Tempelhof to shut down

October 30, 2008

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Oct. 31, 2008, will go down as yet another dark day in recent aviation history. That’s when Berlin, Germany’s historic Tempelhof Airport will cease flight operations.

Tempelhof, a city airport much like Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, or Kansas City’s Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, is located just minutes from Berlin’s downtown. But since last year its fate has followed a trajectory closer to that of Chicago’s erstwhile downtown airport—Meigs Field. The similarities extend to a unilateral decision by a narrow-minded mayor hell-bent on a shutdown, who ignored organized protests and referenda conducted by local citizens and the general aviation pilot community. And plans to turn Tempelhof into parkland.

Things began to turn sour for Tempelhof in 1996. That was when Berlin’s mayor, the German federal government’s transport minister, and the governor of Brandenburg state all agreed that Berlin would have a single airport, located at today’s Schoenefeld Airport (a former Soviet Air Force base)—some 35 miles outside of Berlin. The spiffed-up Schoenefeld would be named the Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport, BBI for short.

In December 2007, a federal court and Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit (Vo-ver-ite) decided that Tempelhof’s operating losses made it such that the airport should close sooner rather than later, and the October closing date was set.

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Protest began immediately. AOPA Germany lobbied against the proposal, and organized a mass general aviation fly-in to Tempelhof in June 2008. A vote to conduct a popular referendum to keep the airport open was passed, but the April 2008 referendum itself failed—because while a majority of voters (61 percent) favored keeping Tempelhof open, the rules required that at least 25 percent of Berliners had to participate. Only 21 percent voted. Those in favor of Tempelhof included the center-right Christian Democratic Union Party, the center-left Free Democratic Party, and an interest group called ICAT (“Interest group for the City Airport of Tempelhof”).

Those against Tempelhof included Wowereit, a member of the leftist Social Democrat Party, and the Green Party. The Greens said that Tempelhof created objectionable noise and pollution. Never mind that referendum voters from the district immediately surrounding the airport were strongly in favor of keeping Tempelhof open. The December 2007 closure decision prevailed.

Now, as the last of the DC-3 nostalgia flights are being flown out of Tempelhof, it’s time to reflect on what the world has lost.

Most associate Tempelhof with Hitler’s Third Reich, but the fact is that Tempelhof’s history stretches back to the middle ages, when the site belonged to the Knights Templar—hence the name’s “Tempel” root (“Hof” translates to “court”). Prussian kings used Tempelhof as a parade grounds until 1917.

Powered flight began at Tempelhof in 1909, when Orville Wright demonstrated his Model B Flyer. Lufthansa was founded at Tempelhof in 1926, and the airport served as a major air terminal ever since. Under Hitler, Tempelhof’s massive, curved structure was built, but World War II halted construction. During the war, fighter airplanes were built in tunnels beneath Tempelhof.

After the war, Berlin was divided between the allied nations and the Soviet Union. In 1948, the Soviet Union attempted to isolate and starve West Berlin by blocking all land and water routes to the city. The United States, along with the British and French, responded with the Berlin Airlift. This operation used the three air corridors serving West Berlin, transporting food, coal, medicine, and other necessities—yes, including candy—to Tempelhof on an around-the-clock basis. In September 1949 the Soviets relented. A monument was built in front of Tempelhof commemorating the Airlift and its pilots. To this day, the good will toward Americans established by the Airlift endures among Berliners.

Then came a period of ascendance for Tempelhof. It was Berlin’s major airline hub, serving Pan American World Airways, American Airlines, Air France, British European Airways (a forerunner of British Airways), and many other international airlines. In 1975, most airlines moved their operations to nearby Tegel Airport, allowing Tempelhof to continue as an American Air Force Base until 1986. Even so, commercial airliners continued to share the runways, with Lufthansa, Air Berlin, Cirrus Airlines, InterSky Airlines, and Brussels Airlines among the users. Part 135 flights by TAG Aviation, Windrose Air, and others also used Tempelhof.

Most recently, Tempelhof was coming into its own as a destination for many corporate and private flight operations. After the Berlin Wall fell, corporations found it convenient to fly their Gulfstreams, Falcons, Challengers, and Learjets into Tempelhof. And entertainers found in Tempelhof a close-in base for their work at the nearby Babelsberg movie studios. A general aviation FBO, Tempelhof Aviators, did a brisk business in flight instruction and rental of a wide range of lightplanes, including several classics.

This author had the good fortune to fly to Tempelhof last year. It was a powerful experience to fly through the gap between the apartment buildings, on approach to Runway 27L. Many times have I seen newsreel footage of DC-3s and –6s shooting the very same gap.

Here’s hoping that those days will return some day soon. It’s doubtful, but fate isn’t finished dealing its hand. Another part of the modernization plan calls for closing Tegel and sending all its traffic to BBI/Schoenefeld. But BBI will be under construction until 2012 or 2013, one of its runways is unusable, and the increase in traffic from Tegel and Tempelhof is bound to cause major congestion. Homes and apartment buildings have been built close to Schoenefeld, and already there is local opposition to Schoenefeld’s expansion.