Many people today, save for those with long memories and the age to go with them, will know little of the history of German capital city Berlin. It’s a big place, like most of the same stature, but it has its own history and a unique place in the mosaic of world affairs.
As World War II came to an end, like other German cities, Berlin was almost levelled, although some notable landmarks remained intact, like the Brandenburg Gate. Also staying more or less in one piece was the terminal building at the city’s primary airport, Tempelhof (THF). Although the grass airfield was heavily cratered during bombing raids, the building that served it stayed upright, although damaged here and there. The original terminal was constructed in the 1920s and replaced some ten years later by what at the time, was one of the most magnificent airport buildings in the world. Boasting (again at the time) the largest unsupported roof in the world, stretching and curving around the north-west side of the field was a row of hangars and centrally, directly in front of the passenger handling part of the building, was an overhanging roof high enough for aircraft to park underneath. Only Birmingham in the UK had a similar idea, which was of course, to keep passengers dry when boarding or deplaning their flights.
Above - Tempelhof in 2016 (Avda - Wikimedia Commons)
Below- The airport immediately after World War II. The original terminal area is mid-centre(US Air Force)
C47s at THF (US Air Force)
Berlin was, like Germany itself, cut into four by the Allied Powers of the UK, USA, France and the then USSR. Initially, Tempelhof was in the Soviet sector but was then handed over to the US, who based their transport squadrons there. The airport became famous worldwide as a result of the Berlin Airlift when the Soviets cut off all surface access to the city and tons of supplies were flown in every day to keep the city and its residents alive. From then on the occupying western powers stopped being occupiers and became the Berliner’s friends. Even the equally famous ‘candy bomber’ arrived – Pioneered by US pilot Gail Halvorsen and other airmen who dropped sweets to children waiting at the end of the runways. To this day, Berlin has never forgotten the airlift.
A Pan Am DC-4 (Bundesarchiv)
Tempelhof was a curiosity in many ways. Its location gave it the German name ‘Zentral Flughafen’ or Central Airport and it was an apt moniker. Very close to the centre of Berlin it was almost circular in shape. The US built its first, and temporary, hard runway straight across the centre of the field, later replacing it with two permanent concrete strips, all running from east to west. The airport then became, as it was prior to the war, the centre of commercial airline operations, with British European Airways (BEA), Air France and American Overseas Airlines (AOA) operating all services to other cities now in the western sector of Germany. AOA was the only airline to maintain its full schedule during the airlift but as a division of American Airlines, was sold to Pan American on 25 September 1950.
A busy 1960s ramp (Ralf Manteufal)
With German airlines not allowed to serve Berlin, the three national carriers developed the Internal German Services, or IGS, linking the city to all the major West German cities through three narrow air corridors across what had become East Germany, under the control of the USSR. In addition to the scheduled routes, numerous other airlines from the UK and USA operated charter services into Tempelhof carrying not only servicemen and their families but also maintaining essential supplies. The increasing movements, including larger aircraft like the Convair jets of US carrier Modern Air (despite the short runways), meant THF became a very busy place as well as a noisy one for residents living at the end of the runways.
The SUD Aviation Caravelle (Michel Gilliand)
In 1960 Air France moved to Tegel, in the northerly French sector of Berlin with the introduction of the Caravelle jet as THF’s runways were too short for the new jet. With BEA and Pan Am still operating prop aircraft, by this time the Viscount for the British airline and the DC6 for the US carrier, it gave Air France a marginal competitive advantage. This however, was mitigated by Tegel being difficult to reach when compared to THF’s location. For BEA and Pan Am however, jet aircraft were the way forward. But it was a difficult task with the length of the runways at the Zentral Flughafen. Larger aircraft had payload restrictions and a light fuel load thus had to stop somewhere in West Germany en-route to Berlin, or use Tegel, where the runways were longer.
Pan Am's Boeing 727s were not only used on IGS routes but also on feeder services across Europe to Frankfurt and London Heathrow. N319PA is seen at Zurich (Kambui)
On 18 March 1966, Pan Am became the first airline to commence regular, year-round jet operations from Tempelhof with the first examples of a brand-new fleet of an initial eight Boeing 727-21 series, one of the first jet aircraft with a short-field capability. Boeing were on a winner with the 727 and although BEA had looked at the Trident (which came before the 727), not for nothing was the British aircraft nick-named ‘The Gripper’ for its apparent desire to stay on the ground during its take-off roll. Although the Trident could fly into and out of THF, the payload restrictions meant it was uneconomical to use regularly. A similar restriction applied to the Comet, which BEA also used on routes to THF to enable some competition with Pan Am but it was the BAC 1-11 501 that brought BEA’s IGS services into the jet age.
As well as IGS flights, BEA (and subsequently British Airways) BAC 1-11s were used on UK domestic flights and other European connections (Steve Fitzgerald)
Air France meanwhile had found the move to Tegel had resulted in the airline losing most of the IGS traffic to BEA and Pan Am so withdrew entirely, retaining a single daily Paris service which ran via Cologne/Bonn. A joint venture with BEA was arranged and the British airline’s BAC 1-11s then carried a more neutral colours scheme, keeping the dark blue cheatline and fin but the British flag-inspired ‘speedjack’ removed from the fin, replaced by the words, ‘Super One-Eleven’, BEA’s name for the aircraft. The venture ran from the spring of 1969 and ended in late 1972. After that, BEA’s 1-11s were painted in the full BEA colours. From 1972, East Germany relaxed border controls and IGS traffic dropped to the point where the two airlines undertook a route swap, ending Pan Am services to places like Cologne and on 1 September 1975, Pan Am and British Airways moved their entire Berlin operation to the newly built terminal at Tegel Airport. Following the move, commercial operations at Tempelhof ceased, resulting in exclusive use by the US military.
The central terminal hall (Paul Robert Piskorski)
In 1978, Pan Am relocated its 727 flight deck crew training from Miami International Airport to Berlin Tempelhof. This involved all pilots and flight engineers who manned the flight decks of the airline's 727 fleet, which at the time operated out of Miami to the Caribbean and Central America, as well as on the IGS routes from Berlin and intra-European feeder routes serving Frankfurt and Heathrow. Another airline that used Tempelhof to train its flight deck crews was US supplemental Modern Air Transport. While all Modern Air commercial flights from and to Berlin principally used Tegel to take advantage of that airport's longer runways and the fact that it was not in a built-up area making for easier approaches, the airline conducted its training for Berlin-based flight deck crews at Tempelhof between 1968 and 1974.
Although BEA’s Super One-Elevens remained in use on the IGS, Pan Am’s early Boeing 727-21s gave way to the larger -200 which in turn were superseded by the Boeing 737 and even the Airbus A310 was seen at both Frankfurt and Tegel. Tempelhof never saw regular services, scheduled or charter by wide-bodied jets but the 747, L1011 TriStar and DC10 all flew in for airshows and displays. With no payload (either passengers or cargo) and a light fuel load needed from other airports on West Germany, even THF’s short runways could handle the bigger jets. The same applied to the Boeing 707s of Pan Am and TWA, both of which were seen at THF for displays.
Above:The 'Tempelhofer Park' (A. Savin)
Below: The preserved Terminal (dronepicr_wikimedia commons)
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the IGS lost their purpose and their subsidies. BEA formed ‘Deutsche BA’ to operate services and Pan Am sold theirs to Lufthansa, now returning to Berlin after decades as two countries became one.
Tempelhof closed in 2008 and the airfield is now a park, its terminal preserved, as is the Air Bridge Memorial that stands in front of the building.
With thanks to the photographers who have made their images available
© Kevan James 2020
More history and personal accounts can be found in these books from KJM Today:
Airport Days and Nights Terminals and Runways, and Airport Days and Nights Evolution are available from Amazon.
Details for Heathrow Airport 70 years and counting can be found on the home page