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Berlin's former lifeline now needs one

Voters today will weigh whether to ask the city to save Tempelhof Airport.

April 27, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Gabriele Leech-Anspach was a young mother with a toddler when Soviet authorities suddenly imposed a blockade on West Berlin in 1948, cutting off all road, train and boat access and leaving 2.2 million Berliners stranded on an island of the new Cold War.

"I was 29 years old. I had a boy of 2 years. It was very important that he got enough food," recalled Leech- Anspach, now 89, describing the new anxiety that spread across the city like a cold wind from the East just a few years after a world war had ended.

In what is now considered one of the greatest operations in aviation history, U.S. and British pilots began flying in the first of what would be more than 5,000 tons of supplies daily to Tempelhof Airport, whose grand passenger hall once was considered a temple to Adolf Hitler's dream of a grand Germania.

For the next 11 months, Leech-Anspach and her family had a steady supply of powdered eggs and milk, canned meat, dried vegetables and cornmeal for "yellow bread," delivered by planes that touched down at Tempelhof every 90 seconds. They cut wood from the nearby forests to heat their houses. Thanks to the Berlin airlift, they survived.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Tempelhof Airport: An article in Sunday's Section A about a referendum on plans to close Berlin's historic Tempelhof Airport, site of the Berlin airlift, stated that Orville Wright gave a flight demonstration at the location in 1903. The demonstration was in 1909.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 04, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Tempelhof Airport: An article in some editions of the April 27 Section A said that 80 tons of food were delivered to Tempelhof Airport during the 1940s Berlin airlift. In fact, more than 5,000 tons of supplies were delivered daily.

Today, Berlin residents will go to the polls to vote in a referendum on plans to close Tempelhof, which stands as a majestic relic near the center of a now-united Berlin. City officials say the aging airport, which today serves only a few small regional airlines and private jets, is too expensive and too close to a constantly growing city. Losses are reaching $15.7 million a year.

The city hopes to divert all of Berlin's air traffic to the huge Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport, scheduled to open 10 miles southeast of the city in 2011.

Rarely in recent years has a civic issue so mobilized the population as the battle for this neglected old airfield, so frozen in time that it looks like Ingrid Bergman might be about to board a DC-3 in the fog out on its grand, canopied tarmac.

The Berlin government, citing noise, crash and pollution hazards with neighborhoods little more than half a mile away, has ordered the facility closed in October.

The nonbinding referendum, if approved, would ask the city government to reverse the closure order and withdrawal of the airport's license.

Campaign posters advising citizens alternately to "Save Tempelhof" or refuse to continue subsidizing "a VIP airport" are on most street corners, and the pros and cons on the front pages of mass-circulation dailies.

"I think it's just a reminder of history," Leech-Anspach said. "Of course, some people say it's so expensive to keep it in its normal use, because we shall have this big new airport. But there's so much that has already been destroyed. I think it should remain as a document."

The campaign group leading the referendum drive gives a nod to history but seems more attuned to Chancellor Angela Merkel's claim that the airport is good for business.

Like National Airport in Washington, D.C., Tempelhof is convenient for businesspeople on short-haul flights or corporate jets. Parking is readily available just outside the terminal; check-in to boarding takes about 10 minutes.

Business flights will inevitably be squeezed out by big passenger jets for landing slots at the new airport, the campaign organizers predict, while Tempelhof's cachet as a functioning airport could attract new businesses to repopulate its huge, mostly empty buildings.

Two U.S. investors have proposed leaving the airport in place while converting the terminal building into a $550-million medical, research and commercial network centered on a large healthcare facility.

Perhaps ironically, those who want to close the airport are pushing hardest to preserve its history, as the place where war-ravaged Germans came to see the U.S. and Britain as liberators and friends.

City officials, with backing from several citizens and environmental groups, have proposed turning the storied terminal building into a museum of the Berlin airlift, while converting the huge tarmac and greenbelt behind it possibly into parks or some other public use, along with perhaps a small number of homes and businesses on the perimeter.

"It has been neglected by the city government. Until now there has been no real connection to the history of this place. And now we're thinking about how we can give this history a real future," said Tilmann Heuser, spokesman for the German Federation for Environment and Nature Protection.

Tempelhof's history, like that of some other remnants of prewar Germany, is so grand that it can be a bit uncomfortable.

A monument to National Socialist architecture constructed in the neoclassic style from 1934 to 1941, Tempelhof's terminal is still one of the largest buildings in the world. The carved eagles at its entrance no longer clutch swastikas, but the towering vertical space inside remains intimidating for mere weekend holiday-makers.

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