Future of Historic Airport Has Berlin Divided Again

Berlin's Tempelhof airport was jammed with private planes for July's World Cup final but is scheduled to close in 2008.
Berlin's Tempelhof airport was jammed with private planes for July's World Cup final but is scheduled to close in 2008. (Courtesy Berlin Chamber Of Industry And Commerce)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 1, 2007

BERLIN -- On sunny afternoons in the German capital, heads swivel skyward as a throwback DC-3 airplane rumbles overhead on its way to Tempelhof airport, just as it did six decades ago during the military operation that kept half of a divided and broken city alive at the start of the Cold War.

These days, the restored Candy Bomber -- one of the Allied aircraft beloved by West Berlin's children for dropping bags of chocolate and raisins from the skies, as well as delivering hundreds of thousands of tons of life's essentials -- carries only tourists seeking to relive the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. But its timeworn flight path may be nearing an end.

Tempelhof airport, designed for Adolf Hitler as the largest building in Europe and later converted by the Americans and British into the nerve center of the Airlift, has been sentenced to close after more than 70 years in operation. Politicians, judges and airline officials are squabbling over the exact date, but for now the last passenger is scheduled to depart in October 2008.

Berlin lawmakers have been pushing for years to shutter Tempelhof. The reunified city no longer needs all of its three airports remaining from the Cold War, they say. Critics also raise issues of noise and safety for the apartment houses that press close to Tempelhof's twin runways.

Plans are in motion to consolidate air traffic and create a major international hub at Schoenefeld airport, on the city's eastern edge. It may not be so easy, however, to close Tempelhof in the name of progress. Its history, and size, may loom too large.

The giant air terminal is still the third-biggest building in Europe in terms of floor space, behind only the Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands and the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania.

When Nazi architects drew up plans for Tempelhof in the 1930s, they wanted it to last for centuries. Its broad facades of limestone, with rigid angles and spare detail, convey notions of fascist glory. Columns stand 60 feet high; steel-reinforced bunkers extend three stories underground.

Tempelhof is also protected by historic preservation laws, which means that it can't simply be demolished or turned into a shopping mall. Some developers and advocates say Berlin officials have no real choice other than to allow Tempelhof to continue operating as an airport in some fashion. Otherwise it could become a sprawling, boarded-up blight in the city center.

"This isn't something that is being decided rationally," said Frank Hellberg, a pilot whose firm operates the old DC-3 Candy Bomber that flies tourists over Berlin from Tempelhof and is the only Airlift plane still in service in Europe. "The politicians aren't doing their job."

He said that if Tempelhof closes, he would take his old plane to the new, expanded airport at Schoenefeld but predicted that the Candy Bomber flights would quickly lose their appeal. "It would be like taking the scenery away from Hollywood," said Hellberg, a local personality known as "Commander Frank" from his days as a radio reporter, when he would give rush-hour traffic updates from the sky.

The Berlin Airlift began on June 24, 1948, after the Soviet Union cut off electricity and all access to the Allies' enclave in West Berlin in an attempt to gain control over the entire city. In response, the U.S. Air Force organized the greatest humanitarian air relief mission in history, delivering more than 2.3 million tons of food, coal and supplies over the next 15 months, the equivalent of a ton for each resident of West Berlin.

At the height of the Airlift, Candy Bombers and other planes were landing at Tempelhof every 90 seconds. The Soviets called off the blockade on May 12, 1949, but the relief flights continued for another four months until ground supply lines were completely restored.

Today, only a half-dozen commercial airlines operate from Tempelhof. It recorded about 600,000 passengers in 2006 -- roughly one-tenth the traffic of Berlin's other airports. The perpetually uncrowded departure hall has the feel of a long-forgotten bus terminal. Rental car agents say they can go all day without seeing a customer.

But many business interests see big economic potential in Tempelhof and are lobbying to keep it open permanently, arguing that it could serve as a hub for business jets and commuter flights without damaging the economic prospects of the new international airport. Unlike most big-city airports, Tempelhof is easily accessible, located only three miles from the city center.

A partnership headed by a German American investor, Fred Langhammer, has proposed turning Tempelhof into a huge health-care complex able to accommodate 100,000 patients a year, many of them wealthy customers who could arrive by plane and stay at a luxury hotel on the site. The plan also calls for several affiliated medical research centers. So far, however, Berlin officials have refused to consider keeping the airport open, as Langhammer's proposal would require.

Christian Wiesenhuetter, executive officer of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Berlin, said it would be difficult to redevelop Tempelhof if air traffic were prohibited there. "There isn't much of a chance to rent out this building without a runway," he said.

Wiesenhuetter said the chamber supported the Langhammer proposal but would also welcome others. "To find a concept which combines air traffic together with industry and the sciences -- that's a fantastic concept," he said. "We should roll out the red carpet for such an idea."

Berlin lawmakers contend that Tempelhof could be redeveloped without planes. So far, the only proposal they have endorsed is one that would tear up the runways and turn the entire landing zone into a city park, although what would happen to the hangars or terminal is unclear. "I believe that even without air traffic the whole area at Tempelhof can be of great interest to investors," Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit told city lawmakers two weeks ago.

About half the floor space at Tempelhof has sat vacant since 1993, when the U.S. Air Force handed over its keys to the military-base sectors of the airport. A recent tour beyond Tempelhof's many locked doors and shuttered wings shows that little has changed since the Cold War days.

A mothballed basketball court and bowling alley installed by the U.S. Air Force remain on the top floor of the main terminal. Deep underground are warrenlike air raid bunkers, built by the Nazis and still decorated with wall murals painted by the children of German factory workers during World War II.

Aboveground, visitors are welcomed by a red-and-yellow slogan painted on the tarmac that dates to the Airlift -- "Berlin: Gateway to Freedom." Nearby, the ground is pocked from gunfire and shelling during the last days of the Third Reich.

Tempelhof's importance in aviation history goes back even further. Orville Wright came to Tempelhof, then a grassy field, in 1909 and kept one of his newfangled flying machines aloft there for two hours.

"It's bursting with significance and value -- that is the preservation side of it," said Gabi Dolff-Bonekaemper, a professor of urban planning and historic preservation at the Technical University in Berlin. She described the airport as one of the few Nazi-era architectural landmarks that had survived the war and was then embraced by many Germans, thanks to its role in the Airlift.

"All Berliners love Tempelhof -- old Berliners, young Berliners," she said. "Tempelhof has never been considered by Berliners as heavy or weighty, or as something that is historically undesirable. Its Nazi history has been overcome by its Airlift history."

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