiting Lufthansa aircraft. Eight further flights were made during the year.

The He 12's last catapult flight took place on 5 October 1931, the aircraft subsequently being damaged in an accident at Corbequid Bay, following which it was broken up for spares.

The Europa

Heinkel -58 Bremen on board the Europa

In the following year, the Bremen's sister ship Europa was fitted with a more powerful catapult to take the heavier but generally similar He 58, registered D-1919. The program continued through the early 1930s, the Heinkels being replaced in 1932 by two 650-hp Ju 46 floatplanes.

Junkers 46 catapulting from the Europa

Concurrently with the development of the W 33 freighter, Junkers had been working on a passenger version, with enclosed cockpit and seating for up to six passengers, which was designated W 34 and, in its final form, powered by the BMW radial. Similarly powered, with a strengthened airframe and a modified broad chord rudder, the Ju 46 appeared in 1932. Painted red and silver, the two Ju 46 floatplanes were registered D-2244 and D-2271 and were named Europa and Bremen after the vessels from which they operated. Two Ju 46hi landplane examples were built for Lufthansa in the following year, these being D-2419 and D-2491. D-2271 was eventually converted to a landplane and named Hamburg and it eventually was transfered to Syndicato Condor where it was registered PP-CAU with the name Tocantins.

In 1934 six Vought V-85Gs were purchased to replace the Junkers. They served both passenger liners (Bremen and Europa) until it was decided the operation and maintenance of the catapult and aircraft was too costly to continue their use.


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