The Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr - Flugplatz Berlin-Gatow (Luftwaffe museum) is a little off the beaten tourist track, but SO worth a visit!
Gatow has been a military airfield for the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force (RAF) since 1934, and this amazing museum, a branch of the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr (the principal museum is in Dresden) - focuses on military aircraft and ground-air defense (radar, searchlights, flak & missile systems) from the early pioneer days of flight, through WWI, WW2, and the Cold War era, to today.
The exhibits, including 150+ aircraft, are displayed in two large hangers, in the ground floor of the control tower building, and in the open-air on the tarmac airfield apron - over a million sq metres with 70 aircraft & 60 pieces of military equipment (missile vehicles, etc) - SO, get used to walking. You will be doing a lot of it!
So, what have they got?
Well, lots of stuff to drool over, including plenty of classic/iconic aircraft like the F104 Starfighter, of which they have several!
The control tower building is a good place to start. The rooms here concentrate on the personnel, their uniforms and lifestyles. Highlights that made me stop and pay attention were an Enigma machine and Herman Goering's uniform.
Hanger 3 has the First & Second World War aircraft and some Korean/Cold war era jets. There are some real treats in here including some classic fighters like the Fokker DR1. triplane, ME 163, ME 109G, MIG 15 & MIG 21, but the exhibits that made me stop were the 88mm Flak gun & searchlight (you don't often get to see those), the wreckage of an ME 108 (the rare 109 predecessor) and the Junkers Jumo jet engine from a ME 262. I also had to stop & stare close-up in detail at the slender wings of a Starfighter. For heaven's sake, at their thickest they can't be more than 9cms. How on earth did they carry fuel pods & missiles without falling off, let alone support the aircraft in a bit of turbulence? Some of the answer may be in the structure of the Mig 21 control surfaces which on one side have been exposed so you can see how it was made.
Hanger 7 has some of the more modern jets in it like the F4 Phantom, the Tornado, Dassault Alpha Jet and the utterly beautiful MIG 29 Fulcrum, but the unexpected items included a close up view into the cockpit of an F4 Phantom, and several rooms with all the command & control equipment for the ground-based air defence systems of the Cold War, including a cutaway view of a Nike Ajax Surface-to-Air missile (SAM).
Out on the tarmac there are lots of aircraft helicopters and mobile air defence, radar & control vehicles. I rather like the mobile airfield control towers, one of which, on a trailer, extends skywards on a scissor-jack. Parked everywhere, are some extraordinary and classic aircraft: English Electric Lightning and Canberra, F6 Sabre jet, Mig 23, Dassault Mirage, Hawker Hunter and Harrier, Douglas Dakota (actually, probably the C47 military transport variation. I didn't get that close). Sadly quite a few seem to be suffering for being left out in the elements.
The highlights on the tarmac for me, were...
- The Fairey Gannet AEW/AS (with contra-rotating prop). I bet the Royal Navy wishes they had a few of those still! Not that they could fly one, or a proper grown-up E-2D Hawkeye, off the ridiculous new faux carriers we are building! Let's hope they can find a way to launch & retrieve swarms of AEW drones... but I digress!
- The pair of Mil Mi-24 gunships "Hinds". Just such sinister & business-like helicopters. You don't often have a chance to get close to them.
- The Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft. I know it's a little weird, but I love this machine. I even have a model of one, with a 52-cm wingspan, dominating my desk at home! It's just so... purpose-built: long, slender wings for long-range efficiency; two powerful turbo-props with big blades; a long tail, tailfin bulb, underbody radar pod, and wingtip pods, all bristling with sensors; a bomb bay full of aerial torpedoes and rescue gear, and a grid of tubes to drop sonar buoys.
Disappointments? The museum shop was a little shabby & underwhelming, given the high standards everywhere else. And I missed the Heinkel HE III WWII bomber which I understand they have (must have been in one of the restoration workshops).
I was there on a Tuesday in early March (2015), so I pretty much had the entire place to myself. Other than the museum attendants, I saw only a handful of visitors who began to turn up in the afternoon. Clearly it gets busier in the summer and during holidays. The peak time is during the annual airfield festival in September. (Speaking of busy, the historic peak for Gatow must have been during the Berlin Airlift when it was handling a third of the flights.)
In the entrance office there is a charity collection box (entrance to the museum is free). I put 20 euros in because frankly it was worth at least twice that! You decide what you should contribute, but I think everyone should contribute something to ensure these amazing exhibits are preserved and expanded... and that is the intention. In total there are nine hangers on the airfield. In addition to the two display hangers, one is being used for restoration work and three as depots. The plan is to turn them into display areas too.
Gatow is on the south-western outskirts of Berlin but easy to get to. It takes about 50 mins from Alexanderplatz to the museum. If you have a Berlin Welcome Card*, that will cover the S-bahn & bus. (The first time you use a ticket, you have to get it time/date stamped. Look for a little yellow machine on the platform or bus)
Take the S5 train from the centre of town (eg. Alexanderplatz, Friedrichstrasse, Central Station, Tiergarten, Zoologischer Garten) to Spandau (end of the line).
When you get off the train go straight down to the street.
(The track crosses a main road as it enters the station. Don't cross back over the road via the footbridge. You want to be on the station side (west) of the road because you will be taking the bus south.)
Look for the #135 bus stop to Landstadt Gatow. Board the bus at the front (flash your stamped ticket at the driver, or buy one). The bus heads south out of the built up area (Spandau) into the woodlands areas along the banks of the Havel (river/lake). You want to get off at the 13th stop, Kurpromenade (there's a digital display and voice announcements of the next stop). If you miss it, the next stop, Seekorso, is almost as good.
Ok, here's the thing. Between the main road and the old Gatow airbase, they've built a nice new housing estate and there are no signs to guide you.
Cross over the main road and go down Leonardo-da-Vinci Strasse (quiet pedestrianised street next to Kaiser's supermarket), which takes you through the estate, straight to the entrance road for the Luftwaffe Museum (and the first piece of signage!). It's a ten minute walk, and then another five to the entrance building.
Return the same way: the 135 bus towards Rathaus Spandau.
If you drive, there is free parking (and your feet won't hurt so much!).
Museum entry is free. There are toilets (portaloo) by the entrance building and in the control tower building. There is a shop
Tuesday to Sunday, 1000 - 1800 (Don't make the mistake of going all the way out there on a Monday! Unless it's a public holiday.)
Treat this a whole day's outing. I spent 3½ hours at the museum, and an hour travelling each way. Take comfortable walking shoes, some supplies (water, snack) and a camera. They are perfectly happy for you to take photos for 'personal use'. Don't take anyone who won't last the course; ie. a partner or kids who might start complaining that they are bored or their feet hurt, soon after you've arrived.
* Declaration. I was kindly given a Berlin Welcome Card by Visit Berlin, but that's not going to stop me saying they are totally worth it!