For anyone who loves aeroplanes it is always sad when a once high-flying airliner is reduced to a dirty old wreck being slowly raided for parts in the ‘rust in peace’ wastelands of an airport.

With the revolutionary leaps in jet engine efficiency it is not unusual for a jet airliner to become obsolete within just twenty years – and in the case of SAA’s Airbus A340s – even less. 

One such airliner that fell victim to the accountants’ demand for efficiency is a Boeing 737-200, ZS-BIL. But instead of being cut up and shredded to aluminium for Coke cans, this Boeing was saved by an aviation enthusiast who is spending millions turning it into a hotel – in pride of place on the main road to the thriving tourist town of Hoedspruit. 

Hoedspruit property developer Martin den Dunnen developed the beautiful Zandspruit Bush and Aero Estate, which has a 1000m brick runway along which fortunate property owners can build houses with hangars. Martin even hosted a number of successful airshows until the CAA’s restrictive new rules made it impossible. 

Martin has now turned his entrepreneurial abilities to an extraordinary new project: one of which he’s been dreaming for years and that is building a hotel from an old airliner. 

It has taken much passion, commitment and money, attributes currently in short supply in the currently depressed South African economy. Martin quietly nurtured his vision and now that the Zandspruit Aero Estate is almost complete he refocussed his energies on the first task – finding a suitable airliner. For years he had been waiting for his contacts in the industry to find the right plane and as if providence had been waiting for him to be ready, he received a call from Johan Dormehl at aircraft scrappers RAMMSA. He had been asked to scrap a Boeing 737 after its owner Gryphon Airways had finally decided it was too expensive to do the fuselage top skin lap joint repairs required by a Boeing Airworthiness Directive. This originated after the Aloha Airlines accident when a five metre section of the fuselage peeled open in flight. Martin was ecstatic, and after a brief haggle over its price, the whole airliner – excluding the engines and APU – was his for just R400,000. But that was just the start of a project with its logistical task of turning it into a hotel in remote Hoedspruit in the Limpopo Province. 

The first job was transporting it to Hoedspruit. For this Martin enlisted the knowledge of Riaan van Niekerk, who has made a business crafting bespoke furniture out of components of scrapped airliners. The first job was to cut the airliner up into transportable bits. Fortunately the maximum 6.4 m width allowed for items to be transported by road meant that the wings could be cut off just outside of the undercarriage legs, which are 6.2m apart. The fuselage and the wings and tail were then loaded onto two huge telescopic trailers and transported over six days to Hoedspruit. The rules imposed on this convoy were daunting. It had to be escorted by provincial traffic police and at every provincial border they had to wait for a new escort from the next province’s traffic cops. They were only permitted to travel on secondary roads and not at night or in rain. They had to travel through provincial boundaries from Gauteng, east into Mpumalanga, then north past Groblersdal into Limpopo, to Polokwane and then south east through Tzaneen to Hoedspruit. At the entry to Mpumalanga the whole convoy had to just camp on the side of the road for three days, waiting for the traffic police escort to arrive. 

Once the convoy arrived in Hoedspruit an 80 ton crane had to be hired and, at great cost, moved the 160 km from Nelspruit to unload the airframe components (even though the heaviest weighed just 14 tons). 

Then the massive task of firstly; putting it back together and secondly; turning it into a six room hotel, had to be undertaken. It was initially thought to use the cockpit and forward fuselage section as the ‘presidential suite’ (or perhaps as the cockpit for a novel honeymoon suite) but it turned out to be too cramped and it was decided that it was better to share the novelty of a classic Boeing cockpit with all the hotel’s guests. 

The key to the project’s success was working out how to fit even six rooms into the limited space inside the fuselage and then making sure that all the services, in particular air conditioning, could be installed. Hoedspruit can get really hot – and it had been decided not to make the fuselage windows openable, but for the sake of authenticity (and perhaps the structural integrity of the fuselage shell) to leave the windows fixed, as built by Boeing to withstand the pressurisation loads, and to use the built in drop-down shades as curtains.

The space occupied by the auxiliary power unit (APU) in the tail was used to house a centralised air conditioning unit to feed cool fresh air to all the rooms. The underfloor baggage holds were used for the piping for services such as water, sewerage and electrical conduits as well as air conditioning trunking. 

Martin’s ambitious plans make the Boeing just a part of a larger construction project that required building a huge wooden deck around the airliner, a swimming pool and a sheltered area for dining. The whole structure will then have a large Bedouin tent spanned over it. A nice touch is that the early Boeing 737s carried their own stairs in the fuselage beneath the front left door and Martin has repurposed these as the staircase to the deck.

One of the more amazing aspects of the Aerotel is that the cockpit has been largely preserved with all the key instruments as well as the aircraft’s systems and structures. It is an eye-opening experience for any aircraft enthusiast to stand in the open wheel wells and see how complex the systems of even and old Boeing 737-200 are. 

The labour of love for this novel and unique air hotel continues and Martin hopes to have it open by the end of March 2020. Is it a folly in the grand tradition of English Estates having some over-the top structure located in the grounds? No, Martin is too smart for that. A hard to achieve target of cost effectiveness for the development of a lodge is to keep the cost per room below R1 million. His six-room lodge will end up costing a bit less than that – but not much!

THE HISTORY OF BOEING 737-277; ZS-BIL 

BY RAY WATTS

This aircraft started life in mid-1981 at the Boeing factory at Renton Seattle, and was delivered to Ansett Airlines in Australia as VH-CZR in October 1981. 

It served with Ansett until sold to American West Airlines as N183AW in February 1987 and continued to fly with American West until they were taken over by US Airways in early 2005. The aircraft was then sold to Aerovista in the UAE as A6-AVA in February 2005. Aerovista is an aircraft leasing agency and in January 2006 they leased it to Kam Air as A6-AVA. Kam Air are based in Kabul Afghanistan and the aircraft was re-registered as YA-GAB in April 2007. 

It returned to Aerovista in January 2009 and was then leased to Starline Kazakhstan as UP-B3702 based in Aktobe. Starline was one of the Kazakhstan airlines banned from flying in Europe by the EU due to safety concerns. Apocryphally, these concerns stemmed from comedian Sasha Baron Cohen of Ali-G fame who arrived in Lisbon to host the 2006 MTV awards in a rickety Kazak aircraft flown by a vodka-clutching one-eyed pilot. Kazakhstan didn›t see the funny side and threatened to sue the comedian for the stunt. 

The aircraft was then returned to the lessor and was sold to Gryphon Airways as ZS-BIL and delivered to South Africa on 18 January 2011. It was then leased to Allegiance Airways of Gabon, who operated it out of Libreville for a period of five years before returning it to Gryphon for heavy maintenance in October 2016.

It stood around the airport behind Denel for quite a few years until being rescued from the breakers yard by Martin den Dunnen. Considering the places it has been, Martin is hopeful that he will be able to obtain the logbooks and display them in the cockpit for the hotel guests.

Leave a Reply