This Old German Airship Hangar Hides An Incredible Secret, And It’s Nothing Like You’d Expect

Amid the thick, dense forests of north-eastern Germany, a gargantuan structure looms large over the horizon. The eerie, dome-shaped construction – which you can see from miles away – dominates the vast landscape. It even dwarfs the sizable and numerous trees that surround it. But where did it come from? And, more importantly, are the authorities concealing sinister goings-on inside?

This imposing and other-worldly dome stands at more than 350 feet tall. Yes, you read that right: the mammoth structure is, eye-wateringly, over 106 meters at its highest point. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to 65 six-foot-tall humans all perched atop one another’s shoulders.

You’ll find the gigantic dome situated relatively near to the small town of Halbe in Krausnick-Gross Wasserburg. That’s within the bounds of the Dahme-Spreewald district of Brandenburg. Deep in the countryside, the mysterious and sinister-looking structure lies about 62 miles north of the city of Dresden – and 37 miles south of the German capital of Berlin.

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Yet in the past decade or so, buses arrived at the dome on almost every day of the year. Day by day, those shuttles dropped off copious amounts of men, women and children outside the giant structure. These people also arrived by train, plane or automobile from near and far. So what is going on?

Also, who on Earth constructed this colossal dome way out in the sticks of the Briesen/Brand area of Brandenburg? And, more pertinently, for what purpose? Finally, for what possible reason have people been coming to the structure from all over the world? Well, we will get to the answers to all those logical questions shortly.

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Certainly, there’s an interesting story behind the gigantic dome and its construction. What’s most incredible about it, though, is the remarkable – and downright unusual – purpose that it serves today. Yet we should first travel back in time and take a detailed look at the fascinating history concerning the land upon which this awe-inspiring creation was built.

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You see, arguably the most despotic regime in human history – the Nazis – first used the acres of land that surround the dome. Yes, in the late 1930s, the Adolf Hitler-led National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – which seized sole political control of Germany on July 14, 1933 – began building a Feldflugplatz (field airfield) on the site. This project included the construction of a 1,000-meter-long runway.

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They constructed the secret site in Brandenburg between 1938 and 1939. During this period, the belligerent Nazis mobilized Germany’s military and air force to a massive degree. And the key figures in the Third Reich, including their tyrannical leader, Hitler, were aware that their aggressive, expansionist aims would inevitably bring them into conflict with other countries.

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So the Nazis used the runway in Brand-Briesen as a training center for new or inexperienced pilots entering into the German Luftwaffe. They called it the Brand-Guben Pilot Training School. Of course, the major war that the Nazis anticipated – and perhaps even wished for – duly arrived soon after. Yes, on September 3, 1939, Britain and France finally lost patience with the mustachioed despot and declared war on Nazi Germany. World War II had begun.

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Later, as World War II entered its decisive phase, the Nazis utilized the airfield to transport weapons and other necessities to troops. Then Hitler and his generals prepared for do-or-die offensives. From late 1943 to 1944, at which point it was clear that the Germans were losing the war, the regime used the base as an alternative location from which the Luftwaffe’s fighter pilots could take off and land. And in the spring of 1945, with the battle almost lost, the Wehrmacht began to use it for their frontline fighters.

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After a brutal war lasting almost six years, the Allied Powers – predominantly led by Great Britain, the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) and the United States – defeated Nazi Germany and its Axis accomplices. Hitler didn’t stick around to see it. In January 1945, as the Soviets closed in on Berlin, Hitler retreated to his underground bunker. Then, on April 30, 1945, he committed suicide along with his wife, Eva Braun, and several other Nazi bigwigs intent on escaping justice. On May 7, 1945, Germany’s war was over, as Hitler’s successors surrendered just seven days after his death.

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And after Germany’s total capitulation to General Eisenhower’s demands, the victorious Allies carved the country up into spheres of influence between them. The U.S.S.R. effectively took control of the eastern half of Germany, while the Western powers heavily influenced the western part of Berlin and the rest of the country. The invading Soviet Red Army captured the Brand-Briesen airfield during the Third Reich’s collapse, too.

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The Soviets went on to use Brand-Briesen as a strategic military base in what was effectively its East German satellite state. Then, as the Cold War with the West intensified, the U.S.S.R. – under Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev’s reigns – made many improvements to the airfield. American military intelligence agency the C.I.A. secretly kept tabs on Soviet developments of the site as well.

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What did the Soviets do to the site? Well, the U.S.S.R. made room for a fighter-bomber regiment and, in 1951, extended the old runway by 1,500 meters to 2,500 meters. This work also included the construction of a new 2,000-meter alternative runway and a dispersal section. Armed Soviet aircraft came and went from the base throughout the 1950s.

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Factoring in all of those improvements, the Soviet-run airbase in East Germany became one of the earliest and largest military airports in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (D.D.R.). The airport was so prominent it even welcomed Soviet leaders on state visits and, in 1963, famed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. By the mid-1980s, the Soviets had also erected an anti-aircraft site, 24 hardened aircraft shelters and a nuclear alert center on the base.

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However, the U.S.S.R. and its compliant satellite states – including East Germany – would be gone by the early 1990s. The Berlin Wall, which divided the East and West, was torn down in November 1989 and, just under a year later, Germany reunified. The official demise of the U.S.S.R. occurred on December 25, 1991, when its final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tendered his resignation. All this had major ramifications for the Brand-Briesen airfield, too.

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Yes, with the demise of the U.S.S.R., the Russians relinquished control of all the bases they had in East Germany, including Brand-Briesen. The Russians left the airfield in 1992. The Federal State of Brandenburg then took control of it and cleaned up all the waste, including tanks of kerosene and unused munitions. And eventually, a man named Helmut Domke was put in charge of overseeing government plans to convert the bases for civilian use in Brandenburg.

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And what the Brand-Briesen land would end up being used for is remarkable in itself. In fact, a private firm with ambitious plans purchased the land that once constituted Nazi and Soviet airfields. That company, which industrial associates dreamed up in 1994 and founded in 1996, was CargoLifter.

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A logistics company, CargoLifter aimed to solve the problematic issue of transporting hefty and sizable components that sometimes weighed over 100 tons or measured close to 50 meters long. So, how did it try to solve this perennial problem? To build and operate the biggest balloon and airship on the planet, that’s how.

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So, in 1998, CargoLifter purchased the former Nazi and Soviet air bases from the Brandenburg State and got to work on its ambitious project. The company aimed to transform the military base into a contemporary and non-threatening site. The initial work centered around building a hangar large enough to house a giant balloon and a gargantuan Zeppelin airship.

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Not just any airship, though. As mentioned previously, this was to be a huge airship capable of lifting and transporting heavy machinery such as locomotives. The construction of the hangar cost an eye-watering almost $84 million. Upon its completion, it was one of the most massive structures on the planet – an astonishing 194 million cubic feet by volume. And it was out on its own as the biggest solitary hall without internal supporting pillars.

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In November 2000 CargoLifter was ready to commission it as an airship hangar by the name of Aerium. However, the company’s lofty idea never got off the ground, as amid the financial crisis of 2002, the firm plummeted into bankruptcy. So CargoLifter never constructed the CL160 airship and abandoned the site altogether. The colossal hangar it had built lay empty. But not for long…

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That’s because in 2003 innovative Malaysian consortium Tanjong PLC/Colin Au bought the gigantic structure and the land surrounding it. And, incredibly, the firm set out to transform the hangar into something even more remarkable and ambitious than what the by-now-insolvent CargoLifter had planned. In December 2004 Tanjong shared the building’s fantastical repurposing with the world.

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Au and Tanjong had gone and done what most right-minded people would have deemed unthinkable or impossible. It had transformed this stupendously large aircraft hangar – the world’s hugest hall without pillars – into an indoor tropical paradise. Yes, the Aerium hangar in the often-chilly climes of north-east Germany was now an authentic, balmy utopia.

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So how did the genius designers pull this extraordinary trick off? And how does one go about creating authentic tropical experiences thousands of miles away from the real thing? What’s more, how on Earth did they do so in an area where conditions are often more suitable for building snowmen than sandcastles?

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With extensive planning, funding and painstaking attention to detail, that’s how. So Malaysian entrepreneur Colin Au’s powerful – and slightly crazy – vision was to bring the tropics to northern Europe and create the continent’s premier indoor holiday resort. Tanjong therefore filled the 1,180-foot-long, 689-foot-wide and 351-foot-high structure with everything a sun-seeker might desire. And so much more besides.

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The 710,000-square-foot floor space inside the gigantic hangar could accommodate an astonishing eight full-sized football fields. Or, even more amazingly, it could house both New York’s iconic Statue of Liberty standing up and Paris’s famous Eiffel Tower laid flat. But that wouldn’t be particularly tropical.

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Instead, then, the company filled the gigantic arena with golden sandy beaches, rainforests, lagoons and about 50,000 plants. The huge swimming pools even mimic the crystal-clear waters of the ocean. The lagoon itself covers 1,200 square meters and lies alongside the amazing “monkey rock,” which features authentic-looking flowing waterfalls.

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A sophisticated under-floor heating system also gives the former hangar’s interior a real tropical feel. There is a power plant and a huge UV-transparent film attached to its southern side. Together, these help maintain the indoor paradise at a pleasant 79 °F throughout the year – regardless of how the weather is outside.

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Not only is the air kept at a balmy temperature and humidity (between 40 and 60 percent), but the complex’s “Tropical Sea” – which extends to a remarkable 3,000 square meters – is also heated to 82 °F. And if that’s not warm enough, bathers in the lagoon can enjoy the even-more-tropical 90 °F waters. During eastern Germany’s often bitterly cold winters, it is surely a tempting prospect for locals.

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After all, up to 6,000 beach bums seeking a slice of tropical heaven can enjoy the resort on any given day. That’s right, a mammoth 6,000 holidaymakers can be in this gigantic dome at any one time. And considering how much cheaper this is compared to flying from Europe to the actual tropics, it’s easy to see why the resort attracts more than a million visitors annually.

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There are 522 beds and 400 sun-loungers for guests to relax and enjoy the balmy humidity, too. But given German holidaymakers’ reputation for, ahem, getting there early to claim the best sunbathing spots with their towels, the odds of a non-local securing one probably aren’t that great. So they could always have a game of volleyball instead.

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The whole incredible complex is not there just to suit the daytrippers, though. Tropical Islands also boasts almost 200 rooms, with accommodation options to suit couples or families – or those wishing to splash out with a premium suite. So you can spend more than just the one day basking in the warmth of this indoor tropical paradise.

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Adventurous types can opt instead to spend the night in the resort’s sizable rainforest. It is the largest indoor rainforest in the world and is home to 600 different species of plants. The purpose-built foil roof enables it to thrive, as UV rays enter from the sun. For even more authenticity, the rainforest is home to live animals including flamingos, turtles and parrots. There are also 138 tents dispersed around the rainforest, with more pitches available outside the dome itself.

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That’s surely it, isn’t it? Nope, not quite. The dome also houses Germany’s tallest waterslide tower, which opened in 2006. The tower features four different slides, with the largest of them reaching a dizzying 88 feet. And there’s more aquatic-based excitement on offer on the “power turbo slide,” which guests can hurtle down at speeds of up to 43mph.

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All this swimming and game-playing is sure to mean guests will work up an appetite. No problem there, though, as the giant complex’s Bali Gate leads to the Tropical Village, where a specialized Food and Beverage Department serves up copious amounts of food and drink. The huts the chefs work in are also as authentic as possible, with traditionally-made components imported from places such as Bali and Borneo and put together in Tropical Islands.

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Elsewhere, spread around the resort’s Tropical World, Tropical Sea, Bali Lagoon and Rainforest sections, visitors encounter whirlpools, jacuzzis and a golf course. There are also restaurants, ships, shopping boulevards, animals and houses. And, if it’s needed, there are nightly shows for even more entertainment. Oh, and there is the small matter of a hot-air balloon you can hop in for a bird’s-eye view of this astonishing place.

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Plus, there is a special section for children in the gargantuan former hangar. This is known as the Tropino Kids Club. It covers about 4,000 square meters of space and should keep the young ones out of mischief for hours on end. Furthermore, Tropical Islands has refused to, ahem, tread water, and it has made numerous improvements and additions over the years.

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In 2007, for example, it added the 10,000-square-meter sauna complex, with spa and wellness pampering offered to guests. A year later, the spacious campsite opened, with enough room for roughly 92 caravans, tents and mobile homes. From 2011 to 2015 many more accommodation options appeared, while in 2016 the company added the open-air AMAZONIA section outside the dome. Finally, 2019 saw the launch of the Jungle Splash water park, adding another eight slides for guests to enjoy.

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While some may find it all surreal – or even downright tacky – it’s hard to deny that the metamorphosis of an abandoned aircraft hangar into the mind-boggling Tropical Islands resort is an incredible feat of vision, ambition and engineering. The airship business on the site didn’t get off the ground. But this idea has been flying high for over 15 years.

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