Liebe Grüße from the world’s second oldest airfield
Flugplatz Johannisthal, or Johannisthal Airfield, had been shown very little love in recent years, ever since it was forced to play second fiddle to Tempelhof.
One of the world’s first motor airfields when it opened on Sept. 26, 1909, Johannisthal was apparently only beaten by Darmstadt’s August-Euler-Flugplatz, which opened the year before.
It was initially called Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, presumably to differentiate it from Tempelhof, where they were already flying balloons and airships, Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s Luft-Züge (air-trains) and anything else they could find to get off the ground.
Those were the days! Flight was still in its infancy and exciting! They hadn’t killed the fun by making you take your shoes off at the airport or forcing you to queue for hours to give the illusion of security. Ryanair didn’t even exist. It must have been fantastic.
People used to flock to Flugplatz Johannisthal to see these marvelous metal contraptions actually fly. Imagine it, the thrill! There was room on the main stand for 2,300 spectators, and 1,750 on another tribune.
Spectators were charged admission to help finance the airfield, but plenty simply hopped the fence and got in without paying. (Berliners never change.) So many showed up that they posed a risk to the flying machines they were coming to see.
Apparently airfield director Major Georg von Tschudi was outraged because most people were coming just to see the crashes, which were often fatal, and then helping themselves to whatever bits of aircraft they could find for souvenirs. Poor Georg. Das geht überhaupt nicht!
The fringes of the airfield were a hive of activity too, with different companies based in various garages and hangars constructing aircraft and/or offering flight lessons. Firms like Fokker, Albatros Flugzeugwerke GmbH, AGO and the Luft-Verkehrsgesellschaft were based here.
Germany’s first female aviator, Amelie “Melli” Beese, is synonymous with Johannisthal from this time. Apparently nobody wanted to teach her how to fly because she was a woman until she managed to persuade one Robert Thelen to do so. He quit after a crash due to a mechanical problem on her second flight but she returned to Johannisthal and got her license on Sept. 13, 1911, her 25th birthday, despite other aviators’ best efforts to sabotage her plane.
Beese showed them, the fuckers, and went on to set a number of height and endurance records. She also founded her own flying school with the help of Charles Boutard and Hermann Reichelt, Flugschule Melli Beese GmbH, and she even built her own plane, the Beese-Taube (Beese Pigeon).
She married Boutard and took French citizenship, which led to all sorts of problems later on. Beese and Boutard designed a flying boat, but it was destroyed by the authorities when they were declared enemies of the state with the outbreak of World War I.
Besse shot herself on Dec. 21, 1925. The note she left behind said, “Flying is essential, living is not.”
Others felt the same – they had to or flying would never have got off the ground – and airships also played their part at Johannisthal.
The first Parseval airship hangar was built in 1910 for Luft-Fahrzeug-Gesellschaft (LFG), which constructed all of August von Parseval’s designs.
The 75-meter hall initially housed a Parseval PL6 that used to float adverting messages through the Berlin sky at night. Images were projected onto its hull by a projector.
Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH built another giant hall beside it the following year, 160 meters long, for two Zeppelin airships, and different airships used to land and take off from Johannisthal, including a Schütte-Lanz-Luftschiff SLII, apparently one of the most impressive at the time.
A LZ18 Zeppelin belonging to the German Navy caught fire and exploded above Johannisthal on Oct. 17, 1913, with the loss of life of everyone on board. It was a major setback for the navy’s airship program, coming as it did just weeks after the Helgoland Island air disaster, in which its LZ14 Zeppelin crashed into the North Sea.
The Parseval hangar burned down in January 1915 as World War I was underway and the other was demolished in 1921 due to the conditions of the post-war Versailles treaty, which prohibited Germany’s use of military aircraft.
Only civilian flights were allowed. Germany’s first air passenger service started from Johannisthal to Weimar, though there were only around 4,000 newspapers on board the first flight on Feb. 5, 1919. There was post on board, too, the next day.
The passenger service started a few months later, with German president Friedrich Ebert apparently among the first guests. They weren’t made very comfortable as the planes were old military aircraft and passengers had to wear gloves, scarves, hats and goggles to keep the wind chill away.
The Johannisthal airfield’s demise began with the decision to construct a proper airport in Tempelhof, which opened in 1923 and nabbed all the civilian flights.
After that Johannisthal was mostly used for military purposes. Once the Nazis came to power, the Germans used it for testing as the army was sneakily rearmed before World War II. Well, that one didn’t work out too well either, and the Russians took over after that.
Soviet armed forces used Johannisthal briefly before upping sticks to Schönefeld in 1952. With Tempelhof now in West Berlin, it was Schönefeld’s turn to become Johannisthal’s chief tormentor. The more Schönefeld was built up, the less important Johannisthal became as an airfield.
As flying activity dwindled, other more grounded ventures took over. Fridges, for example. I know it’s not flying, it’s not pushing boundaries or the limits of human endurance, but fridges are cool, man.
VEB Kühlautomat Berlin was founded in April 1950 to make commercial and industrial cooling equipment, or refrigerators as Americans like to call them, in the area on the edge of the main airfield.
They made huge fridges for boats, East German fishing vessels trawling for contaminated fish in the Baltic. They also made engines for the Deutsche Reichsbahn after merging with VEB Motorenwerk Johannisthal in 1968. Some 2,500 people worked for the company at its peak.
Everything was chilled until Mauerfall put an end to it all. Nearly all the successful East German enterprises were snapped up for next to nothing by West German counterparts after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So it was with VEB Kühlautomat, sold in 1994 to a firm from Bochum and relocated over the next couple of years to Reinickendorf.
Flugplatz Johannisthal itself was officially closed down for good in 1995. Now it’s a park, ironically sharing Tempelhof’s fate. They can laugh about it now, the old airports, they’ve put their differences aside.
But in contrast to Tempelhof, which has valiantly opposed any development thus far, Johannisthal has partly made way for a science and technology park, including some campuses belonging to Humboldt University.
Most of the former airfield is left to contemplate what could have been. The park is pretty boring, well off the beaten track, appreciated only by goats, birds, beetles, and locals walking their dogs. Even the dogs seem bored.
The wasteland, well, it’s a waste, crumbling and stumbling from one day to the next as the memory of those great flying pioneers grows ever fainter.
LOCATION AND ACCESS (HOW TO FIND GUIDE)
- What: Flugplatz Johannisthal and the remnants of its hangars and subsequent industrial area, a park and wasteland these days. It claims to be the world’s second oldest airfield but now it wallows in despair, overseen and forgotten in favor of other trendier and more popular former airports.
- Where: There’s no address anymore seeing as it doesn’t exist anymore. If you look up “Ehemal. Flugfeld Johannisthal” you’ll find it. The industrial wasteland is at Segelfliegerdamm 15, 27, 41 and a few other numbers, 12487 Berlin.
- How to get there: If you’re on foot, take the S-Bahn to Schöneweide and walk from there. It’s a good long walk. I recommend bringing your bike and skipping the walking. The S-Bahnhof at Betriebsbahnhof Schöneweide is actually closer but for some practical reasons known only to German bridge operators, the bridge over the tracks is closed so your only option is to walk back almost to S-Bhf Schöneweide or Adlershof to cross there. So just take the train to Schöneweide, turn right out of the station, then right onto Sterndamm, left onto Groß-Berliner Damm until you get to Segelfliegerdamm. Keep walking (or cycling) till you see the Polizei on the right. Your industrial wasteland and park behind is to your left. Here’s a map to help ensure a happy landing.
- Getting in: Walk past the sports facilities, turn left around the back of them until you find the fence. Find the hole or part of the fence you can lift up and hop in.
- When to go: Daytime is best for seeing where you’re going and avoiding injury. Nighttime if you want a party, though remember the Polizei are just across the road. If you’re too loud they’ll be all over you like an infatuated rash.
- Difficulty rating: 3/10. A bit awkward to get to in a part of Berlin nobody normally visits. Easy enough when you get there.
- Who to bring: Bring your girlfriend/boyfriend if you want to propose at the House of Love. Bring your friends if you want to have a party.
- What to bring: Beer of course! I can’t believe I have to write this every time. You should know by now that when it comes to these types of places they don’t have Spätis on site, or normally even nearby. Bring your own booze if you want to drink there, your own food if you want to eat. Camera, torch, compass, mosquito spray and crocodile traps are optional accessories of varying practicality.
- Dangers: You need to keep an eye out for the Polizei across the road, and of course any other nosy neighbors who might be around. Some of the buildings in the industrial area are still in use so watch out for workers and their noisy machines. You’ll hear them before they see you. If anyone asks, just tell them you’re looking for the departure gates.
Vielen Dank an Henry Lukas für den Tipp! Thanks also to Mark Rodden for casting his eye over the copy. Any typos or glaring errors are his fault.
Other forgotten airfields
West Berlin’s lifeline during the Soviet Blockade, Tempelhof Airport has since become the city’s biggest park. Berliners will fight to keep it that way.
Germany’s Luftwaffe used Flugplatz Schönwalde for the war. The Soviets took over afterward and left their traces after abandoning the airfield in 1992.
Flugplatz Brand was strategically important for the Soviet Air Force. Thankfully its battalions of flying fighters remained on ice for the duration of the Cold War.