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10 years since Tempelhof Airport’s closure - The history of a legendary place

30.10.2018

Ten years ago today, flight operations at Tempelhof Airport were brought to a close after 85 years. Now it’s time to take a look at the history of this special place, which is regarded as the birthplace of aviation.

Parades for the German Emperor and daring test flights
Tempelhofer Feld between today’s Berlin districts Schöneberg and Tempelhof was originally used as farmland. From the 18th century onwards, the area was then used for military practice and as a parade ground. A century later, it became increasingly popular with Berliners as a destination for excursions, a perfect spot for sports and leisure activities in the middle of a rapidly growing residential area.

Tempelhof-Schließung_1
From the 18th century onwards, Tempelhofer Feld was used for military practice and as a parade ground. Here is a parade from around 1900.
Tempelhof-Schließung_4

Tempelhof’s aviation history began at the time of the great pioneers of aviation: Berlin became the centre of this movement and Tempelhofer Feld became the site of some of the first test flights and flight shows. Arnold Böcklin from Switzerland, who was actually a painter by profession, carried out his first test flights in 1883 in a motorless aircraft (and failed). More test flights followed, which were often daring and also fatal, like the attempt by the publisher Friedrich Hermann Wölfert, whose airship exploded in 1897 at a height of 1,000 metres. Starting in 1885, the army aeronauts were assigned a training area at the edge of the field to present their vehicles to the military.
And finally, in 1909, a well-known name appeared on the field: flight pioneer Orville Wright carried out demonstration flights on Tempelhofer Feld for several weeks and set various records, including an altitude record of 160 metres. In 1910, there had already been some discussion about converting the site into an airfield, but it was not until a few years later that the plan was put into practice: in 1922, the north side of the field was levelled and, just to start with, on 8 October 1923, the Ministry of Transport granted a temporary concession to begin flight operations, which was soon converted into a permanent one. Thus Tempelhof Airport was born.


The airport is buzzing
Over the next few years, the airport developed into the largest hub in Europe, first as Tempelhofer Feld Airport, later as Tempelhof Central Airport. Tempelhof Airport was further expanded from 1924 onwards. In the same year, the Berliner Flughafengesellschaft mbH (BFG) was founded. At the end of the 1920s, Tempelhof was bursting at the seams. In a very short time, Berlin had developed into a hub for international air traffic, ahead of London, Paris and Amsterdam. Tempelhof Airport became the home airport of Deutsche Lufthansa AG, which was founded in Berlin on 6 January 1926.

Tempelhof-Schließung_5

Delusions of grandeur and a symbol of freedom
After the National Socialists seized power, they had big plans for Tempelhof: one of the world’s key hub airports was to be built here according to the latest standards. In 1934, the architect Ernst Sagebiel, whose plans for a new building with enormous dimensions corresponded to the ideas of the National Socialists, was commissioned to extend the airport. The new airport building, which still exists today, was built in 1936. It was completed and ready for operations in 1941. However, some important elements remained unfinished, as the construction work came to a standstill due to the war, such as stair towers, which were to serve as access points for an 80,000-seat stand on the roof. From 1939 onwards, the basements in the building were used to assemble war planes. There was civil air traffic in Tempelhof until the end of the Second World War, but it was progressively reduced and was completely stopped due to lack of fuel shortly before the end of the war. At the end of April 1945, the Red Army conquered the airport during the Battle of Berlin and freed the remaining forced labourers. After the Berlin Declaration, Tempelhof was then in the American sector and a short time later the US Army made the airport its military base. During the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, Tempelhof finally became the legendary location for the world’s largest humanitarian aid operation to date: the Airlift, which was started by American soldiers, supplied West Berliners with food and fuel from June 1948 to May 1949. At record times, the “raisin bombers” landed every 90 seconds.

Delusions of grandeur and a symbol of freedom
After the National Socialists seized power, they had big plans for Tempelhof: one of the world’s key hub airports was to be built here according to the latest standards. In 1934, the architect Ernst Sagebiel, whose plans for a new building with enormous dimensions corresponded to the ideas of the National Socialists, was commissioned to extend the airport. The new airport building, which still exists today, was built in 1936. It was completed and ready for operations in 1941. However, some important elements remained unfinished, as the construction work came to a standstill due to the war, such as stair towers, which were to serve as access points for an 80,000-seat stand on the roof. From 1939 onwards, the basements in the building were used to assemble war planes. There was civil air traffic in Tempelhof until the end of the Second World War, but it was progressively reduced and was completely stopped due to lack of fuel shortly before the end of the war. At the end of April 1945, the Red Army conquered the airport during the Battle of Berlin and freed the remaining forced labourers. After the Berlin Declaration, Tempelhof was then in the American sector and a short time later the US Army made the airport its military base. During the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, Tempelhof finally became the legendary location for the world’s largest humanitarian aid operation to date: the Airlift, which was started by American soldiers, supplied West Berliners with food and fuel from June 1948 to May 1949. At record times, the “raisin bombers” landed every 90 seconds.

Tempelhof-Schließung_7
The main hall of the airport in 1963, when the airport was the gateway to the world for West Berliners.
Tempelhof-Schließung_10

A wide field
Air traffic was increasingly reduced and with the decision to build Berlin Brandenburg Airport in 1996, the airport operators agreed to close Tempelhof. A referendum sealed its fate and the airport was closed once and for all in 2008. After 85 years of flight operations, the last two flights officially took off from Tempelhof on 30 October 2008 at 23:55: a raisin bomber and a Ju 52 took off parallel to each other from the two runways and flew towards Schönefeld.

Since its closure, the airport building has been used as a location for trade fairs and companies as well as for emergency accommodation for refugees. In the long term, the 200,000 square metres of building space are to be renovated and turned into a location for art, culture and the creative industries. The former airport opened its doors to the public in May 2010. Today, cyclists, skaters, dog owners and picnic lovers have taken over the Tempelhofer Feld. It quickly developed into a popular place for recreation and leisure and is one of the world’s largest inner-city open spaces. Tempelhofer Feld is once again what it was more than a hundred years ago: a popular destination for Berliners.

Interesting facts

  • After the airport building, as it is still known today, was completed in 1941, it was considered as the largest contiguous building in the world for two years with a length of 1,200 metres. It was eventually superseded by the Pentagon in Washington.
  • In 1924, Tempelhof was the first airport in the world which could be accessed via a direct underground connection (then Paradeplatz, now Platz der Luftbrücke).
  • In less than a year during the Airlift, so between 26 June 1948 and 12 May 1949, there were more aircraft movements at Tempelhof and above all, there was vastly more freight than at Tegel and Schönefeld combined in 2017. At that time, 277,728 flights were recorded at Tempelhof – in contrast to 275,014 flight movements in TXL and SXF in 2017. Air freight at Berlin Airports last year amounted to 49,291 tonnes, while the Airlift transported 2.34 million tonnes of freight – about 50 times as much.
  • On the last day of operations, 30 October 2008, three aircraft had to remain in Tempelhof due to bad weather conditions – the aircraft were only allowed to take off a few weeks later, on 24 November, with an official take-off permit.

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