It was still raining on October 30, 2008 as at 11.55 PM the last machines ever to take off from the Tempelhof Airport – a Douglas DC-3 “Raisin Bomber” and Junkers Ju52 “Tante Ju” – began their flight. The weather that day seemed to match the mood. But neither the leaden skies, nor the downpour seemed to bother any of the quietly mourning fans of the “Mother of All Airports”, who arrived to witness the last machines leaving Tempelhof. It was important to be there.
When the very first commercial aircraft from Berlin to London took off from Berlin-Staaken airfield on December 27, 1922, the weather was even worse. But, at the same time, the flight was just as important. Those who were present, knew it was a sink or swim situation. At stake was an official license permitting commercial flights between Berlin and London come 1923. And the machine waiting to take off could become the first civilian German aeroplane to land in England after the end of the First World War. Something that, considering Germany’s demise and the heavy sanctions that followed, would have been out of the question not such a long time before that.
The 5-seater (four passengers + pilot) Dornier Komet II monoplane, launched with the factory number 24 and granted the serial number D223, got approved and registered on October 9, 1922. It was chosen for this December mission after it had become clear that the initially selected Albatros machine would not do.
At the helm Captain Max Kahlow, German flight hero of the Imperial Air Force and a man awarded not one but two Iron Crosses (1st and 2nd Class), who – fortunately for the enterprise at hand – was used to bad weather conditions. Sat in his open cockpit, whipped by the wind and the rain, he felt, if not comfortable, then at least at home. On board were three directors of the Deutsche Luftreederei (the future Deutsche Lufthansa) whose contract with the British airline Daimler Hire Ltd, signed a few months earlier, was to become a springboard for a regular Berlin-London flight connection from 1923 onwards.
In order to be granted the necessary licence, both sides had to have their machines approved and registered by the local authorities at both destinations: the Brits had to fly to Staaken to introduce themselves and the aeroplane to the German experts (their De Havilland DH34 landed in Staaken on 19 December 1922) while the German aircraft was told to report in London as soon as possible. Which meant that DLR’s D223 had to reach the British capital before the year ended – before 1 January 1923.
Dornier Comet D223 was a rather magnificent but not very powerful machine. Following the post-war restrictions, the maximum power for German plane engines could not exceed
but in 1922 no passenger flight was in for plain sailing. Staying on course despite very poor weather conditions to reach the airfield and then to land without damaging the machine and/or hurting passengers was a small masterpiece. Unfortunately, on December 27, 1922, the weather in northern Europe was a disaster. Heavy clouds, stormy wind, relentless rain combined with thick, almost palpable fog. But Kahlow and his passengers had no choice. And so the Dornier airplane took off from Staaken. Captain Kahlow took the course towards the seacoast, heading for Bremen. This was where they had to take a break – the weather conditions went from disastrous to impossible.
Kahlow quickly realised that this would not be their last stopover. Forget the direct flight! It took them two days to get out of Bremen. It was December the 29th by now. In Amsterdam, where D223 landed next, the weather was no better. They were halted again. By the time the machine reached Rotterdam one day later, the tension became almost unbearable. Just like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days”, the heroes of this story – coincidentally heading for London, too – were under enormous time pressure. By that point they had only one day to reach their destination. So back on board they went and the Dornier Komet took off for the fourth time. Reaching the stormy sky, she fought its way through the elements raging along the Dutch coast.
Over the wind and rainswept beaches of Belgium and France, the fearless aeronauts reached Calais. In spite of the risks, pushed forward by the tight schedule and ambition, they dared the flight over the English Channel to Dover. Soon they could see the silhouette of the cliffs, heavily blurred like an overeager watercolour. It being the land of Charles Dickens and Jack the Ripper, what else could have awaited them there but thick, almost tangible fog? With the entire coast veiled in its ghostly garb, London suddenly felt as far away as Berlin. The Komet would not make it. It rained and drizzled, the fog did not subside, and weak winter light slowly began to dissolve within it. It was December 31, 1922.
After a short exchange between all involved, the decision was made: they had to reach and land on the nearest, now almost completely muddy, airfield in Lympne. They had to admit their defeat.
And then a small miracle happened: the next morning, on January 1, 1923, instead of giving up and finally enjoying a bit of rest, everyone involved got back on the plane and flew to Croydon. Their landing at the London airfield was greeted with much applause and admiration. Despite the delay, the thick-bellied Dornier Komet – whose low-hanging body that did not require steps or a ladder to enter the cabin was a reminder that its designer, Claude Dornier, was first and foremost famous for his incredible flying boats – was granted the badly needed licence by the British aviation authorities. The sky between Berlin and London was open again.
Eighty-six years later, on 30 October 2008 at 4.45 PM, in the pouring rain a plane took off from Tempelhof Central Airport for the last sightseeing flight over Berlin. It was a D-COSA, Cosmos Air Dornier. And we, Dear Reader, although soaking wet, hungry and cold, were there to witness that moment.