Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Passing of a Cold War aviation landmark


Tucked among the week's dreary U.S. political news was a story that stirred personal nostalgia and sadness. Berlin's iconic, landmark Tempelhof airport is in its last days, unable to generate enough airline flights to justify its costly operation. Newer, more functional fields have won out.

The Cold War importance of Tempelhof can't be overstated. In 1947-48, Berliners escaped utter starvation because a U.S.-organized airlift of food and fuels arriving by the thousands of tons daily at Tempelhof airport defied a Russian ground blockade.

Thereafter, Tempelhof was the terminus to one of the few corridors into Berlin, a city surrounded by Russian-controlled East Germany.

Tempelhof's Cold War role is not its only fame: The airport's stunning architectural distinctiveness, the first railway station under an airport (1927) and its size are remarkable.

It was one of the world's first pre-war major international airports, expanded in stages as a showcase for Adolph Hitler. It's the only airport with a terminal canopy that allows airliners to park under the building.

About nostalgia: In my only trip behind the Iron Curtain, I flew into Tempelhof from West German Frankfurt in October 1961 with a trade mission led Florida Gov. Farris Bryant. I was reporting for The Miami Herald.

Weather was awful—overcast, turbulent. Pan Am warned us that Russian fighter planes frequently jumped U.S. commercial airliners in the narrow air corridor to Berlin to frighten pilots and passengers. We experienced none on this flight aboard the filled, four-prop Pan Am Douglas DC-6.

But it wouldn't be long until our group did encounter Soviet petulance. Part of our visit was to spend a few hours in East Berlin (very depressing!) accompanied by a U.S. Army captain as protective escort.

When we exited East Berlin, East German soldiers attempted to bar the vehicle from entering West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, a tactic employed to create tensions with the Allied powers of Berlin in those days. Without pause, our Army escort instructed the German driver, "Drive on! Run 'em down." And we sped to safety.

At lunch at U.S. headquarters, the commanding general told us that when the wire fence and cement blocks began showing up a few months earlier in what would eventually become the Berlin Wall, he called Washington and eventually talked to President Kennedy.

When JFK asked what the general recommended, he said, "Tear it down."

Unhappily, it would be another 28 years (1989) and an era of immense privation for Berliners before the Wall came down after President Ronald Reagan forcefully told Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."

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