Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof. Berlin’s first airport and its life after death… Is this Tempelhof’s future?

Paul Engelhardt in an airplane (Berlin-Johannistal/Adlershof, August 1910) No © needed, photo by Otto Haeckel

This week, the votes to preserve the Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof’s Airfield) were counted. With over 185.000 votes, the Tempelhofer Feld is save from the phantasies of architects and city-planners. With its 365 hectare and central location, its nothing less than a metropolitan miracle. One thinks of the Tempelhofer Feld as the proof that Berlin is spacious enough – and not that commercial (yet). Interestingly, the greenfield land is not that unique as we consider it to be. Berlin actually has a whole history when it comes to closed down airfields within the build-up area!

Motorflugplatz Johannisthal/Adlershof. Photo from 1927.

Perhaps I am cheating a bit here, since the first Berlin airport opened –between the suburbs of Johannisthal and Adlershof- in 1909, it wasn’t part of the Berlin municipal untill 1920. The activities developed in no-time. Somewhat ten companies -usually airplane instructors and -constructers combined- gathered around the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof (‘Engine driven airfield’). Even the famous American brothers Wright, who in 1903 were the first to prove that gravitation is beconquerable with an airplane, build a factory at the Motorflugplatz. Two grandstands were able to host 6500 visitors, while a location was made for another 10.000 attentives to stand and witness the development.

German advertisement of the Wright company, ±1910

The audience could enter the airfield by four gates, while the field was protected by a three meter high fence. It couldn’t prevent defaulters from climbing over and crossing the field – in despite of the venture. It is known that, in its first years, the visitors had a peculiar interest for the accidents that happened. First they would take a look -mostly with faked condolence- if the pilot succumbed, before the flotsams and jetsams were lifted as a souvenir.

The Deutschlandflag (June/July 1911) at a map.

The spirit in the German Empire seemed to be devoted to the sky. While Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof opened as the second within the empire, a whole Deutschlandflug (Flight of Germany) was organised in June and July 1911. Another sixteen airfields participated with the competition. Remarkably, all of them were located in the North and the West of the former Empire. (Perhaps, this commemorates the good old days in which Bavaria wasn’t more than a rural and underdeveloped province!) The 24 participants didn’t compete so much for being the fastest one to land back at Johannisthal-Adlershof, but especially for whoever succeeded the most tracks – or actually, who made the most valid kilometers. The reward was a price who was handed out by the Berliner Zeitung (Berlin’s local newspaper) which wrote the competition till it was a huge media spectacle.

Advertisement for the 'Deutschen Rundflug' in the Berliner Zeitung (June 1911)

That there was general concern doesn’t require a whole elucidation. The 250.000 who -without false modesty- were expected to come were outnumbed with an additional 350.000 visitors who witnessed the starting shots, at least – if they mastered the traffic chaos. Already from the start at the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof it looked like the competition was going to be tough. Only seven participants took off that day, of which only one airplane arrived at the first destination of Magdeburg. The other pilots and their machines would arrive in the following days. By June 7th, eight out of 24 contestants made it back till Johannisthal-Adlershof. The sixteen others were stranded on their way. Benno König, who’ve spended 1882,5 kilometers in his Albatros, was given a sum of 89.015Mark – and the eternal honour.

Benno König (Berlin-Johannisthal/Adlershof, 1911) Winner of the first Deutschlandflug.

Back then, pilots weren’t just mortal human beings, but nothing else than heroes with a star status. The futuristic machines must have made quite a little impression, although the chairs often consisted of a loose fruit crate. Therefore, the courage which a pilot demanded to go -voluntarily- into such machines were peerless. The risks were not to be forgotten, and with peaks came the prices which had to be paid. In September 1911, the chain of Paul Engelhardt’s (see today’s first photo) Wright airplane broke, after which he crashed away at the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof. His pupil who was in the airplane, survived the crash with light injuries – Engelhardt himself was no more. The reputation of the -once pioneering- Wright company, whose airplanes had this one technical flaw more often, was injured as well. Within 1911 and its next two years, another 21 airplane pilots died in crashes – of which 12 in 1913 only. Therewith, the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof was the most lethal airfield within Germany. And besides airplane pilots, there were more victims at the plot. When a zeppelin left the Motorflugplatz at October 17th, 1913 – it inflamed at a height of over the 100 meters. None of the 28 men survived the crash.

Photo of the burning zeppelin (Berlin-Johannisthal/Adlershof, October 1913). No © needed, copyrights have expired.

As soon as World War I broke out, the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof was placed under military supervision. A number of soldiers had to learn how to fly, which intensified the air-traffic – as well as the number of accidents. In the next four years, 74 casualties fell – even before they made it to the frontlines.

Advertisement about the airpost (1919)

In 1919, the Motorflugplatz started the German history of regularly posting flights at the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof. Twice a day, airplanes went to Hamburg, Leipzig and Weimar & Hannover and Gelsenkirchen. The first passenger flights were a fact as well. Unfortunately, the airfield wasn’t given a long glory. When the airport Tempelhof opened in 1923, the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof became redundant in no time. All the traffic went to the more central located airport.

Let me summarise the rest of the Motorflugplatz‘s history. Between 1932 and 1935, the airport was given a new life. Testing grounds -such as a wind tunnel and a sound muted building- could improve the aerodynamics and engine technology, which the Nazi’s used as well. After World War II, the Red Army used the airfield which happened to be in the Soviet sector of Berlin. In 1946, they moved their activities to the new airport of Schönefeld. Another six years later, the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof was taken out of use. The huge zone became a no man’s land. A funny detail is that the airfield officially closed in 1995. Unfortunately, it witnessed a last deadly accident during the closing ceremonial. The two pilots who, at too little height, did a stunt – brought themselves, together with a Nazi airplane (type Messerschmitt Bf 108) to the ground.

The Trudelturm (left) and the engine testing ground (right). Berlin-Johannisthal/Adlershof, January 2014. No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser.


Directly after the airfield was closed in the 1950s, a part was transformed into the
Johannisthaler Park. In its hangars, companies were established where -for example- food was cooled by the state-owned VEB Kühlautomat. After the Fall of the wall and the collapse of socialism, the company went bankrupt in 1996 – after which the sheds decayed. Other parts of the former airfield are given a more honourable future. Since 1991, the technical testing ground belonged to the Humboldt Universität. Since the end if the 1990s, 65 hectare of former airfield is protected as environmental area. So when you go to the former Motorflugplatz now, you don’t see much spectacular. Although the spacious view at the environmental area must have been there for many decades, it feels somewhat artificial – since it’s surrounded by an industrial area as well as an estating project under construction…

With this entry, I aimed to make clear that the Tempelhofer Feld is not the only urban airport which is out of use in Berlin – and I’ve not even been talking about the former airfields Gatow and Staaken, both in the West of the German capital. However, that Tempelhof isn’t that unique doesn’t keep me from thinking that it’s better to leave it uncultivated. A partly constructed airfield, such as happened to the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, is not much of a model. Luckily, it looks like the faith of Tempelhof has concerned more people – and is therefore saved from a concrete and asphalted future. By the way, the nearby future will bring another unused airport. As you may know, the airports Tegel and Schönefeld will close as soon as the Flughafen Berlin-Brandenburg will open its doors. Given the presence of Berlin’s natural law in which an airfield is only temporary, a diplomated mathematician may try and calculate when this one is closing!

Landschaftspark Johannisthal/Adlershof (Berlin-Johannisthal/Adlershof, January 2014). No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser.

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