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AVIATION ATTAINED a high point of humanitarian achievement—and a major victory in the Cold War—with the Berlin Airlift. For almost an entire year, June 26, 1948, to May 16, 1949, more than 2 ½ million people of Berlin owed their survival solely to air transport.
World War II had left Berlin a divided city, with American, British, French and Soviet sectors, all surrounded by Soviet-controlled territory. On June 24, 1948, scheming to take over the other sectors, the Soviets established a blockade of all rail, road and canal traffic from the west. What remained, albeit not without contention, were three air corridors into two airports, Tempelhof in the American sector and Gatow in the British.
On June 26, what came to be called Operation Vittles began. Thirty-two flights of American twin-engine C-47s (military designation for the Douglas DC-3) flew from Wiesbaden Air Force Base to Tempelhof with 80 tons of supplies. In another two days, 35 four-engine C-54s (Douglas DC-4s/Navy R-5Ds) left Alaska, Hawaii and the Caribbean to join them.
On July 5, two squadrons of Royal Air Force Short Sunderland flying boats entered operations, their corrosion-resistant hulls deemed useful for carrying salt and other foodstuffs. They set down on the River Havel with loads of Spam.
On July 7, the first shipment of coal arrived. By the 20th, airlift aircraft strength reached 54 C-54s, 105 C-47s, 40 RAF Yorks, 50 Dakotas (the RAF C-47) and the Sunderlands. By month’s end, two additional squadrons of C-54s arrived.
Logistics were astounding. The aircraft needed their routine maintenance and repair, accelerated by continuous use. Air crews were treated to mobile snack bars, moved next to their planes, to aid immediate turnaround. Unloading became a competition. One Berliner crew set a record of unloading 10 tons from a C-54 in 10 minutes. Soon, another knocked this down to 5 minutes 45 seconds.
Eventually, trike-gear C-54s replaced all tail-dragger C-47s. Not only were the C-54s larger, but their level cargo holds were more readily unloaded. (As a personal aside, I’ve flown in DC-3s, and the climb up the aisle in boarding is a steep one!)
Flights were precarious. Aircraft entered Berlin airspace in stacked altitudes that became known as “the ladder.” In mid-August, in part responding to two fatal accidents, operations were brought completely under Instrument Flight Rules, regardless of conditions. Experienced air traffic controllers were dispatched from the states, and in mid-October a single control point was established.
A book, A Special Study of Operation “Vittles,” offers pilot-tower communication of a typical flight from Rhein-Main Wiesbaden to Tempelhof. In time, “the ladder” had aircraft at 500-ft. increments of altitude and as close as three minutes apart.
Tonnage records were set almost daily, even into the winter months’ bad weather. The Soviets retaliated by offering free food to people crossing over into its sector; Berliners overwhelmingly ignored the offer.
Airlift aircraft were buzzed by Soviet planes and harassed by searchlights and beacon jamming. More than 733 harassments were recorded, none with any serious effect.
On February 18, 1949, the millionth ton of supplies reached Berlin. At its height, an aircraft was landing every 30 seconds. An “Easter Parade” delivered 12,940 tons of coal, food and other supplies in 1398 flights—all in one day, April 16.
On May 12, 1949, rail lines and highways were reopened. It has cost the allies an estimated $224 million (more than $2 billion in today’s dollars), but the Soviet blockade had failed.
Heroic and heartwarming acts prevailed among airlift personnel as well as Berliners. At the Tempelhof perimeter one day, Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen offered a group of kids some chewing gum. This led to his dropping gum and candy to them on final, “provided you promise to share it equally.” He devised handkerchief parachutes to cushion the “Little Vittles” drops and wiggled his C-54’s wings as identification. Soon, he received thank-you notes and became known as Onkel Wackelflügel (Uncle Wiggly Wings). ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012