Thursday, October 30, 2008

Farewell to Templehof Airport

Berlin's historic Tempelhof airport closed down today forever. The airfield played a pivotal role in Germany's aviation history, including a 1909 flight by Orville Wright and its distinction as West Berlin's only airport during the Berlin airlift in 1948, when the Soviets shut off Allied land access to Berlin and the city was entirely resupplied by air with food and coal. The Berlin Airlift Memorial in front of Templehof bears the names of seventy British and American pilots who lost their lives in that airlift. A duplicate monument stands near the end of the runway at Frankfurt's Rhein Main airport at the other end of the “air bridge” (luftbrucke).

We visited Templehof many times in the early 1980's, when we lived in Bremerhaven and later in Heidelburg. The American duty train provided a free, overnight sleeping car to military families on a space available basis, and the overnight train arrived in West Berlin in the early morning, with passenger and baggage cars from both Bremerhaven and Frankfurt. The two trains would meet and be combined at the East German border checkpoint at Helmstedt and be pulled from there into West Berlin by an East German locomotive. We would depart Bremerhaven about 9 pm, and our kids would peek excitedly out the windows after midnight as the train stopped at the Soviet checkpoint at Helmstedt, where great-coated Russian soldiers with AK-47's stood watch while our documents were examined. Every passenger had to have “flag orders” with the details spelled out in French, English and Russian bearing the flag of the four-power agreement signatory. Then the West German Deutsche Bundesbahn locomotive was uncoupled and a smoky East German Deutsche Reichsbahn diesel engine pulled the cars marked "United States Army" through the night, to arrive at the Lichterfelde West station in West Berlin's American sector about 6am. When my mother and my aunt Mona visited us in Bremerhaven in the early 1980's we took them to Berlin on the duty train. The two sisters shared one of the train's two-person compartments and they giggled and talked until way past the 1 am stop at Helmstedt. It was their first train trip since they were teens.

We would arrive in Berlin early Saturday morning and take a taxi to the Air Force's Columbia House billeting, which was in Templehof airport. It had curving corridors, huge guest rooms, a good breakfast buffet and best of all, served lunch in the old airport's passenger terminal restaurant, overlooking the almost deserted runway. All commercial use of the airport ceased after the Berlin wall went up in 1969, so as we walked along the second-floor gallery that overlooked the deserted terminal we could see the dusty Lufthansa stands, Mon Cherie chocolate signs and newspaper kiosks that awaited a reopening that would not come until 1993, after the wall came down.

One time we were in the lounge near the air terminal when alarms sounded and running men, US Air Police and West German polizei armed with submachine guns sprinted down the corridor and into the terminal. We found out later that a hijacked Polish LOT Airlines plane had landed at the military field. Charles Brady, writing recently for Air and Space Magazine about his experience at Templehof in the 70's and 80's, said "So many skyjacked LOT airliners landed at the airport that the joke around the field was that LOT stood for Land on Tempelhof."

German authorities are considering several alternatives for the former airport, but its buildings, designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer in the shape of the imperial eagle, are likely to be preserved, as will the Spink family's memories of our many stays there.