Thoughts on Tempelhof

Take a stroll over runway 09L. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Taking a stroll on runway 09L. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

It’s always a bit sad when something has lost its function, when it is left to not do what it was made to do. I have this feeling every time I see an aircraft forever stuck to the ground, but I also experienced it earlier this year as I took a stroll down a runway – in particular runway 09L of the former Berlin Tempelhof airport. If ever there was a famous airport in history, it’s this one. Now it is history.

An aircraft in a museum is like a big bird in a small cage; you would like to pet it, but above all you would like it to leave its cage and fly away. That’s a hard thing to do when you’re talking about a complete airport, including a monumental 450 meter long terminal building made from reinforced concrete. The terminal was designed for the Nazis by Ernst Sagebiel, and its style is very close to that of Nazi architect Albert Speer. That’s some history …

But Tempelhof truly earned its part in history when it was the epicentre of the Berlin airlift, that started in June 1948 and lasted for fifteen months. The numbers are astounding: allied C-47s and C-54s delivered over 2,326,406 tons of goods to West Berlin, for which over 278,000 flights were needed. The airplanes together flew over 92 million miles in the process, almost the distance from Earth to the Sun.

At the height of the airlift, one plane reached Tempelhof every thirty seconds. It must have been an impressive sight – difficult to imagine in 2013, as Tempelhof now offers views of people strolling by, cycling, having a pick-nick or relaxing otherwise. They only things taking to the sky, are kites. It’s a quiet and peaceful place in the great city of Berlin.

Peacefull and quiet. The impressive terminal building is in the background of this picture. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Peacefull and quiet. The impressive terminal building forms the background of this picture. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

But for a place that has such an indisputably rich history in aviation, it is remarkable to see only one aircraft left at the former airfield, which ceased operations in 2008. You’d expect an old Skytrain or Skymaster, but no, it is this very sad looking Noratlas N262, which apparently flew from Tempelhof under a US registration for many years and probably did a lot of sneaky stuff in the process. In the final years of the airfield, it served as a fire trainer.

The city of Berlin still has not decided what will eventually become of Tempelhof. In other words; what its new function will be. Perhaps its function will be to offer the people of Berlin a place to relax of go for a walk over the two kilometer runway. That’s fine, as long as it has a function. Things without function are always a bit sad.

And of course; put that N262 out of its misery and replace it with a nice preserved C-47 Skytrain and – why not – a C-54 Skymaster.  Berlin deserves it, Tempelhof deserves it, the aircraft deserve it.

© 2013 AIRheads’ Elmer van Hest

PS has a lot photos of Tempelhof in its not so quiet days.