Germany bids farewell to iconic airport

Berlin's Tempelhof, a futuristic monument to Nazi power and symbol of freedom for West Berlin during the postwar blockade, is to close.

A vintage American DC3 on the tarmac under the giant semi-circular canopy of Tempelhof airport.
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BERLIN // Berlin's Tempelhof airport, built by Adolf Hitler as a futuristic monument to Nazi power before becoming a symbol of freedom in the postwar Berlin Airlift, is due to close on Thursday and thousands of Berliners are mourning the demise of a building that embodies Germany's turbulent 20th century history. Dubbed the "mother of all airports" by Norman Foster, the British architect, because its design was so advanced for its day, Tempelhof became a lifeline for West Berlin during the 14-month blockade in 1948 and 1949 when the Soviet Union shut off road and rail links to the city.

The Allies responded to that first crisis of the Cold War by airlifting three million tonnes of food and coal in round-the-clock flights to supply the bombed-out city. There were landings and takeoffs every 90 seconds in a historic display of determination to keep West Berlin free. East Berliners were not affected by the blockade and the airport means little to them, but older westerners associate Tempelhof with the airlift and remain deeply grateful for the waves of Douglas DC3 planes that saved them in those days of postwar hunger.

The planes were fondly known as "Raisin Bombers" because one of the pilots started dropping sweets on handkerchief parachutes to the scores of children clawing at the fences around the airport. A total of 530,000 Berliners - most of them westerners - voted to keep Tempelhof open in a referendum this year, but that was not enough to force the city government to abandon its plan to shut the airport, which has been losing money in recent years because passenger numbers have dwindled. Its two runways are too short to take most large modern passenger jets.

"Tempelhof has served its purpose. That's history: hard and merciless. But in the minds of the old West Berliners the sound of salvation that came from droning aircraft engines won't fall silent even after 60 years," wrote Peter Kruse, a retired newspaper editor who lived through the blockade, in an editorial. Tempelhof was built on the site of an existing airport between 1936 and 1939, at the height of Hitler's power, and was part of his vision to convert Berlin into Germania, a bombastic new capital to project Germany's new-found might. With its 285,000 square metres it still ranks as one of the largest buildings in the world alongside the US Pentagon and the Parliament Palace in Bucharest.

The rampant ambition of the Nazi era is evident throughout its design, from the surging columns of the façade and departure lounge to the gigantic amphitheatre-like roof, which was intended to accommodate audiences of up to 85,000 people to watch air shows and military parades. Many of Tempelhof's features have been copied by airport designers around the world, including its sweeping semi-circular canopy, which was large enough to accommodate the biggest planes of the day and offers passengers protection from the weather as they walk out to their planes. Its underground fuel lines reaching out to the tarmac were ultra-modern in the 1930s, as were its conference halls, which foresaw the modern practice of flying to airports to hold meetings there. "This building is fascinating not just because of its history but because it was constructed to such a high standard and was so technologically advanced," said Wolfgang Holfeld, a building engineer who worked at Tempelhof in the 1990s and now gives tours of the vast site. "Its closing is sad for everyone and will rob Berlin of some of its flair." The Second World War began before Tempelhof was completed and the new building did not serve as an airport during the war. Instead, it became an aircraft manufacturing plant in which about 5,500 of the feared Junker 87 "Stuka" dive bombers were manufactured. Much of the assembly took place underground in Tempelhof's labyrinthine 4.5km network of tunnels. The US military took over Tempelhof in 1945 and used it for its air force and for radar surveillance of communist East Germany. The airport was opened for civilian air traffic in the 1950s and by 1954 it had become Europe's third-busiest airport behind London and Paris. Tempelhof's heyday was in the 1970s, with its passenger numbers peaking at 8.5 million in 1973. Its decline began in 1975 when most of West Berlin's air traffic was moved to Tegel, the west's other airport. Last year, Tempelhof processed only 300,000 passengers, mainly on short-haul routes using propeller aircraft. It has been dwarfed by Berlin's other two airports, which handle a combined 20m passengers a year. Tempelhof's cavernous departure lounge radiates with history, combining the romance of postwar air travel with a sinister Nazi-era grandeur. It has had a deserted feel for years and last week guided tours and journalists covering Tempelhof's closing outnumbered the handful of passengers while a lonely suitcase crept around one of the old-fashioned conveyer belts. "This place has such symbolic power," said Heinz Fritsche, waiting for a flight to the Austrian city of Graz. "I lived through the airlift. I was there when the planes dropped sweets on little parachutes for the kids; there were loads of children running after them and the bigger ones usually got the sweets. I was too little to get any. We used to play with those little parachutes. "Closing this airport is short-sighted; it's in an ideal location in the centre of the city. I voted against the closing. We only lost because the east Berliners aren't interested in Tempelhof and didn't vote." A behind-the-scenes tour gives intriguing insights into Tempelhof's history. A grand conference hall planned by the Nazis was converted into a gymnasium and bowling alley and bar by the comfort-conscious Americans. Some stairwells remain unfinished from the 1930s and reveal the steel and concrete construction that was built to last centuries. Below ground are the charred remains of a burnt-out bunker that contained documentary films shot by the German army fighting on the Russian front. All the film went up in flames at the end of the war. The Berlin government has shrugged off emotional appeals for Tempelhof to be kept open and says having three airports in Berlin is uneconomical. Schönefeld airport to the east of the city is undergoing a massive enlargement to turn it into Germany's third-largest hub after Frankfurt and Munich. Tempelhof's closing will be followed by the shutting of Tegel airport in 2011. "We decided the city is best served with just one large airport. Tempelhof was making losses and the biggest jets capable of landing there were Boeing 737s or Airbus A319s, and even they weren't allowed to land there regularly because of the noise," said Eberhard Elie, an airport authority spokesman. No decision has been taken yet on what to do with the giant site in the centre of the city. It is likely to be turned into a park. The building itself is monument-protected and will be preserved. In its dying weeks, tours of Tempelhof and tourist flights on an original DC3 "Raisin Bomber" and a 1930s Junkers 32 have been booked out. On Thursday evening, Tempelhof's last day as an airport, supporters will hold a candlelit vigil outside the building in a final protest against its closure. Inside, Klaus Wowereit, the Berlin mayor, will host a grand party for 800 guests to mark its demise. Just before midnight, they will witness the closing of a historic chapter when the two vintage planes, the last to take off from Tempelhof, race down the runway and rise into the night sky.