If one does not notice the registration number then you may be forgiven for thinking that we have been blessed with another Dornier 27. There is however a story behind the distinctive black and white Zebra striped colour scheme that Rodney Benn's Dornier 27 currently sports.
ZS-LLU or Lulu, build in 1962 has quite a history Her first odyssey in to Africa happened when she was sold to the Ugandan Air Force were upon delivery she promptly crashed allegedly during an attempted landing. She was returned to Germany for a total rebuilt where for the next eleven years or so spent her life in a crate. Fortune smiled on her and a German national purchased her. He flew her for a while and the day before he passed away of a heart attack sold her to a South African. She was ferried to South Africa but then fate again intervened when she was involved in a taxi accident with an airliner at an airport on route. Suffering extensive damage to her fuselage she again underwent an extensive rebuild before continuing her journey.
Tom Culver, an American citizen temporarily residing in SA became her next owner. He had bought her for the sole purpose of acquiring his PPL (Private Pilot's License) and whilst on his cross country navigation exercise became unsure of his position and ended up landing in Mozambique. The unannounced visit by an aircraft in full military camouflage caused quite a stir and nearly caused an international incident! In 1968 Dawie Wille well known pilot and aviation personality bought Lulu who then had 505 hours on the Hob for the princely sum of R25, 000 and flew her for 420 memorable hours before selling her to Tom Burge and Tracy Robb in 1992. In 2011 Lulu found a new home when Henri Westerman bought her from Tracy Robb before selling her still in her German Luftwaffe colour scheme to Rodney.
Rodney was approached during February 2014 year by a local movie scout looking to use Lulu in the key action sequences of a German series on the life of Professor Bernhard Grzimek a world renowned scientist and naturist . During his forays into Africa Professor Grizimek flew a Dornier 27 in a black and white Zebra striped scheme.
Rodney Benn grew up in Cape Town in sixties. He always knew that he wanted to fly and at every opportunity would ride his bicycle to Youngsfield to watch the Harvards taking off and landing or cycle to the Cape Aero Club and stare at the Cessna's and Pipers. Ten years after having graduated from UCT (University of Cape Town) with a degree in electronic engineering he was able to make his dream come true when Mirek Zalewski the CFI (Chief Flying Instructor) of 303 Squadron Flying School at Brakpan Airfield signed him out.
Rodney has always been a lover of Warbirds, especially German Warbirds and it is little wonder then that his first aircraft was a Fiesler Storch replica. His next was the Dornier that he bought from Henri Westerman. He fell in love with its looks, build quality and STOL capabilities and wide operations envelope.
Rodney accepted the offer although he admits that he was concerned about the repainting. Lulu was getting on. How would the strip down, paint to zebra, then again strip and repaint to her original camouflage colours be tolerated ? Would they have to rebalance her control surfaces? Fortunately, help came in the form of Alfred from Lanseria based Aerocolour. Alfred came up with the black vinyl idea which works perfectly and the deal was on, Lulu was to become a movie star.
Then came the little adventure of getting this old girl down to Cape Town. "I asked Henri Westerman, the previous owner, to fly with me and what a pleasure it was. Henri Really made the trip and I spent the next few weeks relearning STOL flying techniques which I thought I had mastered many hours before!" Rodney said smiling.
In Cape Town, Lulu was placed on a base stand for the static shots, with engine running and with cameras placed all around her from inside and outside, and the actors inside talking and saying their lines, all in German of course. Using a blue screen meant the producers could insert the Serengeti background afterwards during post production. The filming of the documentary on the life of Professor Bernhard Grzimek had begun.
Following the end of World War II Professor Bernhard Grzimek a German was given the almost impossible task of resurrecting the Frankfurt Zoo. The zoo then was not much more than a ruin and only a few animals had survived the bombing raids. He took advantage of the chaotic situation that then existed and after having taken care of the immediate needs of the animals set about extending the zoo into the bombed out cratered vacant land adjoining it.
His next task was to re-stock the zoo and during the early 1950's he and his son Michael made the first of many trips to Africa where the plight of the wildlife that was slowly being decimated shocked them. In 1956 he wrote a book "No room for wild animals." The book became an instant best seller and he and Michael then set out making a film about their experiences. Substantial funds were raised which were donated to the Tanzania National Parks and were used to survey the migration routes of animals on the Serengeti plains. The survey enabled to board to establish the borders of the Serengeti National Park.
Not just content with donating funds the Professor and Michael set out and obtained their pilots licenses and acquired a Dornier 27 painted in the distinctive Zebra stripe colour scheme. The excellent STOL (Short Take-off and Landing) capabilities of the Dornier made it the ideal aircraft with which to survey the migration routes and to do a count of the various types of animals that inhabited the plains. The Grzimeks also made a film, "Serengeti shall not die" of their experiences which won an Oscar in the documentary category and raised more funds that enabled them to continue with their research.
Michael was tragically killed during one of their flights when they hit a large bird whilst doing game counts at the Ngaruroro crater. Undeterred Professor Grzimek acquired another Dornier that was painted in the same colour scheme and carried on with his work which left a lasting legacy the eventual creations of the great Serengeti National Park.
Being a actor is hard work and involves lots of travel. The shooting over in Cape Town it was back to Pretoria, which went off without a hitch. Two weeks later they flew down to KZN for the flying shots over the plains of Phinda, Hluhluwe, St Lucia Lake and Eastern Pietermaritzburg, which looks surprisingly like the vast Serengeti plains. "Henri did most of the solo flying, in rain and wind whilst I kept the ground crew in check. The most challenging part was having to land on an unprepared 600m bush strip on a farm, which was the tented camp set up for the movie. As a matter of interest, by necessity in the farm sequences, we were landing short in less than 100m and taking off in 150m! Bad weather or good, Henri did it! Awesome! And so came the end of a fantastic adventure, an adventure where no safety was compromised and everything went off extremely well." Rodney recounted.
Lulu will soon be repainted back to her original camouflage colours and Rodney admits that he will miss the zebra colour scheme. It in his words had given her a distinct personality - Madame Africa, Madame Serengeti.