From swamp to main airport in Finland I

Pentti Salminen / Malmi Illustrated 1996
By permission of the author
Translation and updates: Seppo Sipilä 2003

Malmi Airport was completed 65 years ago - the first 10 years

The roof of the hangar being built in 1937.
The roof of the hangar being built in 1937.

Despised, feared, awaited, hated and loved; all this has Tattarisuo been to its inhabitants. Just like any other swamp, Tattarisuo lay there quaking and wobbling about, breathing icy frost and hiding under a blanket of snow in wintertime. A bog, that's all!

The development of Malmi, Helsinki and the whole country didn't seem to concern Tattarisuo. From the point of view of the powers that be, the area was hopelessly out of the way.

But then, the examples set in the big world encouraged the building of land airports near the most significant cities. In spite of our thousands of lakes, the era of floatplanes had come to an end in Finland. Many were still nostalgic and harbored rosy dreams: "Maybe after all... fields should be saved for agriculture".

The relatively young Finnish state was looking for a location for its capital's airport. The City Council of Helsinki decided to try and take the easy way out, offering in 1932 the worthless seafront of northern Vanhakaupunki as a location for the new land airport. Thus, the city would nicely get rid of a piece of wasteland, a worthless thicket.

The State would build and pay for the airport needed by Helsinki. Those in charge of the matter did not fall for this and turned the offer down.

The next location was found in 1933 far from the city center, on the fields of Tuomarinkylä. The area was prime-quality farmland, and the farmers shed copious tears over the matter. An alternative was eagerly sought after, and then someone came up with Tattarisuo by Malmi. In May 1935, City of Helsinki and the State signed an agreement to build the airport. The City allocated a 55-hectare area to the State's needs for 99 years. The agreement is valid until the year 2034.

The loudest critic of the airport-to-be was the most famous Finnish aviator and expert, Captain Väinö Bremer, who reminded of the dangers and troubles the treacherous swamp would bring along. Nobody believed him. On a worthless swamp (from the City's point of view) the State built an airport with four 800-meter runways, and a 104-meter-long hangar which in the drawing board phase was the biggest in Europe. In addition, an administrative building with a passenger lounge, a restaurant, a meteo and a control tower, a Customs office and other necessary facilities was erected. The airport was equipped with the most modern lighting and communications systems which represented the peak of know-how and technology of their time.

The Difficult Beginning

The swamp didn't surrender to the constructors easily. With the machinery and tools of that time the task had seemed impossible. Horses and carriages felt best suited for the job, and temporary tracks criss-crossed the swaying swamp. A man and a shovel rose to high esteem as the bottomless swamp came up with all kinds of surprises. The subsurface drainage and sewerage of the area proved to be the key prerequisite to the whole project.

Modest air traffic began on 16 December 1936, and in the turn of the year 1936-1937 the air route Malmi-Turku-Stockholm was opened. The Swedish AB Aerotransport operated the flights and a bit later Aero's aircraft joined in when the Junkers 52/3m aircraft had been stripped of floats and equipped with landing gear.

In 1937, 15000 passengers departed from and arrived at Malmi. Compared to the numbers of passengers at present-day Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, this figure seems amusingly small, but so were the aircraft. The Junkers 52, known as "Junnu", could take on 14 passengers and a crew of three. In 1937, the number of passenger seats was increased to sixteen.

In the middle of the same year, 14 scheduled flights landed at and departed from Malmi to the most important cities, even Jerusalem with a connection via Warsaw. A flight to London took 11 hours, to Berlin seven hours, and one could get to Stockholm in just a couple of hours. Among foreign airlines, the Polish LOT and the Swedish ABA were represented.

Tattarisuo Swamp Gives a Reminder

On Thursday, 29 July 1937 at 5 o'clock in the afternoon the pride of Germany, giant of the skies Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg landed at Malmi Airport. Among others, the City Council of Helsinki had hurried straight from their meeting to witness this wonder.

In front of the administrative building stood a huge corrugated-steel four-engined Junkers with four-blade propellers. It had brought the Latvian team to participate in the Shooting World Championship Contest in Helsinki.

The aircraft had been built as early as 1931, when diesel engines were still believed in as aircraft power plants. It had four 750-horsepower engines, a cabin with two decks and room for 34 passengers, a crew of seven and a fully furnished dining room. It was equipped with modern Telefunken radios and radio navigation equipment.

This visit was also the last one for this aircraft; when preparing for take-off, it sank axle-deep into the swamp at the end of the runway close to Tapanila. The pride of Germany lay in the bog, and the prophecy of Väinö Bremer had been fulfilled 100 percent for the first time. Finally, after a lot of grunting, digging and pulling, the aircraft popped up onto the runway, but the Germans had had it with Tattarisuo for the time being. Out of politeness, the newspapers didn't write much about the incident, but as a boy I witnessed this wonder with my own eyes. For mighty Germany and the City Counsellors of Helsinki such publicity would have been humiliating. With an empty aircraft, captain Brauer took off in his Hindenburg, probably steaming beads of sweat in his uniform cap and awaiting eagerly the solid concrete surface of Berlin Airport.

Inauguration 15 May 1938

The day of completion finally dawned, and the exceptionally big opening ceremony was attended by 2000 invited guests, among others Prime Minister Cajander and general Mannerheim. The big airshow organized by SILI (Finnish Air Defense Association) was witnessed by 25000 satisfied viewers. One of the most peculiar specialties was a German autogiro that flew without wings. The autogiro was an early phase in the development of helicopters; rotors replaced the wing and an ordinary airplane propeller maintained airspeed. In those days, industrializing Germany was the figurehead of aviation, and German aircraft were strongly represented in the programme of the airshow.

In a manner, Malmi Airport also claimed its first victims, as a Latvian two-seat sportsplane that had participated in the airshow crashed on the fields of Viikki, killing both pilots. One of them was a Finnish student of technology.

In 1938, the number of air operations increased in cooperation with Deutsche Lufthansa. Scheduled flights reached all the way to Königsberg and later to Berlin. Aero was looking for larger passenger aircraft. The German four-engine Focke-Wulf Condor, which visited Malmi on 30 June 1938, was found suitable. A preliminary order for these aircraft had been placed when...

The Dark Clouds of War

Nobel laureate writer F.E. Sillanpää with his daughter Saara and his second wife Anna von Hertzen at Malmi Airport, departing to Stockholm after the Winter War on 3 April 1940. This same 'Kaleva' was shot down by the Soviet Air Force over the Gulf of Finland on 14 June 1940.
Nobel laureate writer F.E. Sillanpää with his daughter Saara and his second wife Anna von Hertzen at Malmi Airport, departing to Stockholm after the Winter War on 3 April 1940. This same 'Kaleva' was shot down by the Soviet Air Force over the Gulf of Finland on 14 June 1940.

The Winter War was too short to disturb the relatively peaceful pace of life at Malmi Airport. Civilian air traffic was disrupted, though. A few warplanes were stationed at the Airport: Fokker D.XXI fighters and trainer biplanes. Some Bristol Blenheim bombers were there too, and they were eventually joined by a war booty SB bomber. The Airport was spared of bombing raids. In 1940, right after the Winter War, a new Estonian company AGO joined the traffic by flying the route Tallinn-Helsinki.

Aero's Kaleva Is Shot Down Near Tallinn

A shocking tragedy silenced the whole civilized world when Aero's "Kaleva" was shot down en route from Tallinn to Helsinki. Two Soviet bombers drew alongside Kaleva and downed it in a few minutes by cold-blooded machine gun fire. A submarine of the same armed forces picked up courier mail bags floating at the crash site and then slipped away. The Soviet Union denied the whole incident, and the truth was confirmed only in recent years as eye witnesses told about the events.

Brewster fighters were brought to Malmi in late winter 1940. They didn't quite make it to the Winter War.
Brewster fighters were brought to Malmi in late winter 1940. They didn't quite make it to the Winter War.

The times after the Winter War were quite trying to the nerves, but traffic at Malmi was lively.

The Airport received 40 American-built Brewster navy fighters. Life at Malmi turned noisy. Our fighter aces were practicing with the Brewsters for future contests, and up to twenty aircraft could be in the air simultaneously. At that time, no one knew yet that the loud, high-pitched howl of these aircraft was caused by the overlong propeller blades whose tips exceeded the speed of sound. The Brewster Fighter Squadron 24 was transferred in August 1940 to a more peaceful location at Vesivehmaa near Lahti. The Brewsters formed the backbone of our fighter squadrons in the Continuation War all the way until 1944, when the Messerschmitt Bf 109G aircraft bought from Germany arrived to reinforce the thinned ranks of the Brewsters.

The Importance of the Airport is Emphasized

As the war dragged on, the importance of Malmi Airport became more pronounced. The protection of Helsinki and the south coast became increasingly important for the Finns. A flight of war booty I-153 "Chaika" fighters were stationed at Malmi. In November 1941, the Curtiss fighters arrived. Later they were replaced by a flight of Brewsters.

In December 1941, a squadron of Fiats landed. In November 1942, Flight Regiment 5 was formed. One flight was equipped with "Mercs" bought from Germany and stationed at Malmi. A Knight of the Mannerheim Cross, lentomestari (Wt.Off.) Oiva Tuominen was one of the protectors of Helsinki already in the Fiat phase.

Protector of Helsinki: Pauli Ervi in front of his
Protector of Helsinki: Pauli Ervi in front of his "Merc".

Soviet-built SB-2 (Tupolev) bombers, seized as war booty by the Germans and sold to Finland, were stationed at Malmi and Nummela for naval reconnaissance and anti-submarine operations. Tattarisuo displayed once again its dangers to these bombers: in the take-off run, two SB bombers caught water spray in their carburettors from the puddles on the sunken runway. The result was terrible. Within a few weeks of each other, both aircraft suffered power loss during take-off and hurtled over the end of the runway, crashing through the steel fence into the midst of the villas of Sunnuntaipalstat. In the fires, the depth charges exploded and one pilot perished. The surviving crews of the aircraft had the job of going around waking up the morning-sleepy people in the neighboring houses before the depth charges detonated. Many a Soviet submarine failed to return to its home base because of accurate strikes by Finnish SB bombers.

Passenger Traffic Went on Somehow in Spite of the War

Aero took care of flight connections to Sweden and Germany in collaboration with Swedish ABA and German Lufthansa. As Aero's foreman, Vilho Saarisalo made sure by his accurate instructions that the aircraft were always in perfect condition before take-off. This wasn't always self-evident, as the war took a toll on experienced men. Even boys would do already, and so I too joined up in early February 1944. Two-shift work helping a few qualified mechanics, that's what it was, and there wasn't anything romantic about it. For one unforgettable moment, the toil became lighter to bear when I glimpsed the famous German singer Ilse Werner flit by from a Junkers and felt the sweet smell of perfume in my nostrils like a greeting from civilization.

The Bombing Raids on Helsinki in February 1944

Helsinki had been spared mass bombing raids. To protect the capital, a whole squadron of Messerschmitt Bf 109's had been stationed at Malmi under the command of captain Pauli Ervi. On the evening of Sunday 6 February, the feeling of safety was lost in Helsinki and its surroundings. No one had even dreamed that such a raid could exist. About 400 aircraft bombed the city, and the alert continued all night - about 11 hours. A total mass bombing was a fact now, with damages to match. Helsinki was now in for it, and this was just the beginning.

Our military command was on top of the situation and asked the Germans for assistance. 12 Messerschmitt Bf 109 nightfighters arrived from Budapest. In daytime, Finnish Merc pilots took care of the defense, and in nighttime it was a job for the German pilots trained for night operations.

The nightfighters just made it to the second mass bombing raid, but the results were terrible. The Germans hadn't fully cleared their operational plans with the anti-aircraft artillery, and as a result our own AA fired at the Germans too. After 1am there were only enemy bombers left flying in the middle of intense anti-aircraft fire. During the third bombing raid (about 1100 aircraft), the Germans succeeded better and shot down four bombers. The effect of this operation on morale was probably bigger than its actual military effectiveness, but the city was spared of complete destruction.

Aero's day shift in a family portrait.
Aero's day shift in a family portrait.

I have an experience of my own related to the events mentioned above. Wiser after the first raid, Aero's Saarisalo had given the order to the evening shift workers that whenever the "silent alarm" for the nightfighters was heard and seen flashing on the buzzers of the Airport, everyone was free to go wherever they wanted. It was known from earlier experience that bombs started whistling about twenty minutes after the alarm. There was nothing else to do but just run over the airfield kicking up clouds of snow. I just made it along the footpaths to the vicinity of the Ormusmäki bomb shelter, when the first barrages exploded lighting up the sky.

The bombing raids ceased and Malmi Airport was spared of destruction. The war went on along its course, and clear signs of the shape of things to come were already evident to everyone.

During the war, passenger aircraft were always dispersed overnight along the edges of the Airport to diminish damages in case of a bombing raid. In wintertime this succeeded well, but when the ground had thawed there were problems. Many times we would dig up a Junkers or a DC-2 from the bog, swearing and torturing the tractor. In the silent hours of the night, Tattarinsuo had sucked a firm grip on man's creations and made a fool of technology.

The diggers knew exactly how heavy aircraft the ground could support, but no one bothered to ask them.

The Skies of Malmi Filled with Aircraft

A unit of the German Luftwaffe, led by Lt.Col. Kurt Kuhlmey, hurried in summer 1944 to help stop the Soviet troops in their breakthrough attack on the Karelian Isthmus. About a hundred aircraft were flying in the immediate vicinity of the Airport all at once, firing flares of various colors and asking for landing permission. The transfer flight from Germany had been a long one, everyone was short of fuel and eager to land. There were Stuka dive bombers, Focke-Wulf 190 fighters and as support aircraft Italian three-engined Savoia-Marchettis. An agreement was achieved and the airplanes landed in every direction on the runways, even two at a time. Among the pilots was one unfortunate fellow: a Focke-Wulf landed with locked wheel brakes, resulting in a somersault and a hero's death far from home. The aircraft were quickly refuelled and continued their transfer to Immola, right away down to business at the front.

The world had turned upside down; I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw German panzerfausts and panzerschrecks unloaded from Aero's passenger aircraft into army lorries which then drove off towards the Karelian Isthmus. Then the aircraft were quickly boarded by Finnish pilots on their way to Germany to pick up replacement aircraft for our dwindling Air Force. Now we were fighting for our existence.

Armistice 4 September 1944, Peace Negotiations, and Finland withdrew from the War

When the Germans left Malmi Airport at the last minute without any commotion, the armistice reached the Airport in a different manner than in Pori, where they blew up the airfield. On the morning of 15 September, the faces of the Finnish "Merc" pilots were solemn. Early in the morning hours they had been engaged in aerial combat with their former brothers-in-arms who were supporting the landing attempt of German troops on Suursaari island. The fate of the Tallinn-based Germans was grim. Also for the first time, the Finns were helped by their former enemy, the Red Army.

Some days later I was driving my bicycle to work, when at Långinmäki an American-built Boston medium bomber roared overhead almost touching the treetops with red stars on its flanks. There wasn't any scream of the air raid sirens, and for a moment I doubted my own eyes. In the dressing room I told about my experience, and my mates had a good laugh thinking my story was a fairy tale. But at the same moment a mechanic named Kukka steamed barged in the door shouting: come see this, the Ivan is forging a landing on one-three! The bomber had to go around for a couple of times before it fit on the runway; just about ten meters more and the whole shebang would have lain in the main ditch. The Boston represented a new generation of aircraft and was the first nose-wheel aircraft to land at Malmi.

On the airfield no one knew what to do. The Boston taxied in front of the hangar and the engines stopped. After a few minutes of silence, a gunner dressed in a navy blue uniform appeared from inside with a pistol on his belt and took up guard. After a while a car of the Finnish Air Force drew up next to the aircraft, and the pilots climbed in. The car drove off and the navy soldier stayed beside the aircraft smoking his mahorka.

The order echoed through the Airport that the visitor was not to be disturbed. Little by little we found out that the aircraft had been bombing German ships and had indeed sunk one. The other torpedo was still hanging in the rack on the side of the aircraft. Someone had the knowledge that the plane was short of fuel. I wonder if that was the truth, or was it just a case of war fatigue; in any case the refuelling didn't take place until the next afternoon, and the tanks didn't take an awful lot of fuel. At take-off, the aircraft "buzzed" the tower real close, showing us "tshuhnas" how it was done, and the gunner revolved the rear turret in a flashy manner.

Strange things were happening at a fast pace. On a couple of occasions, Aero's foreman Saarisalo ordered his troops inside the hangar, where we were joined by the rest of the Airport staff. The doors were locked from the outside. The strict order was given that no one was to peek out through any cracks. It felt quite serious, and we could hear very well how Soviet fighters and transport aircraft landed on the airfield. After less than an hour of uncertainty, the planes took off again and the doors were opened. Peace negotiators, people being transported into the Soviet Union, or what was brought in or taken away? The history books do not give an exact answer. On 21 April 1945, by the action of Minister of the Interior Yrjö Leino and some other civil servants, e.g. writer Unto Parvilahti and 18 other persons were transported from Malmi Airport to the Soviet Union and the gulags of Beriya. I wonder if our two experiences were a prelude to these convoys? One morning, at the corner of the duty hut of TVH (the Road and Waterway Authority), I walked into a troop of Soviet infantry in their clean uniforms marching towards me, some of them speaking plain Finnish, some Estonian. The "grapevine" knew that these men were to be dropped by parachute behind the Soviet lines to do Finnish reconnaissance work.

There was a flurry of activity when the order was given to hand the Airport over to the Allied Control Commission, which in practice meant the Soviets. The Finnish Fighter Squadron 30 relocated on 21 September 1944 to Hyvinkää, and we Aero people stayed behind to collect our things. We were given a few days to follow the fighters to Hyvinkää. The aircraft were flown there, but all other stuff was scattered here and there. We stacked the archives deep into the cellars of the unfinished Sokos department store building in downtown Helsinki, and spare aircraft parts were moved to the goods platforms of Malmi railway station to wait for a freight car. The lathe, the drills and other machining tools were carried to the shed of foreman Saarisalo in Puistola while some were left under open sky in his yard. In the last minutes, a replaced wing half of the Ju-52 "Sampo" was turned over into the side of the main gate road next to the ditch without any cover at all.

Aero resumed operations to Stockholm from Hyvinkää on 2 January 1945. The Control Commission, however, put a stop to these flights already on 5 March the same year.

New Masters Took Over in the End of September

A week after the hand-over, we came back to the Airport to move stacks of timber away from the attic of Aero's former oil storage. The Soviet soldiers on guard inspected both the lorry and us, and mistrust was mutual. We were scared, but everything went all right.

The curtain came down on the Airport for a long time; not quite completely though. Technician Lauri Hannula of TVH (the Department of Road and Water Construction) and his family had been evicted from their home on the Airport to a former German military barracks in Viikki. The new masters seemed to have one problem after another as they couldn't operate the technical equipment of the Airport. Hannula was sent for by jeep, day or night.

In spring 1946, a big American C-54 Skymaster transport (the civilian version is known as the DC-4) landed at Malmi bringing to Finland the former U.S. President Hoover. The four-engined aircraft just barely fit on runway 36, which had been extended without much publicizing. The frost was probably also thicker than normal that spring, as nothing out of the ordinary happened.

By the end of the year 1946, the Airport was returned to the Finns. A new era dawned in the flight operations, and it deserves a better look in the next issue of Malmi Illustrated.

Pentti Salminen