When a West German pilot flying his small airplane from southern to northern Germany was blown off course by a storm, he landed at Tempelhof—which was illegal, as was his flight over East Germany (and you can bet East German and Soviet air defense heads rolled). While the pilot was free to return to West Germany, the Soviets demanded the airplane be turned over to them. The allies refused. The French suggested they paint French markings on the airplane and fly it out. Finally, the wings were removed and loaded with the fuselage onto a U.S. transport and flown out—at the expense of the owner.
One Christmas Eve, the tower chief, Sergeant Parker Smoak, passed a “permission to land” request to the allied air representatives. Each officer read, signed, and passed it on. When it got to the Soviet officer, everyone wondered: What would he do? Finally, he shrugged, grinned, and stamped. Permission to land at Tempelhof was granted to Santa and his reindeer.
In 1975, a new airport in the French sector of Tegel opened, and civilian air traffic moved there. Tempelhof languished. It may have been the only U.S. Air Force base that never had an airplane assigned to it. Many of the 500 airmen and -women on the base did intelligence work at a radar post, listening to Eastern Europe. A daily courier flight came in from West Germany. Occasionally a Military Air Transport Service airplane arrived from South Carolina. The field was mostly used by the Army helicopter unit patrolling the Berlin Wall.
The 1990 reunification of Germany ended the Pan Am-British Airways-Air France monopoly on Berlin. Small carriers were permitted to fly to Brussels or Sylt, a popular German vacation island in the North Sea. The U.S. flag at Tempelhof came down in the summer of 1994.
In a 1996 decision that has riled thousands of Berliners, the city’s governing body, a coalition of Socialists and former Communists, announced plans to close Tempelhof. But the opening of the replacement airport, Berlin-Brandenburg International (the old Communist airport at Schoenefeld), keeps being postponed, and overruns have doubled the original estimate of 500 million Euros (about $750 million) for the opening. On October 31, the last airplanes will land and take off from Tempelhof.