After 80 years of service, the beloved airport will be turned to other uses. The looming deadline has set off a wave of nostalgia in the capital, not just for Tempelhof but for a shining hour in postwar transatlantic relations.
In the 1948-49 Airlift, the Americans and their allies ferried thousands of tonnes of supplies into Tempelhof and two other airports in West Berlin, an enclave in what was then the Soviet satellite of East Germany. The unprecedented operation defeated a blockade imposed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in a bid to starve the population of 2.5 million into submission. Now, during these final days, 30-minute trips in a vintage Douglas DC-3 dating from the Airlift era are selling out, even at the hefty price of €179 ($242) per person.
Enthusiasts taking part said they could not miss the ride over the capital's landmarks in the old piston-engined aircraft on a golden autumn day. “I want to have it again, that old feeling of flying with everything bouncing and rattling,” said retired school principal Peter Kirchoff, 66, wearing a bomber jacket. “And I want a bird's eye view of the city—instead of Google Earth it's Berlin Live!”
His companion Ilona Stach, a former teacher, said she would come in the 1960s to spy well-heeled travellers jetting off to exotic destinations. “It was like getting a whiff of the big wide world out there,” said Stach, 59. “Tempelhof always had real flair.”
The airport opened in 1926 and a monumental terminal built by the Nazis a decade later still ranks as the largest building in western Europe and an architectural masterpiece.
Heinz, 65, a craftsman who grew up in East Germany, said he took the first flight of his life from Tempelhof, recalling the cavernous arrivals hall as an “exciting, bustling” place. “I flew from Tempelhof as a young lad, just before 1961,” he said, when the Berlin Wall between the two halves of the city went up and travel to the West was forbidden. “That was my last flight before the Wall fell” in 1989, he added.
Private operator Air Service Berlin puts on a period show for its guests. Passengers are greeted with a glass of sparkling wine by staff in crisp 1940s uniforms in the original officers' lounge where the Airlift pilots took short breaks between delivery flights.
Swing music plays as guests are ushered into a small cinema for a moving short film about the Airlift featuring interviews with its pilots. Former US Air Force colonel Gail Halvorsen, now a spry 88, tells of how he became an instant celebrity when, on a delivery flight, he dropped tiny bundles of sweets with handkerchief parachutes for children waiting below. Fans nicknamed him “the candy bomber” and “Uncle Wiggly Wings” for the way he manoeuvred his plane so the youngsters, still traumatised by the war, would know to look out for incoming chewing gum and chocolate. The passengers are then led through security to the tarmac, where the gleaming DC-3 awaits.
Built in 1944, the plane was later operated in Indonesia and Lebanon. “It is much harder to learn to fly one of these because there are no simulators,” pilot Thomas Molber said.
The aircraft is now named for Captain Jack O. Bennett, a Pennsylvania native credited with making the first flight of the Airlift in a plane packed with potatoes. He died in Berlin, his adopted hometown, in 2001. The interior has 25 leather seats with leg-room unseen in a commercial airliner in decades. The propellers begin to spin.
The old, shaking hull rises, leaving the vast, crescent-shaped terminal behind. Soon, on the right, appears Hitler's Olympic Stadium where the triumph in 1936 of African-American athlete Jesse Owen put the Nazis to shame. On the left comes the man-made Devil's Mountain, an overgrown mound of war rubble used as a US radar station during the Cold War that offers one of the best views in the city.
But our vantage point is higher.
Next to come is the Wannsee lake where Airlift flying boats landed on its surface. The route continues over Cecilienhof in suburban Potsdam, where Stalin, British prime minister Winston Churchill and US president Harry Truman met in the summer of 1945 to hash out the administration of vanquished Nazi Germany, sealing the East-West division of the capital and the country.
The flight wraps up with a swoop over the Glienicke Bridge, the site of Cold War spy swaps, and over the city centre, then a smooth landing. Tempelhof, which British star architect Norman Foster calls “the mother of all airports, is closing as Berlin finally trades its three hubs for a central site on the city's southeastern outskirts in 2011.