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Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport: Skaters and Cyclists on the Runway

Out of four major airports in Berlin, Tempelhof is the most interesting one. That is because it does not accept any aircraft. Instead doggies, joggers, families and other Berliners use the premises for recreational purposes.

“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, Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER), will be opened on October 31st, 2020.

A ‘raising bomber’ is parked at Tempelhof airfield. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

The next one, Tegel, will be closed for good. Because of the Corona crisis and its implications for air travel, it might happen rather soon. 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 mainly being used by budget airlines. Once the big airport next door is finally ready to rumble, Schönefeld Airport will become its Terminal 5.

Baseball on the Airfield

And there is the fourth Berlin airport, called Tempelhof. This one is unconventional. Yes, there are flying objects here, but those are kites. The runway is overcrowded when the weather is nice, even during the Corona crisis. But instead of aircraft, bicyclists and parents with strollers are using it. They would probably take off if they had wings and a little more thrust.

Pilots who landed here until 2008 knew what those numbers and letters meant. 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 an airport. These historic aircraft played a vital role in the Berlin Airlift the 70th anniversary of which was celebrated here in 2019.

Instead of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, flight controllers, baggage handlers and airfield tankers, tennis courts are located here, a baseball field and beach volleyball facilities. There is so much room at Tempelhof Airport, the city of Berlin even set up a migrant camp here during the refugee crisis of 2015.

Tempelhof’s terminal still has everything an airport needs. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

The Wright Brothers in Tempelhof

A year ago, some 300 asylum seekers lived in small portable homes spread over a large area. This might be the nicest refugee camp ever. Children’s bicycles were parked in front of these containers with doors and windows. The inhabitants lived right there, at the airport.

On weekends, sausage, pretzel and beverage stands appeared, before the Corona outbreak, for the many couples, families and groups of friends who spent their time taking walks, playing ping-pong or showing off their kites. They still do in the time of Corona. People use inline skaters, skateboards, Segways and anything with wheels. Dogs run around on the taxiways, the runway and the grass. Sheep are being accommodated at Tempelhof Airport too.

There may have been a lot of traffic, but it did not lead to any flight delays, since there are no flights. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

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

On signs, visitors can read about Tempelhof Airport’s tragic past. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Forced Labor During the War

The Nazis wanted to turn Tempelhof into a modern airport in 1934. They commissioned Ernst Sagbiel, a prominent architect. Construction started in 1936, but it 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 airlift ever, known as the Berlin Airlift, in order to make sure the inhabitants would not starve. The French and British helped.

Tempelhof Airport provides a lot of room for everyone. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Dozens of planes delivered food from West Germany every day, when the Federal Republic had not yet been founded. All of them landed in Tempelhof. The Berliners, who were saved this way, called those planes ‘raisin bombers’. In May of 1949, the blockade and the Berlin Airlift ended.

One ‘raisin bomber’, an old aircraft on which it says “Troop Transporter”, is parked right in front of the giant terminal building today. It has been used for movies, including ‘Bridge of Spies’ with Tom Hanks. The Berlin Airlift was commemorated on May 12th, 2019, at Tempelhof Airport.

In spite of the sign, nobody held for ‘Follow Me’ or RTF instructions today. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

No Aircraft Since 2008

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 temporarily. In 1996, a decision was taken to shut down Tempelhof for good. But it took longer. On October 31st, 2008, it was finally over. There have not been flights to or from Tempelhof since.

The rather large hangars are being used by trade fairs and companies. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

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. Nobody seems to have explored the huge basements in their entirety.

Today, the kites on Tempelhof field do not have to wait for take-off clearances from traffic controllers in the tower. But dog owners need to clean up after their four-legged friends, especially on the runway.

Related articles:

The Berlin Perspective: ‘Guess what Happened at the Airport the Other Day’

Berlin: Thousands Take Part in Airlift 70th Anniversary Celebration