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September 2018

History of the Dornier 228

by Lois Wachira

Close your eyes and picture buckling up and taking off over a snowy, rugged mountain range and landing safely the same day in a similar environment. The unforgiving landscape has a jarring, contrasting effect below the crystal clear skies. Though breathtaking, the light of day illuminates just how challenging the terrain is. Many an aircraft would not be able to operate at all, much less safely, given the piles of ice and snow, and out of the running as a choice to make the journey altogether. The Dornier 228 has an action-packed history and every detail is worth remembering.

Post 1918 I Advancements

The West had a burning desire for aviation innovation that neither world conflict, numerous failed inventions, nor the Hindenburg disaster could curtail. And so it was the master of calculations and the father of the flying boat, Bavarian-born Claude Dornier, who achieved the great aviation success between the world wars and beyond.

The year 1919 brought peace to Europe through the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty had placed limits on the number of aircraft Germany could manufacture, which stopped some inventors from moving forward with their designs, but the state of affairs caused aviation innovators such as Dornier to think outside the box. With plans in tow, Dornier expanded his outlook and for the next two decades would work with manufacturing facilities outside of the country. This was regarded by some as a clever move as it furthered the evolution of his aircraft designs and introduced them to both civil and military aviation markets.

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Dornier Do X, taxiing on Lake Constance, Germany, 1929 (Photo: alamy)

There was, for example, the Dornier DO I built in 1923, which was a long-range aircraft fine-tuned for reconnaissance missions. Around the mid-1920s, the Dornier DO T was built and entered into service as an air ambulance. In all, in the span of a decade, the entrepreneur and inventor designed and built more than 20 aircraft models, some successful and others less so.

By far Dornier’s most significant achievement post-1918 was the Dornier Do X. Aiming squarely for wealthy customers, this high-powered flying boat showed the world the potential that existed for commercial air travel. In an era during which airplanes were used mainly for war, the Do X showed the world the potential of an aircraft built with passenger safety and comfort in mind. This type of aircraft could accomplish tremendous good by connecting people. It could increase quality of life. It could help people achieve their dream of traveling around the world, experiencing other cultures, visiting long-lost friends and family in far off lands. And all the better, such an airplane could make getting back home, no matter how far, possible.

Do X

There’s nothing new about the idea of ultimate comfort and style in air travel, as offered by the world’s most elite air carriers today. Efficient luxury travel was the force that inspired Claude Dornier to dedicate five years of his life and much of his wealth creating what would be the largest and most powerful seaplane of the time.

So exciting was the promise of a commercially viable aircraft that the German government sought to finance Dornier’s endeavor and built a plant on the Swiss side of Lake Constance, a body of water that shares shores with Switzerland and Austria. It was there that Dornier began building the Dornier Do X, an aircraft that would change perceptions of air travel with regard to aircraft size, passenger capacity and distance.

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German transatlantic Dornier Do X cabin interior (Photo: alamy)

To say that the Dornier Do X was innovative for its time is an understatement. The technical know-how to build a machine as large as the “flying boat”, or even the components needed to make it run, did not yet exist. Yet Dornier persisted with his goal, building an aircraft propelled by 12 engines and 12 throttles. The flying boat’s sturdy hull and powerful wings were made from steel-reinforced aluminum alloy and industrial-grade linen. Though it had a pilot in charge, the flying boat required a crew with maritime skills. This is because the aircraft’s operations recalled those of a ship. The son of a sea captain and experienced seaplane operator, Friedrich Christiansen, was the obvious choice to pilot the first Do X.

At the time, there wasn’t the same association between luxury and fast travel. Wealthy people traveled by ship, so naturally, the Do X’s plush interior caught the attention of travel enthusiasts. The aircraft boasted a kitchen and an exceptionally large dining room, sleeping quarters for privacy, bathrooms, a smoking room and wet bar. The aircraft offered seating for up to 100 passengers.

The trappings of luxury seemed endless. An exquisite decor featured high-quality furniture and Persian rugs. To look at the photos, no one would have ever realized they were seeing the inside of an aircraft. Even today’s first-class passengers don’t experience anything like the opulence the Do X offered. Also, part of the passenger cabin offered electricity. The top deck housed the navigational office, cockpit and radio rooms, while the bottom deck housed the fuel tanks.

Four years passed, and the Do X was made ready for its maiden test flight in 1929. To demonstrate the aircraft’s power and potential 169 passengers from the Lake Constance area boarded the plane for what is said to
have been about a one-hour flight. The achievement was considered significant for the time. Never before had a plane carried so many passengers at such an altitude, 200 meters, and at such a speed, 170 kilometers per hour, for that long.

In late 1930, in spite of the fact that the Do X’s engines had a tendency to overheat, its unprecedented fuel consumption, and several technical complications for which the remedy remained elusive, Dornier deemed the plane ready for a transatlantic flight. The purpose of the flight was to introduce the aircraft to potential buyers in the United States, where commercial air travel was fast becoming widespread.

The Do X was made ready for its first marketing tour of the Americas, and on November 3, 1930, the seaplane departed from Friedrichshafen, Germany. Dornier understood that authentic storytelling is a vital part of successful marketing, hence the importance of journalists to create publicity for the aircraft. For this reason, passengers on the transatlantic flight included German- American war correspondent Karl von Wiegand and diehard aviation enthusiast, British travel writer Lady Grace Drummond-Hay.

The flight path to the Americas included the Netherlands and Portugal, and by November 29, the seaplane had already been grounded in Lisbon because of technical difficulties that took six weeks to repair. After giving the passengers a close-up look at the West African coastline and Cape Verde, the flight crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Its first port of call was Natal, Brazil. The town, known for its large German population, received the plane and passengers enthusiastically. Two months later, the flight departed Rio de Janeiro for New York.

If it had been up to the American public, the Do X might have been quickly adopted as a main mode of transport. People came from far and wide to see the seaplane during the nine months it was under repair at present day LaGuardia Airport in New York. It’s believed that the economic impact of the Great Depression played no small role in the U.S. aviation industry’s disinterest in the Do X, which departed the United States and arrived back in Berlin on May 24, 1932.

The failed marketing campaign took a financial toll on Dornier’s company, and it could no longer afford to operate the plane. Lufthansa operated the Do X for a brief period, running successful tours across Germany. In the end, damage to the plane’s tail inflicted during an over-steep landing caused Lufthansa to stop operating the Do X.

Other than building two additional Do X models for Italy’s state-run airline SANA, the flying boat of the skies failed to achieve commercial success. Though the general public worldwide remained keenly interested in the seaplane, industry insiders considered it too costly to operate. Persistent technical problems damaged the prospects of using the Do X for commercial flights. But always a person with hope, Dornier went back to the drawing board to design a better model, the proposed Do XX. The aircraft never materialized.

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Guests in the salon of the flying boat Do X, 1931 (Photo: Keystone)

Laying the groundwork for the future

By the mid-1930s, Dornier’s pioneering invention had become a display item at a German aviation museum. The stories of the daring innovator’s drive to succeed became the latest exciting additions to the book of aviation history. Dornier’s aircraft designs had an inherently practical quality to them that made them sought after even though the Do X itself was not commercially viable.

Eager to make his mark in the aviation industry, in the early 1970s Dornier built more than 100 of one of his more popular airplanes, the Do 28. An excess of 150 Do 28s were built during the aircraft’s lifetime. Germany’s naval air arm, the Marineflieger, were especially keen on using the aircraft in various capacities and took ownership of at least 30 Do 28s in the plane’s heyday. Endurance and a proven safety record sealed Dornier buyers’ love of the aircraft – and it is notable that the German military lost only three Do 28s during the aircraft’s time in service.

The Do 28 wasn’t a perfect machine, though. Owners still upgraded the aircraft according to their own specifications to suit the particular task. The extremely noisy cabin and distracting vibration led Dornier’s company to rethink the durable flying machine and a decade later, the Dornier 228 was born.

Today, the Dornier 228, the capable grandchild of so many Dornier models including the Do X, and the everyday men and women who manufacture and fly the aircraft as part of their daily work, remain as Claude Dornier’s legacy to aviation.

In the 1980s, the original company founded by Claude Dornier, Dornier GmbH, later DASA-Dornier and Fairchild- Dornier, manufactured the earliest Dornier 228 models in addition to Hindustan Aeronautics. RUAG
Aviation, based in Switzerland, took the aircraft to new heights starting in 2009. The company recognized that the world still needed a practical aircraft that could meet the demands brought about by global conflict, the need of research, and humanity’s desire to have an impact on the farthest places on earth.

Traveling further and faster was his dream and he brought it to life, though he probably would never have imagined that aircraft bearing his name would be serving humanity well into the 21st century.

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The Dornier Do 28 Skyservant (Photo: shutterstock)

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