US soldiers and official guests attend
Torsten Silz  /  AFP - Getty Images
U.S. soldiers and guests attend the renaming ceremony of a cargo plane to Spirit of Rhein-Main at the military airbase in Frankfurt/Main on Monday. The ceremony marked the return of the base to Germany.
updated 10/10/2005 3:33:57 PM ET 2005-10-10T19:33:57

The United States formally handed Rhein-Main Air Base over to the German government Monday, ending a 60-year stay during which the sprawling field was a hub of activity for American forces facing Soviet bloc troops and Mideast tensions.

Gen. Robert Foglesong, commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, called it “a grand old base with a lot of history,” but said moving operations to other bases in Germany was necessary to save money.

Rhein-Main saw a steady stream of planes fly supplies to West Berliners in the late 1940s to break the Soviet blockade of the city. A decade later, it bade Elvis Presley farewell after his Army service, and still later welcomed American hostages from Iran and wounded U.S. forces returning from the Middle East.

Honor and homage
“It’s like a funeral,” said retired Col. Gail Halversen, 85, who was one of the Berlin Airlift pilots.

But, he added, “we’re not here to cry, we’re here to honor and pay homage to all the people on the ground and in the air who made it possible to supply a city of over 2 million people.”

Instead of the constant landings and takeoffs of C-130s, F-16 Fighting Falcons and the gargantuan C-17s ferrying tons of supplies and thousands of troops worldwide, Rhein-Main Air Base has gone quiet, nearly devoid of activity as it prepares to shut down. The handover, based on a 1999 U.S.-German agreement, will take until the end of the year.

Fraport AG, which operates the adjacent Frankfurt International Airport, plans to use the additional space as it prepares to house a new maintenance and supply facility for the new Airbus super-jumbo A380, the world’s largest passenger jet. Construction began last month on the new hangar, part of a $124 million effort to get ready for the plane.

But the base’s memory will be kept alive by one C-17 Globemaster transport plane, which was unveiled at the ceremony to reveal that it had been renamed “Spirit of Rhein-Main.”

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