Saturday, July 25, 2015

Junkers G.38 Flying Wing, a Behemoth of a Plane and a Crystallization of a Dream Meets Indiana Jones

Understanding the 1920s through period technology is not a new idea, but the Junkers G.38 flying wing is not just important technology, but also important culturally as a figure of 1920s modernism and cultural change.  Since this is (usually) a blog about gaming and role playing games, I want to also work in the social context for those RPGers out there who want to make the period more accessible, so pardon my occasional typical digressions.   To see some of the pictures in a larger size, hover over the picture and right click to bring up the menu and select, "open link in new tab/window" which will be larger than the slide show size.

The Roaring 20’s roared in more ways that one and modern technology was doing things thought impossible twenty or even ten years before.  The medium of radio blossomed in the 20s, cars became available to the common man in the 20s, everything moved faster, everything was more connected, everything was becoming more modern, more streamlined, and the economy in the United Sates was taking off.   The rests of the world was also tearing forward technologically and socially with new inventions, and faster and better also.  Well, actually the economic outlook was bad for most of Europe and extremist organizations were on the rise, with social disorder everywhere in the wake of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles.   The world order had been reshuffled and somebody was dealing from the bottom of the deck.

With that long introduction, I want to talk about a modern, futuristic plane created in the interwar period of Weimar Germany, the Junkers G.38.  It didn’t just appear out of nowhere, but was the brainchild of Hugo Junkers, who had a belief in air transportation even before the Great War.  Hugo Junkers who founded the Junkers Flugzeug- und Motorenwerke AG aircraft company, patented the deep-wing concept in 1910, the great grandfather of the flying wing.  Junkers engineer Ernst Zindel designed an aircraft that was all metal and the wing encased the engines, fuel cells as well as the cargo/passenger area, with the pilots housed forward in a house of glass.  Truly the modern era had arrived and in this case form did follow function, but also the new modernist philosophy of the age.[1]

Hugo Junkers had a vision of modern air travel using a monowing aircraft that was all metal in an age of multi wing aircraft that were wood and canvas.  Early on in his career, his Deep Wing Patent (Nurflügel design) of 1910 showed where his mind was going even before the Great War and just seven years after the Wright Brother’s breakthrough in controlled heavier than air flight.  In WWI, Junkers was cajoled into making warcraft for the German Empire, but it was done so reluctantly.  After the war, Junkers went back into aircraft design for civilian transports.
Junkers returned to the road to the flying wing by starting modestly with the G.24 single engine aircraft, introduced in 1925 and then the G.31 trimotor design of 1928.  Note the American Ford version of the Trimotor came out in 1925 but owed a debt of gratitude to Junker’s pioneer work.  Next came the G.38 model of 1929 and then the Ju 52, another trimotor design from 1931, which continued to be in commission for decades, just as the Ford trimotor proved to be a durable workhorse.
Junkers crowning achievement was the G.38 transport, which was the acme of modernist aircraft design up to that time.  Many people put their dreams on paper and a few made a model, even fewer made the full-sized aircraft, but darn few actually flew them successfully and went into production.  The G.38 was the culmination of decades of work and dreams, which became a reality. 
This flying wonder had a crew of seven and as an airline could carry 30 to 34 passengers, depending on the modification with three cabins each holding 11 passengers.  There was also wash rooms and a smoking cabin as well as a galley for preparing meals.  The great thing about this design was that the leading edge of the wings had windows and there was a viewing area in the front of the nose of the aircraft that could hold two. 

I was just over 76 feet long and a wingspan of 144 feet.  It featured two pair of disparate engines completely in the wing.  Powering the craft were two Junkers L55 V-12 water cooled piston engines with a four bladed, fixed pitch wooden propeller on each inboard engine and two Junkers L8a six cylinder water cooled piston engines with a two bladed wooden fixed pitch wooden propeller outboard.  Later the design was changed so that that all four engines had four bladed propellers.  The G.38  could develop 140 mph as a max speed and the cruise was 109 mpg with a range of 2,150 miles without refueling and a service ceiling of 12,106 feet.  Not a bad design for an old Victorian guy who was born in the 1850s.

Early on in its career, the G.38 was the largest plane in the world and the passenger accommodations were considered sumptuous when the passenger capacity was reduced somewhat.  Remember the passengers were seated within the wings with lots of room.  There were even two extra sets in an observation section in the nose of the aircraft.  The G.38 was even competing with Zeppelins in the prestige passenger service sector.   Constant upgrades in design and with the engines kept the aircraft competitive, flying up to WWII, during which time they were commandeered by the Luftwaffe for military use.  None of the G.38s survived the war.

Other countries were impressed with the Junkers design.  Japan sent a delegation to Germany to study aircraft design and this led to the G.38 being built under contract by Mitsubishi as the Ki-20.  Six were built and one still survives, housed in the Tokorozawa Aviation Memorial Hall.  William Stout’s Ford Trimotor airliner was based on Junker designs.  Tupolev’s ANT-20, the eight engined monster, eventually the largest aircraft when it was built also owes a debt to Hugo Junkers.  See also my post about Miazaki’s animated film, The Wind Rises.
Despite his triumphs, Hugo Junkers didn’t fare well with the end of the Weimar Republic and the new malignant regime which came to power in Germany.  In 1933 his company, factory, and patents were seized by the NAZIs, and he died a broken man in 1935.[2]

The flying wing was a holy grail and an aeronautical icon of modernist aircraft design that strove not to only improve overall performance, but to make the plane look modern, espousing aesthetic ideas of simplicity of design.  The G.38 was a gigantic leap up from the earlier Ju G.24 design.  The original 1910 deep wing patent and the Junkers G 38 aircraft were the direct ancestors of the later US Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing and the later Northrop-Grumman bomber, the B-2 Spirit. 

 As a Raiders of the Lost Ark tie-in, (yes I know it takes place in the late 30s) the airplane that Indy fights the sergeant around and under appears to be a modified and scaled down version of the G.38, probably due to budget constraints as well as the fact that on the full-size aircraft the props were way above your head with no possibility of being hit by the blade.  See also
A few interesting errors in Raiders for those who have an eye for such things:

For you gamers out there, I hope that this thumbnail sketch of the G.38 and its milieu  helps in understanding the 1920s a little better.  There is plenty of information out there about the G.38 for making scenarios and I hope this introduction will be of help.  I know that many of the concepts I have skated over in this post are far to in depth to be covered by a single article, no less a book, so I leave it to the reader to conduct his/her own research into these often contradictory and revised concepts that had great currency in the 1920s.  I know that I have probably made a few errors here, so I would appreciate it if some of you air historians would help me out.


[1]  Doc Savage, that Übermensch of American modern interwar progressive pulp figures, had a flying wing in his arsenal of modern gadgets in his war against crime.  For a bit of contrasting reading and viewing an opposing view, try Ayn Rand’s Objectivist film, based loosely on the book, The Fountainhead (1943). The movie and film gives a glimpse into a highly actualized and objectified individual in the person of the protagonist Roark, who is closer to the original Übermensch concept than was adopted by the National Socalists – a Nietzschesque artist-tyrant character functioning in a real world with unbendable personal ethics.  Along that line, see also her book, Atlas Shrugged (1957), but I digress.

[2]  Hugo Junkers was closely associated with the Bauhaus Movement, which closed its doors at about the same time he was shorn of his company.  For you students of 20s art and architecture, understanding the Art Deco and Bauhaus movements is important in grasping the huge changes culturally which flowered in the post-war environment, although it had its deep roots prewar, often as a reaction against Victorianism and Art Nouveau as well as 19th century instructions.  For you Call of Cthulu RPG players, keep in mind a middle aged person in the mid 1920s had been born in the 1880s, which was a world away in every sense.

 Notes and Links of Interest
Social change as well as technological change is key in understanding the 1920s and these articles may help the CoC and Dieselpunk gamer:
Progressive Era of social and technological modernization whose roots sprang from the Victorian Era
See also The Efficiency Movement, which became a major fetish
A bridge between two periods see the article covering 1893-1918 which eventually becomes 

I know it’s a little shopworn to make reference to the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby (1925) – which rejection of the cold materialism of acquisition at any price but the mid 20s date of this novel shows that people were aware of the changes even early on in the Jazz Age, but it’s important to note that the novel was published at the peak of that era, showing that people were cognizant what was happening.
F. Scott Fitzgerald book downloads for free
Flappers and Philosophers (1921)
Tales of the Jazz Age (1922)

As a Raiders of the Lost Ark (yes I know it takes place in the late 30s) tie-in, the airplane Indy fights the sergeant around and under appears to be a modified and scaled down version of the G.38, probably due to budget constraints as well as the fact that on the full-size aircraft the props were way above your head with no possibility of being hit by the blade.
A few interesting errors in Raiders for those who have an eye for such things:

Two salient films that express the hopes and fears of the Progressive movement are embodied in the movies Metropolis and The Shape of Things to Come.  Worth considering also is Wells’ 1895 book, The Time Machine, which takes these concepts to their (literally) ultimate end in his nihilistic but oddly hopeful book.  It later made into several movies over the years.  Download The Time Machine for free on Project Gutenberg   For a little extra credit, consider Olaf Stapledon’s classic, Last Men and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1932), an early transhuman SF story  download

 More Information on Large Aircraft
Also the German Boat Plane trans-Atlantic flights to South America
of interest to readers of the 20s-30s and to CoC and Dieselpunk RPGrs.

On par with the G.38. see also some information on boatplanes:  Dornier DoX a huge plane for 1929  See also Wikipedia article on flying boats

Although too late for the 1920s, it’s worth reading up on the Flying Clipper boatplanes and

See also the Spruce Goose, a monster of a wooden transport craft.  It’s a little out of period, but shows a logical progression of giant transports first seen in the 1920s.

Review and image of Revell's 1/144 scale model of the Junkger G.38 with some good background material

David Horn Collection photo of Junkers G.38 D-2000 in flight

The first picture in this post is Peregrine Heathcote’s work as seen on the blog site, Art Contrarian

Russian aircraft Kaminin K-7 from 1933  – this is far more Dieselpunk than I expected and has a few amusing fantasy mockups (G.38/K-7 fusions) along with some facts in the article. 

Text © William Murphy aka CoastConFan 2015; you may link to this article, quote if you like, but give me a little credit please, it took time to research and write this article.  Photos and art are property of their respective owners. This is a non-commercial site and I make no money from these articles.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks very much for this insightful article. The bibliography that you always include at the end of your posts is a welcome addition...always ending with me reading more than I expected :)