Balloon Repair Station

Germany Calling – That’ll be Thursday Bank Holiday then?

Germany Calling – That’ll be Thursday Bank Holiday then?

There’s air travel and travelling by air and then there’s Ryanair. Love them or hate them you can go a long way for threepence h’penny especially if you get a stupid past nightingale o’clock flight from Stansted to Blah-Blah (Wherever) which is at least two hours from where it says it is, booked eleven months in advance. Bit like London (Exeter)!

Karle Graunuer is an air traffic controller and very nice chap who pretty much runs Schaewbisch Hall Airport near Frankfurt (we think!), Germany. Chiltern Region main man Barry Newman trained him up a few years ago and I checked him out, flying from Barry’s allotment on the side of the A6 to the outskirts of somewhere else, the stunning MK metropolis of Bletchley (if memory serves). In no time he was looking at getting a special shape and to that end Andy Kaye lent him Aston Martin which ended up living in Germany for a while hence our first visit. It was later that the Balloon Preservation Group let him use Action Man G-CGIS and Babybel G-BXUG. Initially they tethered the shapes at various European Meets then got invitations to Japan, Ireland and this year, it is rumoured, Bristol. A couple of years ago we were asked to take a closer look at Action Man as he did actually seem to inflate and stand (or rather, lay) quite well and didn’t use anywhere near the fuel that had been thought. After quite a few hours of heaving fabric about with a thankfully large crew and grab testing everywhere that looked a bit canky it turned out he only needed about a days work to get him airworthy again. Loaded in their mighty Merc the lump was duly sped across Europe and John spent a leisurely day or two sewing him back together. The usual CAA paperwork nonsense followed and finally he was free to fly (or free-fall!) again. Action Man nowadays gets days out at balloon meets so this then was a visit to inspect the shapes and Wolfgang’s, a fine fellow who runs a company that can manipulate six inch stainless steel tube into 360º interlocking bends, all green balloon, G-CCIU, as used in the dreadful book/film Enduring Love.

Despite never having been a fan of Stansted all went amazingly well and we were through the X-ray pretty quickly, even John managed to keep his clothes on this time but didn’t completely disappoint having to be searched (steel toe-caps). An hour and a half later, after refusing the normally customary G&T (comes in plastic packs and is made in Portugal, only 8 Euros, sorry no change) we touched down at Karlsruhe Baden-Baden, the longest name on the (Stansted boards). When we checked the website for Baden Airpark, as its now known, it said it couldn’t be found!! The original airfield was built by the French in 1952 and is about seven miles from Baden-Baden. It was then taken over by the Royal Canadian Airforce after France declared that they would look after any nuclear weapons on their soil and chucked the US and Canadian Airforces out of their bases in France. It then became CFB Baden-Soellingen and was operational until 1993. All around are the remnants of the original base, most notable being the blister hangars that used to hold the Super Sabres and Starfighters that were based there. These days it is mainly a large business park with a new low terminal building. Being suitably remote its perfect for Ryanair. Usually access to the aircraft is walk-on walk-off down a path, which can be quite exciting if a jet is turning round as you get held in the gap in the fence. There is no push-back here.

As ever, Gaby, Karles’ missus, was there to greet us. Drinks handed out along with a large piece of cake and we were off, dashing down the autobahn. Just over two hours later we arrived at Adolf Wurth Airport near Schwaebisch Hall. Now this has some history I can tell you and on more than one occasion American Liberators put the boot in during the Second World War! The airfield was formally known as Schwäbisch Hall-Hessenthal and latterly the US base, Dolan Barracks. It was first established in 1934 as a local gliding centre but it was soon taken over by “Süddeutsche Lufthansa AG Schwäbisch Hall” the undercover operation that was to become the German Luftwaffe. By the outbreak of war it was a Luftwaffe Station and came to fame as the assembly airfield and ferry centre for the Me262 jet fighter. Rumour has it that the camouflage was so good that it remained hidden for years, the runways and buildings being painted to resemble fields, even down to having sheep painted in one! It was also home to Hienkel 177 Greifs, probably the only heavy bomber feared more by its pilots than the enemy. With a pair of coupled engines in each wing driving a single prop and also having to fulfil a role as, quite amazingly, a dive bomber it ended up being pretty hopeless and would be inclined to burst into flames at any altitude without any help from hostile actions. Shame because it did look the business. It was however one of the first aircraft to deploy remotely guided rockets used mainly against merchant shipping but, you’ve guessed it, with little success. The American Air Force took a keen interest in Hessenthal it once it was discovered and it was comprehensively bombed several times.

When the Americans forces arrived in April 1945 the surrounding woodland and area was littered with destroyed or damaged Me262s along with new unused Greifs. In one of the most unusual events of the war, a few days before the arrival of the US forces, German pilot Hans Fay famously defected to the Allies in an Me262, one of the last to fly out of the, by now, seriously bombed airfield After the war the US army took over the place and named it Dolan Barracks. Its first role was hosting Artillery Battalions who used the former bombing and firing range area for testing artillery shells. In 1966 the US Army re-activated the air base deploying mainly Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters. Dolan Barracks was closed in 1993 being taken over by the Würth Group and turned into a private airport and eventually being completely rebuilt and renamed Adolf Würth Flughafen. The new airport is home to many executive jets including the owner of Lidl and one belonging to a famous racing driver whose name escapes me. Interesting numbers come in and out all day dropping off top execs and strange cargoes that get whisked away by forklift, white van man or posh Mercedes.

When the old field and runway was dug up ready for the new re-aligned runway thousands of pieces of ordnance, in various states of completeness, were unearthed. It turned out to be a very long expensive and dangerous project but the end result is a really high quality spotless airport, open to all including the old gliding club, which is back in civilian hands. Just inside the reception area is a very large bomb. Pointing at it I asked John, “One of ours?” It went very quiet. We got a very stern looks from the receptionist and a bloke booking in his flight plan. I smiled in a ‘I don’t speak German’ sort of way. John had to leave before he corpsed himself! Good start.

As always there was a good turnout of eager helpers and we soon had Action Man out checked him over decided his backpack was no worse than last year, porosity wise, and that they hadn’t managed to break him. He inflated well and was given the all clear. Out came Babybel, small in comparison but still heavy. Inside are tie-off lines that stop a flat pancake cheese turning into a bouncing ball. Where these were attached to the envelope they had decided to started to pull apart. Clearly all was not well. All the other stress points were checked, some had already been re-enforced and in the end these were the only two points of failure. Ahead of the rain it stood up, was deflated and booked into to the diary for some attention ahead of its rumoured Bristol visit. Dark clouds were a-gathering on the horizon.

Babybel was away before the rain arrived but we still had Wolfgang’s envelope to look at (smallest last rule, you see) so a hangar with central heating and a floor you could eat off had its resident Lear Jet dragged outside and we broke for a late lunch, a long table set out in the void. Gaby had done a pan load of proper German goulash, meanwhile the always laughing Andrea (loves me dog) followed on with a sumptuous spread of salads, meatballs and more cake. What a spread, we were rapidly becoming stuffed. Only problem now would be staying awake to do the green jobby. We had a mission early the next day so, many hands and all that, and it too was soon getting the once over. A couple of hoses for its agricultural Schroeder burner were ordered and would arrive later but other than that it was all pronounced fine and dandy and totally super. Twelve hours after leaving sunny Wendover we headed back into Schwaebisch Hall, beer and supper. As we crossed the airfield I asked if any of the original Luftwaffe hangars were left. There was another distinctive pause. “Just Vun. Over zair. You bombed ze rest!” That was it, John was a goner. The evening became as social as the day had been, daughters arrived, visits to the UK were arranged a line of upwardly strong beers were lined up and drunk. Eventually bed beckoned whilst the spiral staircase was possibly still negotiable and alarms set for half past six as tomorrow was Father’s Day.

In jolly Germany Father’s Day is a National Holiday. Mother’s Day is relegated to a Sunday. Now, a holiday on a Thursday? We like that. Better still Schwaebisch Hall has a brewery and on Father’s Day it opens at seven in the morning until aboutish midday. How responsible. If that happened here, by nine, drunks would be to the fore, scraps would have kicked off and the police would have arrested goodness knows how many but somehow this male gathering only has a couple of security blokes on the gate to stop you knicking the glasses and that’s it. No trouble, no hassle and it is just brilliant. Fair enough there were clearly some closer to the ‘loud and tipsy’ but ‘pleasantly-smiley-merry’ seemed the order of the morning. We reckoned there was something in the sausages that stopped you getting ratted until you got home. Everything was a couple of donks a pint and they run a raffle where the prize is an impressive four-wheeled cart full of ale. The idea is that the winners trot off with their winnings and spread cheer and goodwill around the town from their respective carts, and that is what happens. Its great. We started with a glass or two of five point something mit pictures of pigs on the bottle and a huge bratwurst roll. Forgetting the German for pig, and not wishing to offend, grunting noises got the required refill. Jane kept telling us there weren’t many women there. There weren’t, it was Father’s Day!

The band were brilliant, the singing, very German and the beer kept flowing. We’d met the flugelhorn player (just the one), he was Gaby’s cousin twice removed, so we smiled inanely and waved at him, he smiled between blowing and waved back. Jane got a flagon of ale as ‘the visitor from furthest away (from the bar)’ and a fine time was had by all. Gaby’s daughter Jaqueline’s and her boyfriend, both armed with pints and eating very large bratwurst torpedo. As noon approached we made our stagger-away and headed for a motorcycle rally and a large hill with a tower that overlooks the town with a pink scooter outside the inn that is there. In a truly Johnish moment he decided to smuggle a glass out. At the gate he was searched the glass discovered and he was asked, politely, to put it back. As a smuggler he is truly useless still at least he got to keep his boots on this time. Jane meanwhile had managed to hide four glasses in her coat (poachers’ pockets) and just wandered out unmolested. Outside we came across a rotovator towing a mobile bar ready to hit the town. I’ve no idea if it was road legal, no one seemed to worry.

Gunther, a veteran Citation pilot at the airfield, had told us of an old and rusty bike meeting that was to be held that afternoon nearby. As Karle had the steering wheel and a fondness for motorcycles, after no discussion we headed off in the mighty van to check it out. T’was a grand gathering. It was held in a pretty town in and around the village square. I’ve no idea where it was or how it was spelt but it was a rave. There were plenty of classics in all shapes and sizes along with a spread of modern stuff. There was a Nimbus, rare as, and a Panther that blopped in. As a bit of a saddo I was moved to see a row of NSU Quickleys all in various states of go-ability and a bike that actually looked worse than my Dunkley Popular scooter. What was a bit disconcerting was the huge number of seventies Jap stuff now considered classic. Suzzie GT250GTs, a very nice Honda 500 four and even a Kwacker triple stroker. Dangerous animal. Thing about bikes is that you don’t need to speak the native language, you just know everyone is pointing and saying “Cripes I had one of them!” or “That’s worth a fortune!” and nod a lot. At the other end of the scale, strong hand gestures and shaking heads means “That would be nice but the ’48 model had reversed levers.” In any language those types are best left to their own devices!!

A café was needed pdq so off we went to another hill top village, apparently patronised by our very own Phil the Greek when he goes hunting in the area. The view was great and the coffee welcome. John settled for a beer, appropriately six point something. As we were going to have a bit of a truly gastronomic evening in town we managed to stay off the food but happily beer was on hand at our next stop the local hillside beauty spot with its high tower and inn with hostel attached. We collapsed in a bit of a fuzz in the warm sunshine, watched a group of happy chappies pulling a beer cart up the hill and went lobster. The dear Graunuers new almost everyone there. They were all relations or old friends. Their daughter Jaqueline rocked up her boyfriend eating half a cow in a bun. John wandered off to find the pink scooter we’d seen a couple of years ago. We could learn a lot from Germany’s Fathers’ Day and it wasn’t yet six!

We all ended up in Schwaebisch Hall’s Benedictine Monastery’s restaurant which seemed to be a big supporter of the local brewery and had the joyous pig beer on tap. Asparagus is the local speciality and we were there at exactly the right time, lovely and marvellous with pork cutlets. Times were when we could have gone all night but stuffed, merry and clearly flagging we were showing signs of defeat. Then Karle came up with the suggestion that we should go and visit the new Irish Bar that had opened in town. It was Father’s Day. Yep I know you’d be thinking visiting a MacDonalds when visiting Red Square isn’t very chic but actually it was very good and certainly most entertaining. The owners had had a good crack at getting it right but failed about mid Austria. Still, they had bar-stools and encouraged us to sit at the bar. They didn’t understand our mock-Irish accents but by now they probably wouldn’t have understood our conversational English. We tried to pay by round. Eventually they got it. I have to say the atmosphere, although categorically not Irish, was very nice. It was the closest we’d ever come to a village pub anywhere outside Britain. The clock struck something short and we bade a fond farewell. What a great day.

Reihld Weurth of Würth Industries (the two dots over the u tells you there is a letter missing, apparently) is truly a very well respected man in the area and has donated many buildings and built museums and theatres, too many to mention. His other passion is flying and with over 7000 P1 hours at 76 he stills flies his own Falcon 900 all over the world. His heart is in Schaewbisch Hall and remains a true benefactor to the town and surrounding region. In a restored church he set up an art gallery. You would go miles and pay a fortune to see anything like a fraction of the medieval paintings on display. I’m not really into religious paintings but the antiquity and rarity of the exhibits is stunning. Strictly speaking its ‘northern renaissance’ and was originally the 64-piece Furstlich Furstenberg collection (got that off the brochure!!), goodness knows what it is worth today but earlier this year he added the 1525-8 “Madonna With the Family of Mayor Meyer” by Hans Holbein the Younger, not to be confused with one that featured in ‘Allo, ‘Allo, having paid an alleged 70 million dollars. We had to go and have a look see. I’m not sure why it looked OK despite the figures proportions being all wrong. Maybe it was because it was so valuable or maybe it was curiosity. The best thing was that although there was security about, it was very low key. OK, they made John tip out his pockets on the way in and remove his shoes on the way out but I’ve never got that sort of intimate closeness to such valuable works of art before. Its as if it belongs to Schaewbisch Hall. Time was pressing and we had a long drive back to the airport so we bade a fond farewell to the town and its lovely people.

In the ever moving quest for the cheapest flight we were flying back from Frankfurt-Hahn, about seventy miles from Frankfurt, in the best of Ryanair traditions of course, and a two and half hour car journey down the Autobahn. I think we slept most of the way but did awake as we shot past the Nürburgring and the impressive Sinsheim museum with Concorde and the Russian Tu144 mounted on pylons seemingly taking of in formation above it. Frankfurt Hahn was originally Hahn Airforce Base and formed one of the US Cold War frontline bases. Originally built in 1953 it was home to the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing amongst others. The new terminal is large and generally quick to get through unless you are John. He got buzzed and then searched and his shoes came off (again). He buzzed again. Eventually after the entire contents of his jacket were out on display the search moved to his wallet! There was much poking and prodding and eventually the German Security Guard was victorious. From the depths of the wallet lining he produced a very old, very rusty Stanley Knife Blade. “Tush, you cannot take zat onboard mine friend”, said the Guard, making a cut throat gesture with his hand. Half an hour later, having collected up all his belongings and reassembled his life, which resides in his jacket and retrieving his boots we were all through. The flight back was full and passed in a flash. Now Jane and I have these new fangled self recognising type passports so, back in the Stansted Arrivals Hall, we went straight through immigration no problems, leaving John in the queue. Whilst we waited for him to come through Jane sorted the car park ticket. No sign of John. He must have come through by now? Oh no, not again!! We decided to head out and while I went to find the information desk Jane went and had a decko outside, just in case! Two minutes she was back with a smiling John. Seems he was so ecstatic about not being arrested as an illegal immigrant or terrorist he’d decided that, as he was on a roll he’d wander straight through ‘nothing to declare’ and freedom. In a jiffy he was outside having a stogey and trying to remember where we were supposed to meet up. We were back. All we had to do now was find the car and get round the M25.

Big larges to Family Graunuer, all their friends and the nice people of Schwaebisch Hall. As for the Immigration, Customs and Security Folk…………..!!! – account of Hans Fay’s defection in a Me262