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On Top of the City – Berlin´s History of Airports and Aviation

The construction of the central airport BER has become a story of ridiculous blunders and blatant mismanagement. All over the world people are making fun of this failed project while Berliners have resigned themselves to helplessly shrugging their shoulders when someone touches this topic. It should be remembered, though, that the history of our city is strongly connected with aviation and airplanes and that the construction of its airports had thus far been a success story.

Construction Site at BER

By Michael F. Mehnert (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Taking off
Berlin´s aviators were spot on right from the start: With Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) the city can claim one of the most important pioneer of aviation of all times. He may have started his studies further up north in Anklam, Mecklenburg, but sure enough all his major feats were accomplished in Berlin. He started off with his endeavours in Berlin´s southern district Steglitz where he built a flight station and ended up erecting an artificial hill, the so-called „Fliegeberg“. He reportedly undertook more than 2000 flight attempts with more than 20 flying devices of his own construction. As a true pioneer he gave his life for this passion when in 1896 an unexpected gush of wind caused his apparatus to crash.

Tempelhof – The beginnings of motorized aviation, the Nazi era and the „Airbridge“
When motorized airplanes conquered the sky, the best-known pioneers of their times frequently visited Berlin. As early as 1909 the Frenchman Armand Zipfel performed show flights on the Tempelhofer Feld which had been formerly used as a military exercise ground by the Prussian army. In the same year Orville Wright set a new world record when he reached a height of 172 meters with his airplane, having started on the Tempelhofer Feld. From June to October 1923 one of the first airports in Germany was built there in only 4 months time (although the buildings had not been completed at the time, this still seems unbelieveable when one looks at the current situation in Berlin). A few years later the maniacal plans of Nazi architects Speer and Sagebiel led to the construction of a new airport building with 307,000 square meters of floor space – a world record that was only beat when the Pentagon Building in Arlington, USA was completed!

At the end of World War II Tempelhof became part of the American sector of Berlin and immediately gained enormous importance: In the times of the „Blockade of Berlin“, from 24th of June 1948 to 12th of May 1949, West Berlin was cut off by the Soviet Army and could only be supplied by airplanes. The so-called „Raisin Bombers“ (actually the same planes had dropped bombs over the city a few years before) delivered very much needed food to West Berlin. After almost one year had passed, the Soviets finally realized that their strategy of starvation had failed and ended the blockade. As a consequence, the city´s divided status remained for 40 more years. When Tempelhof airport was finally closed down in 2008, some of the older people, who remembered the days of the „Airbridge“, became sentimental about it and were reluctant to agree to the closure. But younger people and near-by residents appreciate the opportunity to spend their time on this vast territory that has become a leisure park. It´s perfect for cycling, for example, it is part of the Third Reich Bike Tour.

Travelers today will comfortably reach Berlin by plane – even without Tempelhof and BER. Almost 30 million passengers start in Tegel (TXL) and Schoenefeld (SXF) every year. And this number is still growing. Both airports can be reached with public transport from the city center in half an hour. For more information on Berlin airports, see Airports in Berlin.

Successful Tegel and scandalous BER

When in 1948 the „Airbridge“ exhausted the capacities of Tempelhof airport, a new airport was built in only 90 days (no joke!) in Berlin´s northern district of Tegel. With 2428 meters it had Europe´s longest runway at the time. In the 1960s Tegel became West Berlin´s most important airport. From 1965 to 1975 the new airport building with its striking hexagonal shape was completed (designed by the Hamburg based architects Gerkan, Marg and Partners). Currently more than 80% of all passengers traveling to Berlin by plane are starting and landing at Tegel.

In the mid-2000s it was decided that Berlin should have a central airport, as the new central railway station had already been built. Again, both projects were commissioned to Gerkan, Marg and Partners. The construction of the new airport started directly next to Schoenefeld, the airport of former East Berlin which is located south of Berlin, just outside the city limits. The opening was scheduled for 2011, and in 2012 invitations had already been sent and plane tickets were sold – and only six weeks before the opening date the event was cancelled, as the construction had not been finished in time. Since then an endless story of failures, scandals and mismanagement started that already caused the mayor of Berlin and many other government officials to resign. Only the situation at Schoenefeld hasn´t improved and it is still unclear if this airport is ever going to open at all. Some people already suggested to tear down Berlin and rebuild it next to an already existing airport – it might be easier than completing Mission Impossible BER!


On Top of the City – Berlin´s History of Airports and Aviation
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