On the afternoon of 16 June 2019, 11 historic Douglas DC-3 aircraft appeared in the skies over the German capital, Berlin. The flypast recalled the 70th anniversary of the “Berlin Airlift”, probably the largest humanitarian mission ever. MS&T’s Walter Ullrich describes the original mission and the training required.
Bureaucratic obstacles and political dissent prevented landings and festivities at Berlin’s historic airfields, to the chagrin of many history-conscious people who would have wished for a celebration appropriate to this momentous event – with grandeur and dignity, just as the organisers from the Berlin Airlift Association had planned. One thing is certain: if today’s narrow-mindedness and bureaucracy had ruled then, West Berliners would have starved or frozen to death.
Here’s the story:
On 19 June 1948, three years after the unconditional surrender of Germany, the Soviets blocked West Berlin, which lay 100 miles deep in the Soviet occupation zone, but was not part of it. The aim of the Soviets was to chase the Western powers out of Berlin to incorporate the city into their sphere of power. All land, rail and waterways were interrupted; only the airspace was still open for unarmed aircraft. So, nine days later, the USA and Great Britain launched the Berlin Airlift, followed shortly afterward by France.
The Berlin Airlift is regarded as a logistical masterpiece. For more than a year, 2,250,000 people were supplied from the air with everything they needed to survive: potatoes, coal, medicaments – and dried fruits, which is why Berliners called the cargo aircraft “raisin bombers”. A total of around 2.1 million tonnes of freight were flown in, including 1.44 million tonnes of coal, 160,000 tonnes of building materials and 485,000 tonnes of food, among them 500,000 CARE packages. In addition, 62,749 passengers were transported.
Great Britain employed resources from all over the Empire and additionally up to 27 civil charter companies, mainly for the transport of fuel. Even seaplanes were deployed that used the town centre waters as landing strips. The French, being heavily involved in the Indochina war, managed to provide some Ju52 transporters; and they built from scratch the Berlin Tegel airfield in the record time of only 90 days. Yet, it is true to say that the Americans carried the brunt of the airlift. With a total of 189,963 flights, the Americans had more than twice as many as the English and the French together.
In May 1949 the Soviets finally gave up. Despite all the harassment within the airlift corridors and in the airspace over West Berlin, for instance searchlights attempting to blind the pilots, fighters flying mock attacks, or navigation beacons being deactivated, the Soviets did not succeed at any time to interrupt or even stop the airlift. The West had won the first victory in the Cold War. More than that: the Berlin Airlift fundamentally changed the relationship between the Germans and the Western Allies; occupying powers became protecting powers – a new ally had been won!
Regarding air space management, the Berlin Airlift was probably the greatest challenge transport aviation had ever faced. Master – and mastermind – of Operation Vittles, the Airlift’s official name, was Lieutenant General William H. Tunner, US Air Force. Tunner had gained experience in World War II during “the Hump”, the first strategic airlift ever, which had crossed the Himalayas. His experience was now in demand in Berlin. On the very first day, when Tunner was about to take command, he became a victim of the chaotic organization. For hours he had to circle over Berlin, along with dozens of other planes, because the jams on the runways simply wouldn’t dissolve. Once landed in the besieged city, it took him only a few days to change the system.
Aircraft flew into West Berlin via the north or south corridor, and returned to West Germany using the central west corridor. Sometimes there were up to 100 aircraft in the 32 km-wide one-way air alleys. To reduce the risk of collision, Tunner introduced five vertically staggered flight levels, which were allocated to the airplanes. They now flew 500 ft apart in height, with a safe distance of 15 minutes between the planes at the same altitude. Considering the often poor visibility conditions over Germany, he ordered that all planes under his command had to fly by instrument rules at all times, good weather or bad, night or day. If a pilot should happen to miss his first landing attempt, he would continue straight out on course and return the two hundred to four hundred miles to his home base. Tunner was not afraid either to threaten his pilots with drastic measures in case of failure. In his autobiography Tunner says: “I stated publicly that I would reduce to co-pilot status any pilot who failed to land with ceiling and visibility greater than four hundred feet and a mile, and that I would court-martial any pilot who did land with ceiling and visibility less than four hundred feet and one mile.” In addition, after landing in Berlin, the crews had to stay next to their aircraft, so that they could take off again immediately after completion of loading. As compensation, the nurses of the Berlin Red Cross served coffee and sandwiches to the crews, something General Tunner had also arranged with the German authorities.
In November 1948, two newly developed radars and a radio system were installed in Berlin, which now allowed a radar-controlled approach. Thanks to the bundle of technical, organizational and psychological measures introduced by Tunner, aircraft could now land in Berlin every three minutes. The downtimes at the three airports in Berlin were consequently reduced to 20 to 25 minutes, and hardly any more at the bases in West Germany. In this way, the Airlift managed much more air freight than experienced logisticians had precalculated.
Lesser known is the massive training programme that the Americans set up to carry out the Berlin Airlift. By the end of September 1948, the Air Force began calling up thousands more reservists and contracted with several American airlines to “borrow” their pilots and air crews. On the initiative of Gen. Tunner, a Replacement Training Unit (RTU) was established in September 1948 at the Great Falls Air Force Base, Montana. For this purpose, the Military Air Transport Service school had been relocated from Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base (now Travis AFB), California. The main task of the RTU was the training of C54 “Skymaster” crews. The four-engine C54 with a payload of 10 tonnes was to replace the twin-engine C47, which could only carry three tonnes. Great Falls was chosen because it was at the same latitude as Berlin and also otherwise a close match, from the climate and topography to the length and magnetic headings of the runway.
For the preparation of the flight crews the Air Force put up beacons for radio and light signals, duplicates of the equipment at Rhein-Main, Wiesbaden and Tempelhof. A virtual map of the three air corridors into Berlin was laid out in the sky of Montana. For live flying training the RTU had 19 C54, each loaded with 10 tonnes of sandbags. The 21-day course included 133 hours of instruction. Flying in corridors analogous to the Berlin air corridors was practiced live as well as ground-controlled approaches. Also practiced were steep landing approaches, which are necessary for landings on downtown airfields. At the explicit request of Gen. Tunner, Link simulators were installed in Great Falls to give pilots 10 extra hours to virtual instrument flying – only consequent – after all he was the one who had ordered the pilots of the Airlift to fly exclusively on instruments. Emergency procedures were also practiced in the Link trainer. Course participants reported that smoke was occasionally blown into the cockpit, probably to simulate a fire aboard the plane. Still another synthetic trainer, formerly used to train bombardiers during World War II, was adapted to instruct pilots in navigating to Berlin in all kinds of weather. Immediately after completing their training, the aircrews boarded their C54 and flew to Germany. The personnel trained in Great Falls – 636 pilots, 487 co-pilots, 496 flight engineers and 116 mechanics – could be easily integrated into the ongoing Operation Vittles. Thanks to the efficient training, the accident rate on the Berlin Airlift was low, despite the round-the-clock operation and the often-miserable weather conditions. It was even less than the over-all average for the US Air Force. In his memoirs, Gen. Tunner quotes a journalist who, when looking at the accident figures, burst out: “Why, I’m safer on the Berlin Airlift than I am flying between Washington and New York!”