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Berlin Tempelhof: An Airport for Skaters and Cyclists

“Take me to the airport” is a sentence taxi drivers all over the world hear every day. But in some cities, including Berlin, the passenger will need to provide more specific information, since there are four airports. One of them, Willy Brandt Airport, was supposed to be opened years ago, but is still not in service.

The next one, Tegel, might be the ugliest airport in all of Europe, but it does serve its purpose, as long as the new airport is not being used. Also there is Schönefeld, which was the most important airport in the communist GDR and the main hub for Interflug, Eastern Germany’s airline. Today, it is being used by budget airlines, until the big airport next door is finally ready to rumble.

And there is the fourth Berlin airport, called Tempelhof. This one is …, well, let’s call it unconventional. Yes, there are flying objects here, but those are kites. The runway is overcrowded during the weekends. But instead of aircraft, bicyclists and strollers are using it. They would maybe take off if they had wings and more thrust.

The Tempelhof runway was pretty busy today. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Tempelhof does have a rather big terminal, a tower and a runway. But the only two planes found on its premises are old and not airworthy. They are just here to convince people they are actually at the airport.

Instead of Airbus planes and Boeings, flight controllers, airfield tankers and buses for passengers, tennis courts are located here, a baseball court and other sports facilities. There is so much room at Tempelhof Airport, the city of Berlin even set up a refugee camp here.

Today, three years after the peak of the refugee crisis, some 300 asylum seekers live in small portable homes spread over a large area. This might be the cleanest refugee camp ever. Bikes and warm shoes are parked in front of these containers with doors and windows. The inhabitants are getting ready for the approaching winter. They live at the airport.

On warmer weekends, sausage, pretzel and beverage stands appear, for the many couples, families and groups of friends who spend time taking walks, playing ping-pong or showing off their kites. They use inline skaters, skateboards, Segways and anything with wheels. Dogs run around on the taxiways, the runway and the grass.

What looks like a rather weird airport today has an interesting and partially tragic history.

The tidiest refugee camp on Earth is located at Tempelhof Airport. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Orville and Wilbur Wright came to Tempelhof in 1909. The brothers who flew the first steered and motorized aircraft organized an airshow here, which lasted several days.

In 1922, Berlin built what the municipality called a ‘central airport’ in Tempelhof. It consisted of two wooden huts and a runway with a grass surface. Only two years later, the airport needed to be expanded.

The Nazis wanted to turn Tempelhof into a modern airport in 1934. They commissioned Ernst Sagbiel, a prominent architect. Construction started in 1936, but was never completed. During World War II, forced laborers assembled bomber planes on the premises. They were freed by the Red Army in 1945. At this point, the allies took over.

In June of 1948, the Soviets started their Berlin Blockade, which would take almost 11 months. Since no food could reach West Berlin, the Americans quickly organized the biggest air bridge ever, in order to make sure the inhabitants would not starve.

Dozens of planes delivered food from Western Germany every day. All of them landed in Tempelhof. The Berliners, who were saved this way, called those planes ‘raisin bombers’. The blockade and the air bridge ended in May of 1949.

Starting in 1951, Tempelhof was used for civil flights, freighters and the U.S. Air Force, until 1975. Once Tegel Airport was ready, operations in Tempelhof were discontinued. In 1996, a decision was taken to shut down Tempelhof for good. A referendum in 2008 sealed that decision. Plans to build cultural and other facilities on the premises were rejected.

Today, Tempelhof is a multi-purpose spot with a lot of history. The terminal has several layers of basements. At times, guides take groups for spooky sightseeing events down there.

The kites on Tempelhof field do not need take-off clearances from traffic controllers in the tower. But the raisin bombers did need landing permissions. Dog owners need to clean up after their four-legged friends, especially on the runway.