T H F
“It was cloudy evening in on January 2nd 1967 when Pan American flight PA619 silently emerged into the dark clouds over Berlin. The short flight from Hamburg was almost on time when the air traffic controller cleared the Boeing 727 jet to intercept the final approach course for runway 27L. The flight in the northern corridor along NORTH ROUTE 1 over the Soviet sector of Eastern Germany was uneventful. When the captain lowered the landing gear the plane broke out of the clouds and the lights of Berlin were visible to the passengers and cockpit crew. The flight smoothly landed and taxied to the terminal.”
It could have been very similar to this fictious description in the old days of the legendary Berlin Tempelhof airfield, from which the renowned architect Sir Norman Foster once said it was the mother of all modern airports.
Surprisingly the massive building, which belongs to the largest buildings on earth, was never finished completely but it was opened in record time after a construction time of only two years. Designed by the architect Prof. Ernst Sagebiel the symmetrical building included 7 hangars and 49 buildings. Even according to today’s standards the whole complex is impressive. With its clear line structure and rhythmic facades it fascinates all visitors. The location was not chosen by coincidence as the close by Tempelhof field which later became the apron and parts of the airport was already used by Deutsche Luft Hansa (a predecessor of todays Germany flag carrier Lufthansa) for flights to other major cities in Europe.
After World War One a tremendous boom in the aviation industry required a new building for the German capital as Berlin Tempelhof was already the largest airport in Europe at this time. Plans for a new terminal and a stadion for air shows were made in 1935. Indeed the structure of the new terminal was planned to work as a stands for thousands of people watching air shows from the roof top of the building. The stands were never finished as history had other plans for the airport.
After the Golden Twenties came to an abrupt end in 1933 under the Nazi regime, the “Reichsluftfahrtministerium” hired Sagebiel in 1934 for this job. He had a greater vision in mind where the new airport was designed to be Berlin’s gateway to the world. Later it became part of Albert Speer’s plan for the reconstruction of Berlin. In its early years during World War II however the airport was not used as an airfield but rather as a war factory and therefore the old terminal stayed in use until the end of war in 1945.
When WW II came to an end the Americans completed the departure terminal after taking over the building from Soviet troops in 1945. Initial used for the famous Berlin Airlift the airport required two runways for the heavily growing amount of C-47 Skytrains or so called Candy Bombers serving the Berlin and its citizens.
After the end of the airlift in 1948 civical aviation got more and more important and the” Berlin Zentralflughafen” was in the perfect location right in the middle of a city in the heart of Europe. The heydays of the airport were the 1960s where many of the famous and glamorous stars used the airport. Air travel was growing rapidly during this time.
The first major airline flying to the new Tempelhof airport was American Overseas Airlines which was finally acquired by Pan American Airlines. Pan Am’s presence in Tempelhof was quickly growing with services to other major German cities as well as a multi stop intercontinental flight to New York. Initially using DC-4 Pan Am switched to Boeing 727 as the new tri-jet was available to the market. Major other airlines joined and Berlin THF soon became a major European airport.
“The mother of all modern airports” – Sir Norman Foster
Tempelhof was designed as the first airport that uses a special infrastructure where passenger flows are devided in departure and arrival flow. Also cargo and baggage handling took place on different levels of the airport. Unfortunately the orginal plans of Sagebiel where never really accomplished and therefore THF was at its capacity limit when in 1975 Berlin Tegel opened its doors and with it the decline of Tempelhof.
Finally in 2008 it closed its doors for ever when the last flights took off shortly before midnight on October 30th in 2008.
Photographs and text by Sebastian Schlueter © 2019