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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Part 6: Tempelhof's Growing Air Traffic during the Cold War


Here's an airborne view of Tempelhof Airport - I don't have source information on it.  Visible is the terminal building in
the foreground, the tarmac, the new radar tower, and the two runways in the airfield beyond.
It had been my intention to write this post on a combination of subjects – how Tempelhof Airport continued to function as a major transportation hub during the Cold War, and my fond recollections of my Cold War era time there during the 1980’s.  I’ve been relying on Christine Heeb’s thesis for some of the factual references during this series – you can find a link at the end of this post – and at this point in her document she separates the air transport elements of the airport’s history from the USAF operation.  I believe I’ll follow that model and split this bit into two posts as well.

Heeb writes that after the Berlin Airlift, Tempelhof benefited from two new concrete runways that replaced the old grass air strips.  Further, some passenger traffic had continued in and out of the airport during the Airlift, so that function never stopped – although it was likely very challenging.  Some of the outbound flights carried refugees from the city during the Airlift, in addition to more typical tourism and business travelers.

From one of my visits, a photo of the Platz der Luftbrucke and Tempelhofer
Damm street sign on the west side of the airport.
During my time at Tempelhof, one of the standing assumptions was that the west side of the airport was the civilian side, while we in the Air Force used the east side, practically dividing the place in half.  Early during the Cold War era, while the main terminal building was still damaged, passengers entered over on the civilian side from Tempelhofer Damm. 

Based on the governance of the city and occupied Germany, air traffic into Tempelhof was limited to flag carrying civilian airlines from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  Typically these flights made a stop on their way into Berlin at a West German airport, and then they navigated via the corridors into Berlin.  Despite the extra time and cost of these stops, air traffic at Tempelhof continued to grow, reaching 6 million passengers by 1971, while the design capacity was only 4 million. 

Another limiting factor was the length of Tempelhof’s runways and the constraints on modernizing them for jet aircraft, so Tegel Airport, in the French sector north of Tempelhof, was the answer to the shortfall of air travel capacity in West Berlin.  Construction began in 1969 and the new airport was completed in 1975.  Finally, all civilian air traffic moved there, and civilian flights out of Tempelhof ceased for the time being, until 1981, when “air taxi” services began, typically operated as chartered air service and small regional airlines. 

As a point of interest, I remember the early days of these flights.  Some of my colleagues on the basis – not my fellow linguists and analysts, but the folks who worked in air traffic control – took part time jobs with the small airlines.  I remember being particularly impressed over beers at the NCO club talking with one of the guys who was getting flight hours in with weekly round trips to Hamburg – he planned to be an airline pilot once his enlistment was up, and here he was earning the experience he would need for that.

As the Cold War era began to close, first with reunification in 1990 and then with the handover of the airport back to the Germans in 1993, air traffic continued to grow at Tempelhof.  Heeb writes that it peaked in 1993 (not at the levels seen in the 1970's, however) and then proceeded to decrease on through 2006.  In fact, when Mary and I visited in 2001, we didn’t see any airplanes on the tarmac, although we did see and hear some airships out on the airfield. 

And so concludes a brief post on the air traffic side of things.  I’ll write a second post on the Cold War era that is focused on my experience at Tempelhof – again, I was stationed there from 1981-1986 – and put that up later this week.  In the meantime, here’s the link again to the Heeb thesis I’ve been using for background information on this series of posts:

1 comment:

Karl said...

And now Tegel isn't big enough so they're building a new airport to the south, near Schönefeld.