Airports come and go these days, but some closings become more personal than others. Living in Chicago, we had our own sad, yes even depressing moments when Mayor Daley hacked Meigs Field to death just to prove who was really in charge. Personally, I’ve always thought he did it just to prove he was tougher than Steve Whitney and his Friends of Meigs group that managed to keep the airport open for awhile despite the mayor’s objections.
Today though it’s another airport in another part of the world that fell, Berlin Tempelhof, the airport that saved the City of Berlin from starvation after World War II when the Russians instituted a land-side blockade to control the region. The allies mounted a valiant effort in practically anything that would fly – DC-3s, DC-4s, DC-6s and more – to bring millions of tons and food and coal to keep the city alive. And it worked.
While other airports have fallen in the past few decades, Tempelhof was personal to me because I spent some time there years ago.
In 1968, Berlin was still divided into the Russian, American, French and British sectors. An American could easily visit all except the Russian side of town. The infamous Checkpoint Charlie still stood tall opposite its East German counterpart where many guards stood with many guns.
From viewing stands near the American checkpoint, I was able to see what was left of East Berlin since the end of the war. As a kid from the Midwest, I’d read about what had happened in Germany, but this was the real thing. Looking across the wall I saw dozens of burned out buildings and even abandoned autos on the streets. It looked like D-Day had happened just a month earlier when in actuality more than 20 years had passed.
But Tempelhof Airport is the story today. The City of Berlin decided the facility was draining valuable taxpayer funds. Thousands of residents put up a valiant effort to save the airport over the relentless drumbeat of Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s demands to close the field. Interestingly, the city has absolutely no plans for the site now that traffic has been halted.
When I was there in 1968, I stayed in the massive terminal building for a few days. That was perfectly OK in those then because inside this architectural landmark structure – it was built by the Nazis in the late 1930s – were living quarters. In fact, the guts of Tempelhof resembled a small city. I was part of a contingent of air traffic controllers who ran the traffic up and down one of the three main Berlin air corridors – the South Corridor in this case – between West Germany and the city. We spoke to mostly civilian airliners – PanAm and BEA – as well as quite a few military airplanes. On radar, you could watch the East German fighters swoop around the airliners while they were flying snug within the corridor. They seemed to taunt the Allied airplanes to even think about flying outside the boundaries. We’d been warned many times to do our best and never allow an aircraft to leave the corridor, except in an emergency, which meant they’d be on their own anyway. Even at the time I thought it was a pretty neat place to work … “Hello Berlin Center, Clipper 702 is with you at 9,000.”
I remember walking out into the hallway outside the Berlin radar room. The hall was a massive curved structure probably 15 or 20 feet across. Actually everything was curved in that building which made it so unique. My friend lived in the barracks inside the terminal with a room about 40 feet from the radar room front door. Tall about a short commute. Food, shelter, even beer ( no one was supposed to know of course) could be had in the massive structure.
Best of all was being up on the roof one night and looking out over the enormous ramp. I imagined what it was like 20 years before when the life of the city depended upon the airport. All those radial engines starting up, all those growling propellers as the airplanes rolled down the runway. All that life.
Now it is all gone.
Tell me, is it true the name Richard Daley in German sounds a lot like Klaus Wowereit?