Airport left to ghosts and geese
Berlin has more airports than sense. It goes through them faster than your average Berliner goes through Sterni. They’re scattered around the city like discarded bottle-caps, use fulfilled, quickly forgotten.
Tempelhof, Tegel, Oranienburg, Sperenberg, Friedrichsfelde, Johannisthal and Rangsdorf are just some of the airports Berlin has thrown away. Now there’s another to add to the list – Flugplatz Schönwalde.
Built by the Nazis in the middle of nowhere north of Berlin by 1939, the Flugplatz was abandoned by the Soviets in 1992 – not that they had made much use of it as an airfield.
It has had even less love since, left to crumble in the gloom of its own decay, aching under the weight of unappreciation and disappointment.
Whatever you may say about the Nazis, they were a sneaky bunch, up to no good from an early age. One year after taking over in 1933, they already had secret plans in place to construct an airport to the southeast of Hennigsdorf in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles.
That treaty prohibited a lot of military activity after World War I. Europe’s history of treaties should prohibit it from making treaties.
The Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM, Ministry of Aviation) bought large tracts of land here in 1935. It had wooden barracks constructed to house the workers, who got to work fairly promptly. By 1939 they had constructed a proper airfield featuring a concrete runway with lights, radio control tower and several hangars.
There was also a rail connection to the Bötzowbahn, a since-abandoned line from Spandau to Bötzow, and to nearby barracks. A kitchen, casino and swimming pool were also built.
The Sportflugplatz Hennigsdorf – as it was originally known – became a pilot school for the German Luftwaffe up to 1943. The 14th air corps made it their home after that with the war in full swing.
Of course the Soviets took over once the swinging stopped. Troops from the 1st Belorussian Front took over without any resistance on Apr. 24, 1945. Hitler would kill himself six days later, not necessarily due to the loss of Flugplatz Schönwalde, but because he was upset all his dreams were shattered.
Flugplatz Schönwalde’s dreams as an airport were denied too. Because it was in one of the air corridors into West Berlin, it couldn’t really be used by the Soviets as an airfield once the dust settled after World War II.
They would have had to inform western flight control operators of their movements. Not only that, but the runway wasn’t long enough for the increasingly popular jet-propelled aircraft.
So they killed it. They pulled the plug on aviation at the airport, like denying a butterfly its wings, a fish its gills, or the CDU permission to build on Tempelhofer Feld.
The Soviets only used it as an airfield till the mid-1950s, when the first Soviet jet aircraft were stationed here. There was an oul’ helicopter here till 1965, but from then on it was only used by ground troops. The airport was grounded.
I was in one of the hangars when the first shots rang out. BANG BANG!! Then another, louder. BANG!!!
I froze, camera drawn halfway to my eye, heart drawn halfway to my mouth. Shit! Who were they shooting at? Me?! I hadn’t checked the place, and I wasn’t sure if parts were still being used by the German army or some other bunch of nutters in a gun club.
Maybe one of the Soviet soldiers was still there, itchy-fingered, bitter after more than 30 years stubbornly guarding his patch. I pictured him, gaunt and skinny, a quarter-century’s stubble on his face, naked but for a dogged old pair of boots, with a long-empty vodka bottle beside him and just the leaves for company.
Then I thought if I were in his position I wouldn’t be shooting people away. I’d be glad of company and the prospect of a drink. But these soldiers are crazy.
(It was only later on another visit that I encountered the rather friendly looking Soviet soldier still guarding the site with a Mona Lisa smile on his lips. It’s a wonderful glass mosaic, a real treasure, and I sincerely hope it survives the demolitions taking place around it.)
I proceeded away from the direction of the shots and ascertained it was just some idiots in a drag car or something, racing up and down, and the bangs were from the engine. It was a relief but also kinda diasppointing.
By now an altogether more dangerous enemy was closing in – darkness. I certainly had no desire to stay the night. I set back off in the general direction from which I’d come, pushing through the trees, defying branches, cursing the thorns.
There are no beaten tracks but for the road, best avoided say the fresh tire tracks. Before I knew it I was completely lost. All the buildings look the same and I’d no idea what way to go. I bashed my way on, and on, and on, encountering what seemed the same damn building each time.
Finally I spotted the chimney. A landmark! I could attempt to retrace my steps. On I ploughed, through the trees, the bushes, the grass, and on, ever mindful of the diminishing light. And there was my trusty steed, finally!
I was never so happy to see my bike. I hopped on and hopped off, much like the Easter bunny who delivered eggs to everyone but me.
A flock of geese was resting where the planes no longer land. At least they were making use of the runway. They looked at me and I at them. Howya geese. Then, once they saw me reaching for my camera, they took off. Gone! I followed them with my lens but it was a wild goose chase, hopeless. You’ve more chance of catching the ghosts of long departed airmen.
LOCATION AND ACCESS (HOW TO FIND GUIDE)
- What: Flugplatz Schönwalde. One of Berlin’s many abandoned airports or airfields.
- Where: An den Bauernhörsten, 14621 Schönwalde-Glien, Germany.
- How to get there: It’s a bit tricky. You’ll need yer bike and an S-Bahn. Get the S-Bahn (S25) to Hennigsdorf, then take the road south until you find Bötzowstraße, turn right onto that, and keep going straight until it becomes Schönwalder Straße, keep going until you can keep going no more. You’ll get to a forest track. Keep going, keep going, keep going, then you’ll eventually come to a fork, turn left onto some weird DDR-era road, head south, keep going past the silage walls and till you see the chimney over to your right. Once you find the little track branching off to your right, take it! It’ll bring you over a rickety bridge you’ll be amazed is still bridging, and then the Flugplatz is only a little further on. The fences have been knocked down. You’ll encounter similar resistance to that which the Russians encountered all those years ago. Flugplatz Schönwalde is desperate for anyone to come and realize its dreams as an airport. Here it is on a map in case you want to make those dreams come true.
- Getting in: Just go. There’s no one to stop you.
- When to go: Go during the day so you can see what you’re looking at. Go early in the day if you really want to explore and see things. You might want to go soon as it looks like windows have been removed from many buildings and that their days may be numbered. Some buildiings were already reduced to rubble on the last visit (Mar. 26, 2023).
- Difficulty rating: 3/10. Very easy once you find it. Most of the buildings are sealed up in some way or other, but all, as far as I could see, have doors open and windows open so you can get into any which place you may feel like getting into.
- Who to bring: Like-minded explorers. Friends if you want to have a party.
- What to bring: A (working) compass would be handy so you don’t get lost like I did. Otherwise bring the usual things, beer, rum, wine etc. A camera if you want to take photos, a torch and, you know, whatever you want to bring. This isn’t a Safari expedition. Bring yourself and you’ll be fine.
- Dangers: Geese, Soviet ghosts, Nazi vibes and weird strangers with no business hanging out where they do. Seriously, watch out for anyone that isn’t you. There’s definitely someone roaming around regularly as can be ascertained from the tire tracks, so keep your eye out for security, nosy neighbors, Polizei and anyone else who may want to spoil your fun.
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.
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.
Flugplatz Oranienburg served in the summer of 1944 as a test center for the legendary Horten Ho IX, the world’s first “stealth” bomber.
A fascinating post equipped with wonderful photos. Thank you so much for sharing.
Yesterday (friday) I was there for the second time in May and was kept by security. During my first visit on a sunday 3 weeks ago I met about 20 other visitors and haven´t seen security. Yesterday in 6 hours I met no one but suddenly a white car crosses the roads and hit me. Take my name and adress. Will see whats happens…
There today, no problems, a lot to see and explore. Did not see any security.
went there today without seeing any security. we were alone there for hours, meeting only four explorers on our way.
was there on Monday. 10 seconds after entering the site (thru south access way) I ran into the little white Sicherheits van and was busted. “But the gate was open,” I attempted to reason with him. “Das spielt KEINE ROLLE.” bummer, although he did not take any information. Next time I’d recommend parking bike in deep woods on east side and coming in that way, but it depends on how many patrols he actually makes. Maybe just coming very early is the key? who knows.
Just out of curiosity: What happened in this case? Did you get charged or anything? – Just asking since I plan to hit the spot soon 😉
Returned today, gambling that Herr Sicherheit would not be there on a fall mid-week day. I was correct, although there were fresh tire tracks in the mud, so he was here recently it seems. The recent windstorm that pulled down a lot of trees also blocked some of the access roads thru the property, which probably has cut down on the patrolling they can do. Anyway, entered from north of the paintball property on a Waldweg and easily got in thru the perimeter fence. Super eerie to see these massive buildings gradually materializing out of the morning forest mist. Explored all hangars, smokestack building and some quonset hut structures. Ghost aura is everywhere. No other people. Classic.
still open on 10.7.2018
Visited on 23.07.2018. Entered from the west dirt road leading from Bötzower Landstrasse. There seemed to be a working farm next to the first large hangar you spot in the distance. Sounds of sheep behind a gate with a sign warning trespassing indicated as much. Continued along the southern perimeter and entered onto one of the larger concrete roads leading to another one of the large hangars. At this point I heard voices and found a place to hide. A minute or two later a blue van with two guys drove past; they appeared to be going in the direction of the farm. Made a dash for the hangar and made it inside, thinking they might return. Spent a good hour photographing the hangar and one of the wooden quonsets in this area, then moved on to the east side of the base; towards the two largest hangars closest to the runway. This open area was really beautiful in the summer sun; however, one is somewhat exposed on the overgrown concrete road moving north. The sound of crickets almost drowned out what I believe was the sound of a car driving around not too far from my location; it was hard to pinpoint the direction but it kept me on my toes. Headed west, checking out one of the many barracks, then the smokestack building. A fallen tree still blocked one of the roads nearby. Headed south towards my entry point but took a right in the direction of the farm. I still wanted to check out the hangar I had first spotted. Once inside I heard the sound of a car approaching. Through one of the slits in the massive hangar door I watched it park at the farm. A woman got out and started unloading stuff from the boot with her back turned. I could easily spot her, meaning if she looked in my direction she would probably see me as well. I took a few more photos while the woman was doing her thing nearby, trying to stay out of sight and hoping the sound of the mirror on my SLR didn’t reverberate to loudly around the hangar. Having gotten what I wanted, I started heading back out the way I came. Then, out of nowhere, footsteps. I freeze. Someone is running, in my direction. Wait, they’re moving awfully quick though. Standing in the doorway I watch two deer dash past me at great speed. A pretty amazing sight. Were they spooked by something, or someone, though? I waited and listened but heard nothing. I had a bus to catch and couldn’t miss it so I packed my gear and backtracked the route. I saw no movement at the farm walking past it on my way out, no blue van either though; maybe they didn’t go there after all. All in all it was a fantastic visit. Definitely want to come back and explore the rest of the site.
I was there yesterday. I only entered one of the buildings before I got cold feet and biked out of there the fastest way I could. It was completely empty besides some graffiti and some barely recognizable surgical lights. The airport wall was completely knocked down where I entered, and when I cycled away I encountered nothing to stop my escape besides some big logs that had been placed across the road. I ended up just dragging my bike over them. One note if you’re coming here by bike and (like me) didn’t bother to read Ciarán’s instructions on how to get there and just thought “Oh, I’ll just cut over the grass fields next to it, it’ll be easy and I’ll have a nice view”, you’re gonna have a bad time. The grass does not fuck around there, Trying to ride through it is incredibly exhausting and I had to switch over just walking and pushing it. The local village alkys are about what you’d expect, too. One of ’em yelled after me that I look like a retard, which is honestly quite amusing to me. Oh, and if you are going to go cycling in cloudless 25°C weather (like me) and without a plan so you end up taking a 1,5x longer route through very rough terrain (like me), remember to bring a water bottle (unlike me). Yes, I was that dumb to forget having one.
I completely forgot to mention it but I didn’t see or even hear another person the entire time I was there, besides what sounded like the excited yelling of a child in the distance at one point While I was climbing on the roof like an idiot. I really wasn’t sure though. Could’ve easily just’ve been some animal call or something. If you’re unsure about checking the place out I’d do so soon as they’ve clearly started knocking a a few buildings down and using others as is visible per satellite view.
Was there yesterday (13.03.2022) – still easy to enter and wow – what an amazing place. It’s huge! I was there for 4 hours but still was not able to see everything. Totally recommend it!
Hi, could someone tell me which building the mosaic is in? I’m going to Berlin on Friday and would like to stop here, but I won’t have the time to check all the buildings. Tnx!
Hi Pieter, I tried sending you an email but it bounced back. If you want to get in touch, email explore at abandonedberlin dot com. Thanks!