Nazis, bombing raids, Allied occupation, a desperate air lift, Cold War division. In the nine decades since the first plane took off from its runway, Berlin’s oldest airport has witnessed more than its fair share of pivotal historical events.
But perhaps the most exciting incident of all took place one April morning in 1991. The sun had already climbed above the airport’s cavernous Nazi-era hangar and photographers Kai-Uwe Heinrich and Mike Wolff had just finished a late breakfast.
Suddenly, three black limousines raced onto the airfield, speeding towards a small craft waiting on the runway. From their office, Mr. Heinrich and Mr. Wolff watched spellbound as soldiers jumped out of the cars and bundled a man dressed in civilian clothes into the aircraft. The propeller blades began to spin and the plane disappeared off West towards Frankfurt.
That kidnapping, in broad daylight, was one of the last chapters of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies. German reunification six months earlier had ostensibly ended the festering conflict, but the U.S. army was still intently hunting hostile spies.
Spies like Jeffrey Carney, who spilt countless secrets across the Berlin Wall to the East Germans. His identity compromised, he fled to East Berlin, changing his name to Jens Karney. But he didn’t escape the Americans for long. That day in April 1991, they grabbed him from the street in an East Berlin district and bundled him off to Tempelhof.
The U.S. operation was not exactly legal under German law. But then no one working within Tempelhof’s strange legal limbo had ever paid much attention to that. Many forget the airport’s eastern wing was once a military restricted zone.
For almost 50 years, the German constitution held no sway whatsoever on the premises. Instead, the U.S Air Force ran it according to its own rules. The airfield even had its own power generators, water works and garbage incinerator. There was a bank, cinemas and shops trading only in dollars.
Until the Air Force left in September 1993, the complex employed more than 2,000 military personnel and 700 civilian staff, including Berliners like photographers Kai-Uwe Heinrich and Mike Wolff. Today they work for the Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. Back then, they worked for the Americans, taking snaps of glitzy celebrity visits for the in-house newspaper.
“Sometimes it was a paid vacation camp. They ate an ice-cream and then flew back again.”
Most of the time there wasn’t much to do. “Sometimes it was a paid vacation camp,” said Mr. Heinrich. If the photographers got bored in their office, they’d go and visit the pilots a few doors down. “Time to get some fresh air,” they’d say. Then they’d jump into a helicopter and rise high over the Berlin skyline for a spot of sight-seeing.
Often, pilots from Ramstein Air Base in western Germany would fly over for a visit, even if it was just to write off another couple of flight hours. “They ate an ice-cream and then flew back again,” said Mr. Heinrich.
The Tempelhof Ice Cream Parlor, which stood in the corridor diagonally opposite the photographers’ office, was famous throughout the U.S. army. Today, that ice cream stand is on display in Berlin’s Allied Museum. And the photographers’ office, like much of the airport’s east wing, now stands empty.
Nature is slowly but surely claiming the site back. After 25 years of undisturbed growth, a fir tree has now taken up residence and reaches up to the first floor windows.
Ivy snakes up the facade towards the former Office of Special Investigation. The grass, once cut short with military precision, now spills over the edges of footpaths. Plastic bags, cigarette boxes and old newspapers litter the ground.
“This would have been unthinkable back then,” Mr. Heinrich said. “The Air Force hired extra people just to pick up every stray leaf.” This was a precaution to stop them finding their way into a plane engine.
Tempelhof stopped operating as an airport in 2008. Today, the one-time airfield is a popular recreation space with locals and tourists alike nicknamed “Tempelhofer Freiheit,” (Tempelhof Freedom.) The bright lights of fashion shows and concerts now light up the old hangar and the wide expanse of the airfield.
Only the former military wing now stands quiet. For a couple of years, the German Flight Safety authority moved in, before moving on to Bremen in 2006, leaving just a small eccentric collection of tenants. There’s the private university named after Sigmund Freud, a dance school, a kindergarten, a theater.
Even Berlin’s many graffiti artists seem uninterested in Tempelhof. The long stretches of light sandstone wall remain free of tags or scrawls. The small hut still stands next to the former civilians’ entrance, where Mr. Heinrich and Mr. Wolff used to pass the guards every morning. A warning sign still hangs on the windowpane.
“Amazing, isn’t it? Who gets a view like that from their office?”
To the right, there is an empty building, once home to the officers’ club – known affectionately as the O-club. Mr. Heinrich still knows his way around. “Let’s go in through the front door, quick, the door is normally closed,” he said. A left turn and then a right, and suddenly the vista opens out to the wide sweep of the runway. “Amazing, isn’t it?” said Mr. Heinrich. “Who gets a view like that from their office?”
For all the fond memories, Mr. Heinrich said he doesn’t miss the airport. “Having an airport in the middle of the city doesn’t make sense anymore,” he said. “The planes used to fly so low that you could look the pilot in the eyes. We were incredibly lucky that no serious accidents ever really happened.”
Mr. Heinrich often takes family and friends to barbeque on the former airfield. When last year, Berliners were asked to vote on Tempelhof’s future, he voted firmly against plans to build apartment blocks along one side of the field. Now, when he sits there with friends enjoying the uninterrupted view, it’s almost like old times back at the office.
This article first appeared in the Berlin-based daily, Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author email: email@example.com.