One of the best – the Bücker Bü 181 Bestmann

During the Second World War the Royal Air Force was very well served by a variety of trainers including the Miles Magister, the North American Harvard and the immortal de Havilland Tiger Moth. These types, and a few others, serviced the training needs of the RAF and made sure that aircrew were well positioned to transition to front-line types.

The Luftwaffe also had a range of trainers, and their low-winged monoplane equivalent of the Magister was the Bücker Bü 181 Bestmann, and the story of how it came to be built is quite fascinating.

In the 1920s, a German naval aviator, Carl Clemens Bücker, just like many of his compatriots, decided to move across the Baltic Sea to Sweden, as what remained of the defeated German state was strictly forbidden to have any military aviation by the Occupying Powers. In Sweden he established an aircraft manufacturing company called Svenska Aero. Eventually, he returned to Germany, taking a talented young Swedish engineer named Anders J Andersson (who had worked for SAAB) with him. Their new company Bücker Flugzeugbau GmbH, was formed at Rangsdorf in Berlin, and Andersson designed a superbly aerobatic biplane, the Bü 131 Jungmann, which was instantly ordered for the Deutscher Luftsportverband, the Government sponsored official flying clubs, and when Germany openly established the Luftwaffe, they eagerly adopted it as a trainer.

As the war clouds gathered, in February, 1939, the company launched a new primary trainer, the Bü 181 Bestmann. It was a side-by-side two seater, of primarily wooden construction (ply-covered), except for the cockpit area which was reinforced with steel tube. All control surfaces were fabric-covered, and the aircraft turned out to have beautifully harmonized, light controls. Power came from an inverted Hirth HM 500 or 504A four-cylinder engine of 105 hp, which gave a cruising speed of 120 mph, and a maximum speed of 133 mph. It had wheel brakes, but they were controllable ONLY from the left-hand seat!

Soon, the Fliegerschule of the Luftwaffe were stocked with the Bestmann, and it was proving particularly useful, as with its fairly lengthy fuselage and swiveling tailwheel, and narrow-track undercarriage, it emulated the ground handling characteristics of the Luftwaffe’s standard fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf109. In the air, it is a joy to fly. Circuit flying is simple – you enter the airfield circuit, slowing from cruise speed, apply 15 degrees of flap; downwind leg at 80 mph; base leg at 70 mph; flaps to 45 degrees (full); finals at 65 mph; touchdown at 50 mph (either 3-pointer or wheel her in on the mains).

The Bü 181 was used as a primary trainer, liaison aircraft and glider tug – to allow for this, a tow hook was fitted immediately aft of the tailwheel, and four metal external strengthening straps were run the length of the rear fuselage to distribute the towing loads, (although the aircraft in the photograph is not so equipped). Just as with the RAF’s equivalent primary trainer, the Miles Magister, it was customary to issue fighter squadrons with ‘hack’ aircraft, to ferry personnel, pick up small spares, etc. and the Bestmann, with its cargo-netted luggage compartment near the center of gravity, immediately behind the crew seats, was ideal for this. By concentrating a great deal of its mass near or at the center of gravity (the cylindrical fuel tank is directly below the luggage compartment), the aircraft is easily kept in balance, as the ‘moments’ of these masses are small.

As the course of the Second World War began to turn against Germany, the Bücker Flugzeugbau sought to establish manufacturing facilities outside of the major target cities of the Reich. To that end, a production line was set up in the Fokker factory in Holland, and just before the Russian Army advanced into that country, at the Zlínské letecké závody – Zlin Aviation Enterprises – plant in Otorokovice, Czechoslovakia. Many surviving Zlin-381 aircraft (their designation for the Bü 181, used as the C-106 by the Czech Air Force) are powered by the LOM 337A engine, the same as used in the Zlin Trenner, driving an Avia constant speed propeller. The Swedish company Hägglund & Söner AB had already acquired a manufacturing license, and was building the Bestmann for the Swedish Air Force, which designated it the Sk25. The Swiss Air Force also operated seven Bestmann from 1945 to 1956; these had either fled Germany, or had become lost and landed in neutral Switzerland.

To show just how desperate the German situation was towards the end, the Bü 181G on display at the Deutsches Technik-Museum, Berlin (serial no. 501659, coded “RM + HE”) is hung from the ceiling as if in a shallow dive, about to fire its four Panzerfaust anti-tank rockets (one above and below each wing) at the advancing hoards of the Russian T-34 tanks! Both the Russian Air Force, and the French Armed Forces used captured examples, with some Bestmann finding their way to French aero clubs, after the war.

Here we can see a beautifully restored Bestmann, coded ‘GL + SU’ in typical Luftwaffe camouflage, just after having landed at the Great Vintage Flying Weekend, Hullavington. The aircraft is painted as a machine from the Luftwaffe Flying School A/B 115, based at Wels in Austria. It was owned at that time by Mr Peter Holloway, a noted collector of Miles aircraft, who had acquired the Bestmann, a Klemm Kl 35D and a Focke-Wulf Fw44 Stieglitz – all in Luftwaffe markings. Aviation enthusiasts in the U.K. were delighted at the chance to see these rare WW2 trainers in the air, but sadly, within a very short time, Peter had sold all three of them – the Bestmann going onto the German register.

Many of the surviving flyable examples of the Bestmann are those late production aircraft which were built into the 1960s by the Heliopolis Aircraft Works facility in Egypt, as the Gomhouria Mk 6 (‘GL+SU’, is one of these), under license from the Zlin facility and powered by a Walter Minor engine of 95 hp, or post-war Czech-built Zlin machines, many of which are powered by the LOM supercharged engine, producing up to 160 hp. The last Egyptian version was the Mk 8R, complete with single piece ‘blown’ canopy.

The Bestmann owned by Kermit Weeks, the noted American collector, and on display at his Polk City, Florida base, is actually a Zlin Z-381 in Luftwaffe markings. There is one British registered machine still flying, but it has been fitted with a Lycoming flat-four – because spares for Hirth engines are a problem – and this rather spoils the original lines of the Bü 181.

The Bü 181 Bestmann managed to stay in production – somewhere in the world – for more than twenty years, with a total of more than 3,000 being built. It is not only a handsome and historic machine, but with its fine handling qualities and few vices, is still a desirable private aircraft to this day.

One comment on “One of the best – the Bücker Bü 181 Bestmann”

  1. Another post rich in history and detail–well done! Thanks too for posting about the Bu 181 as it is important but unheralded.


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