Published in August 2016 issue

During the 1980s, Hamburg Airport (HAM), formally known as Flughafen Fuhlsbüttel, which no one can pronounce, had only a small variety of classic aircraft and airliners coming and going on scheduled service. However, the Lufthansa-Technik maintenance base (LHT) at the airport and the Airbus plant at Finkenwerder (south of Hamburg across the river Elbe) ensured that there was plenty of worthwhile plane spotting to be done in Hamburg.

By Dirk Grothe

Back then, plane spotting required a lot of patience and a commitment to spend time at the runways, waiting for a particular aircraft to appear—or be delayed, or not appear at all—without any updated information. No Flight radar App to track flights, no cellphones to communicate with other spotters, no Internet to post the latest news. Just the regular printed flight schedule that the airport sent you monthly by post, and a printed copy of the nonscheduled aircraft for the day. You got that last one by asking at the information counter inside the airport. The rest was just waiting and watching…

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It was the time of the cold war, with Germany still split into East and West by the iron curtain. Since Lufthansa (LH) was not allowed to fly into West Berlin (which was an enclave in East Germany), allied airliners served the routes between that half city and West Germany. Pan Am (with B737s and B727s) and later TWA (B727s) were daily guests at Hamburg during the 1980s.

In 1980, even Northwest Orient (NW) started a regular service between the US airports of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) and Detroit (DTW) and Germany with the Boeing 747, which, during peak season, flew daily into Hamburg. However, in 1984, NW moved to Frankfurt and thus closed down its area at HAM. Aircraft N632US (pictured) was just two weeks old when it was caught on that Kodak slide on May 14, 1984 (it had been delivered on May 1, 1984), and you can see its shiny, polished, brand-new fuselage. Definitely one of the highlights during this period at Hamburg.

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The Lufthansa-Technik maintenance base at Hamburg drew in a lot of visitors from Arab countries, such as Iraqi Airways (IA) 727s, Iran Airlines (IR) 727s/707s, Saudia (SV) 737s, under contract with LH for maintenance. This brought to Hamburg a lot of interesting planes that would not otherwise be seen in scheduled service. Iraqi Airways’ 727 YI-AGS is seen here on November 4, 1988, and seems to have already been given a fresh coat of paint during her check-up at LHT.

Starting with the A300 and followed by the A310, the Airbus plant at Hamburg- Finkenwerder also presented great opportunities to photograph exotic airliners from all over the world. Every Airbus plane built had to pass through Hamburg for cabinfitting. But it was hard to catch them at the right moment as the necessary information wasn’t readily available. Nevertheless, it was possible to get hints from any movement taking place from the fire station or the ATC tower for an Airbus or two per day, which involved endless waiting on the dike at the runway. Finally you would be rewarded with a Philippine Airlines (PR) ‘Lovebus’ returning from a test flight prior to delivery (RP-C3004 is seen here on July 26, 1982, with an Egypt Air A300 sitting on the ramp in the background). The security level was as low as the runway fences, and it was possible to get close to the aircraft for a perfect shot.

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Nowadays, Hamburg Airport is the fifth busiest airport in Germany, with 15.6 million passengers in 2015. LHT is still a maintenance base, bringing many interesting visitors from all over the world (747-8s as well as the last few remaining classic 747SPs). Airbus has a final assembly line at Finkenwerder for the A318/319/320/321 family, while every A380 passes through ‘Finki’ for cabin fitting and painting. It’s definitely worth a visit.

But, if you do visit hoping to be able to take pictures, just take care: because it’s hard to hear the engines, you will miss some planes if you don’t constantly keep an eye on the traffic. Modern aircraft have lost their once powerful voices and have become mere whisperers when passing by.

The days filled with the roaring thunder of the engines are gone; they have vanished just like the cheatlines and polished bellies—those were the days!