It’s impossible, I think, for aviation historians not to have conflicting feelings about Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport (EDDI).
The field was originally a home for a Templar organisation (hence “temple court”, or tempelhof), and in later years became a parade ground for Prussian soldiers and a picnic area for Berliners. By the late 19th century some daring pioneers used the broad space to test aircraft prototypes—of both heavier- and lighter-than-air designs—with a few of the hydrogen-filled craft presaging the end of their most famous descendant by igniting spectacularly. Tempelhof is where Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin demonstrated one of his first zeppelins at the turn of the century; where Orville Wright set an early altitude record of 564 feet (172 metres) in 1909; where Deutsche Luft Hansa was founded in 1926.
The original 1923 airport was a rather modest edifice that grew into a slightly grander structure (designed by architects Engler & Engler) a half-decade later. But in 1934, Ernst Sagebiel gave Tempelhof its present iconic form; which led Sir Norman Foster to declare it “the mother of all airports”. And it is indeed a sterling example of functional and artful airport design, one of Europe’s three main pre-war hubs. (Croydon and Le Bourget are the others, and of those three, Le Bourget remains the only functioning airport.) The fly in Tempelhof’s ointment is that it was designed to impress precisely because it would be the first structure of Hitler’s new capital that any international visitor would see. In fact it was designed to show off the best of German aviation technology to the public, and its enormous curved apron overhang was to serve a dual purpose. Not only was the overhang the 1930s equivalent of a jetway (which allowed passengers to board aircraft in poor weather without getting wet), but the roof of that overhang is tiered; it was intended to house seats as a stadium-style vantage point from which the citizenry could watch air shows.
All of that casts a certain shadow on my aesthetic appreciation of it.
Tempelhof’s story does contain an element of redemption, however, when the Allies used it to relieve the starvation and privation of the destroyed city in 1948 and 1949—an episode we know as the Berlin Airlift. That massive air mobility effort also gave birth to a host of innovations which, collectively, we can call modern air traffic control. In the minds of Berlin’s children, Tempelhof’s dark national socialist past was expunged by the Airlift and its determined, hard-working Allied servicemen; men like Capt. Gail Halvorsen, who went out of their way to drop candy to the starving kids of the former enemy. In 1970, then-Colonel Halvorsen returned to command Tempelhof Air Base for four years; many of Berlin’s grateful adults still remembered him fondly.
One day in July 1948 I met 30 kids at the barbed wire fence at Tempelhof in Berlin. They were excited. They said, “When the weather gets so bad you can’t land don’t worry about us. We can get by on little food but if we lose our freedom we may never get it back.” The principle of freedom was more important than the pleasure of enough flour. “Just don’t give up on us,” they said.
…A little girl, named Mercedes, wrote that I scared her chickens as I flew in to land but it was OK if I dropped the goodies where the white chickens were. I couldn’t find her chickens so I mailed her chocolate and gum through the Berlin mail. Twenty two years later, in 1970, I was assigned as the Commander of Tempelhof. One letter kept asking us to come to dinner. In 1972 we accepted. The lady of the house handed me a letter dated November 1948. It said, “Dear Mercedes I can’t find your chickens. I hope this is OK.” Signed, “Your Chocolate Uncle.” I had included a box of candy and gum. The lady looked at me with a smile and said, “I am Mercedes! Step over here and I will show you where the chickens were.” We are close friends today, November 2007.
A little girl accompanied by her mother came to my plane on the tarmac at Tempelhof. She offered me her only surviving possession; A well worn teddy bear. She presented it to me with tears in her eyes, “This kept me safe during the bombings. I want you to have it to keep you and the other fliers safe on your trips to Berlin.” I tried to refuse it but her mother said words to the effect that I must accept it because her daughter wanted to do all in her power to help save their city. I would like to find that little girl.
In 1998 on a visit to Berlin flying an old Airlift C-54, The Spirit of Freedom with Tim Chopp, a 60-year-old man told me he had caught a parachute in 1948. “It had a fresh Hershey candy bar attached. It took me a week to eat it,” he said. “I hid it day and night. But it was not the chocolate that was most important. The most important was that someone in America knew I was in trouble and someone cared. That was hope for me.” And then, with moist eyes, he said, “Without hope the soul dies. I can live on thin rations but not without hope.”
— Halvorsen, Gail S. (Colonel, USAF, Ret). “Impressions of a Berlin Airlift Pilot.” German Mission to the United States, November 2007.
Colonel Halvorsen clearly made one hell of a lasting impression on Berliners; some 54 years after the Airlift, during the 2002 Winter Olympics, he led the German team into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the opening ceremonies. Regardless of Hitler and Speer’s bombastic hopes, to Berliners, Tempelhof now represents deliverance. Deliverance from the privations of war and pangs of hunger; deliverance from yet another soulless tyranny creating human misery wherever its shadow falls. The airport was not just emblematic of the Allied commitment to freedom; Tempelhof was where America and Germany forgot their enmity and started seeing each other as human beings again.
Today Tempelhof no longer receives aircraft; flying operations officially halted on October 30th, 2008, with the last three general aviation craft leaving on November 24th. No official plan or concept on site re-use has been implemented.