first major challenge for the U.S. Air Force and the RAF after it was
named an independent service in 1947 was delivering supplies to Berlin.
The massive airlift was the largest humanitarian operation ever
undertaken by the air force. The more than 2.3 million tons of supplies
flown into the city over approximately 10 months dwarf all future
operations. Even the airlift to war-torn Sarajevo between 1992 and 1997
brought in only 179,910 tons—less than the amount flown into Berlin in
one month alone.
Divided Germany, 1948.
end of World War II, a defeated Germany had been divided into four
sectors, controlled by the United States, the Soviet Union, Great
Britain, and France. The capitol city of Berlin, deep in the Soviet
sector, had been divided in half, with West Berlin controlled by the
western Allies and East Berlin by the Soviets. West Berlin would be
supplied from outside the Soviet sector by roads, railroads, canals, and
three air corridors. The air corridors led to Berlin from the German
cities of Frankfurt, Hanover, and Hamburg and were each 20 miles (32
Soviets, though, were acting in an increasingly aggressive manner toward
the capitalist western nations. In 1948, when the western nations
released a new German currency in an attempt to restart the economy in
their sectors, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered his ground troops and
air force to "harass" the supply traffic to Berlin. Then, on June 22,
1948, the seventh anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Russia, all ground
traffic to Berlin was stopped, halting 13,500 tons of daily supplies to
Berlin. Only the air corridors, protected by treaty, remained open.
United States, with the U.S. military governor in Germany, General
Lucius D. Clay, wanted to "force the issue" and use troops to escort the
supply convoys through the blockade. But British Foreign Minister Ernest
Brevin proposed a massive airlift that would use military planes to fly
supplies into the city. Berlin needed at least 2,000 tons of supplies
per day for the most basic subsistence. The U.S. Air Force in Europe,
however, had only 100 Douglas C-47 "Gooney Bird" planes available,
barely enough to fly in supplies for Berlin-based U.S. personnel. But
with careful planning and organization, Major General Curtis LeMay,
commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, managed to deliver twice the
estimated amount of supplies into the city on a test run, and Clay
decided to try the airlift. LeMay told him to request Douglas C-54
Skymasters from the Pentagon. Skymasters were the air force’s largest
transport plane and could carry four times as much as the C-47s.
"Operation Vittles"-the most
successful peacetime air operation in aviation.
first Skymasters arrived at Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany on June 28.
As soon as they landed, they were loaded and sent to Berlin. By the end
of the next week, 300 C-54s had arrived from the Panama Canal Zone,
Alabama, Hawaii, and Texas. The navy sent two squadrons of R5Ds (the
navy’s version of the C-54). The British had already filled its bases
with Dakota, Avro York, and Handley Page Hasting aircraft. By the end of
the summer, civil transports and planes from Australia, South Africa,
and New Zealand had joined the operation. The mission, originally called
the LeMay Coal and Feed Delivery, was renamed Operation Vittles by the
Americans and Operation Plaindafe by the British. The planes took off
from Rhein-Main Air Base and two British bases, flying on the northern
and the southern corridors. They landed in one of three airports and
exited by the centre corridor.
C-47s unloading at Tempelhof
Airport in Berlin. Up to 102 of these planes were flying during the
first three months of the Berlin Airlift.
August, General William Tunner, a veteran of supply runs during World
War II over the Hump (between India and China), arrived to direct and
standardize operations to increase efficiency and safety. He discouraged
flying heroics, saying that " a successful airlift is about as glamorous
as drops of water on a stone." And the new flying regulations reflected
this, leaving little room for error. Airplanes took off every three
minutes, around the clock. They maintained that interval throughout the
170-mile (274-kilometers) flight, not veering an inch from the
prescribed route, speed, or altitude. When they arrived in Berlin, they
were allowed only one landing attempt. If they missed it, they had to
transport the load back to base. When each plane landed in Berlin, the
crew stayed in the plane: a snack bar on a wagon gave them food, and
weathermen arrived in jeeps with weather updates. As soon as Germans
unloaded the last bit of cargo, the plane would take off. Back at base,
there was a 1-hour 40-minute turnaround allowed for ground crews to
refuel, reload, do pre-flight preparations, and perform any required
maintenance, which was considerable as the engines experienced rapid and
excessive wear from the short flights. Tires also experienced extreme
stress from the heavy loads and hard landings.
Cross-sectional view of flight
into Berlin as of September 1948.
This arrangement allowed for landing at the rate of one plane every 3
Later, two levels were used with spacing that allowed for landing at the
cargo needed to keep Berlin going included coal, food, medical supplies,
steamrollers, power plant machinery, soap, and newsprint. The U.S. Air
Force’s 525th Fighter Squadron sent the city a gift--a baby camel named
Clarence. Food was dehydrated to decrease weight. And salt, which
corrodes some metals, was flown in by Short Sunderlands, a seaplane with
a corrosion-proof hull. When the seaplane bases froze in winter, the
salt was flown in containers slung externally from Handley Page
Hastings. But coal was the trickiest commodity, although the most
important, comprising 65 percent of the cargo. Coal dust corroded cables
and electrical connections, and crews complained of breathing problems
from inhaling the dust. When the planes had their 1,000-hour overhauls,
their weights had increased by as much as 100 pounds (45 kilograms)--all
coal dust. Eventually, surplus army duffel bags were used to hold the
coal and decrease the dust somewhat.
other memorable cargo was candy. At Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, pilot
Gail Halvorsen one day met some Berlin children who stood at the fences
to watch the planes. Touched by their happiness when he gave them two
pieces of gum, he cajoled his crewmates into pooling their candy
rations. For the next several weeks, they dropped candy to the children,
using handkerchiefs as parachutes and signalling a drop by wiggling the
plane’s wings. A German journalist, having been hit in the head by one
of the packages, wrote a story about the man the children called the
"Candy Bomber" and "Uncle Wiggly-Wings." His secret was out, but
embracing a perfect propaganda story, the air force encouraged his
kindness. The men on base began donating their candy rations and soon
packages of candy, gum, and handkerchiefs arrived from the States. The
project, called Operation Little Vittles, delivered 23 tons of treats to
children all over West Berlin.
12, 1949, after more than 2.3 million tons of cargo, and 277,685
flights, the Soviets relented and reopened the ground routes. In an
effort to end western presence in their territory, they had succeeded
only in embarrassing themselves. The airlift officially ended on
September 30, 1949. During the entire operation 17 American and 7
British planes were lost due to crashes.
the U.S. military, however, the Berlin Airlift carried more significance
than victory against a new enemy. The service branches had worked
together, something many had worried would not happen with an
independent air force. And the airlift became a model for future
humanitarian airlifts. Aircraft specifically designed for air cargo
operations were designed based on the lessons of Operation Vittles: the
Lockheed C-130 Hercules, C-141 Starlifter, C-5 Galaxy, and the Boeing
C-17 Globemaster III, which can carry more than 17 times the amount of
cargo as a Skymaster.
importantly, though, the Berlin Airlift began to repair the
psychological wounds of World War II. Less than five years earlier, many
of the same pilots had been dropping bombs on Berlin. Many found it hard
to accept that they were now trying to save the lives of their former
enemies. But they adjusted quickly because, as one airman said, "Somehow
that faceless mass of two million suddenly became individuals just like
my mother and sister." Many, who felt guilt from dropping bombs on
civilians found redemption in helping these same people survive.
Berlin Airlift and modern
airlift aircraft capability comparison.
the city of Berlin, destroyed by war and occupation, it was the
beginning of civic pride and integrity. Having feared that the West
would abandon them to starvation, their gratitude still survives. In
1959 they started the Berlin Airlift Foundation to assist the families
of the 78 British and American men killed during the operation. And
during the 50th anniversary celebrations, Berlin citizens signed
parachutes for airlifts to other parts of the world.