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Finnair’s maiden flight 90 years ago was all-German

Finnair, one of Europe’s last small national air carriers, traces its roots back to the Aero company, which began operations in Germany. The Junkers aeroplane factory delivered its first planes, mechanics and pilots to Finland.

Aeron ensimmäinen lentokone Junkers F13 D-335 Helsingin Kaivopuistossa maaliskuussa 1924. Kuvassa saksalaiset lentäjät Heinrich Pütz ja koneen siivellä Hans Lindenberg.
Aero's first plane, a Junkers F13 D-335, in Helsinki's Kaivopuisto Park in March 1924. Posing are German pilots Heinrich Pütz and Hans Lindenberg. Image: Finnair

Aero’s first plane was a Junkers F13 seaplane. On 20 March 20, 1924, it took off from Helsinki’s Katajanokka port area and made a 162-kilo postal delivery to the Estonian capital Tallinn. Such planes were too expensive for the fledging airline to buy, so it in effect leased the first two from Hugo Junkers’ company, says aviation historian Carl-Fredrik Geust.

The planes began flying the Helsinki-Tallinn and Helsinki-Stockholm routes. As there was no commercial airfield in Finland yet, they took off from the water using pontoons in summer. In winter they were equipped with skis for takeoffs from the ice.

In between seasons, when the ice was not strong enough to support the planes but still substantial enough to interfere with takeoffs and landings, flights were simply not possible. As a result, there was sometimes a gap in service of as long as three months.

Aero was officially registered in November 1923. There had been earlier attempts to operate small airlines in Finland and Estonia, but they had gone bankrupt. On paper, Aero was half German-owned. Junkers used the same model elsewhere, cementing market share by helping to finance start-up airlines.

First Finnish pilot a star

Hugo Junkers, who designed the world’s first commercial metal-bodied planes, insisted that only pilots with a year’s training specifically on the F13 was allowed to fly it professionally.

However in the summer of ’24, Finnish pilot Gunnar Lihr was allowed to begin flying an F13 after just a week of training. Geust says it remains a mystery as to why Junkers made an exception to his firm rule.

“Lihr couldn’t even speak German,” says the historian. “He was trained as an aviation mechanic and had become a flight instructor in the Finnish Air Force, but I still don’t understand how this was possible.”

To drum up business for his new air service, Aero President Bruno Lucander and Lihr made publicity tours around Finland, becoming celebrities in the process.

“Aero understood marketing, and arranged for Lihr to make demonstration flights in various Finnish cities to show how wonderful flight was,” says Geust. “Meanwhile, Lucander took the local newspaper reporters out to lunch.”

Dead and forgotten

Hugo Junkers, who also set up joint-venture deals in the Soviet Union, fared badly after the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933. They kicked Junkers out of his own firm, and he died in 1935. The Nazis nationalised the company and Junkers planes became much-feared bombers during the Second World War. 

Aero paid off its debts to Junkers before the Winter War began in 1939. The last payments for the newest Ju-52 transport aircraft were made to Junkers’ new owners the previous year.

By then airports had been built in Helsinki and Turku, and both Lucander and Lihr were gone. Lucander died suddenly in 1929 at the age of 47.

Lihr, like so many pilots, died at the controls of his plane.

“On 1 December 1937, Lihr got caught in a blizzard during a night-time mail run to Stockholm,” says Geust. “He made a forced landing on a snow-covered field that turned out to a lake. The ice broke and the plane sank, killing Lihr and his telegrapher. Lihr was then forgotten because he was never a war pilot.”

In 1968, Aero formally changed its name to Finnair, which today bills itself as the world’s sixth-oldest airline. The majority-state-owned carrier has a fleet of 43 aircraft.

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