This week saw the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, which began on June 26th, 1948. It was originally envisaged that it would be needed for only a few weeks, but due to Soviet intransigence and Western determination, it continued until September 30th, 1949.
The story of the Berlin Airlift is well known, and I don't propose to go into the political, social and economic dimensions. Those interested can read about them at the link above, and there are many other Web sites devoted to the crisis: a quick search will find hundreds. What I'd like to do in this Weekend Wings is examine the impact of the Berlin Airlift on aviation itself - and it was dramatic indeed. It's not an exaggeration to say that the air traffic control systems of today (both military and civilian), the blind-flying technology in routine use, and the transport aircraft and networks that we take for granted, all had their roots in the Airlift.
During World War II the military use of air transport had burgeoned into a mammoth undertaking: but this was geared to tactical necessity rather than strategic imperatives. The only sustained strategic air cargo operation was the Hump in the China-Burma-India theater, previously described in Weekend Wings #10. This lasted from 1942 right through to 1945, driven by the lack of alternative means of transport. There were sustained air transport operations across the Atlantic and Pacific, but these were not strategic in orientation. Virtually all cargo went by sea - about 99%, by weight. Only VIP transportation, the evacuation of seriously wounded personnel, and certain critical supplies required the speed that aircraft could provide.
The Pacific Theater required very long-range transport aircraft due to the immense distances involved. The Douglas C-54 Skymaster (and its US Navy variant, the R5D) were more useful than the shorter-ranged C-46 Commando and C-47 Skytrain, which were more widely used in Europe and elsewhere. Converted long-range bombers such as the C-87 Liberator Express, and flying-boats such as the Boeing 314, the Martin M130, Mariner and Mars, and the Consolidated PBY Catalina and PB2Y Coronado, also saw transport service in this theater. The latter is shown below (click the photograph for a larger view).
At the end of World War II the Allied powers operated fleets of transport aircraft numbering in the thousands. The USA had over five thousand, Britain over a thousand, and the minor Allied powers probably another thousand between them. However, within two years these vast fleets had been reduced to a pitiful remnant as the armed forces were cut back to peacetime levels, and demobilization removed most of those who flew and maintained them.
Furthermore, the larger and more advanced transport aircraft under development towards the end of the war were severely affected. For example, Douglas had a contract to produce the C-74 Globemaster transport for the USAAF.
The new aircraft offered an eightfold growth in cargo capacity and a four-and-a-half-fold increase in troop capacity compared to the largest Douglas transport at the start of the war. It could carry 24 tons of cargo or 125 troops, as opposed to the 8-10 tons or 50 troops carried by the C-54, or the 3 tons or 28 troops of the C-47. To illustrate its enormous size (for that era, anyway), it's shown below with a Douglas A-26 Invader medium bomber parked beneath its wing.
The C-74 first flew in September 1945, just after Japan had surrendered. The contract for its production was almost immediately cancelled, and only 14 entered USAAF service (although they went on to play a vital role in the Berlin Airlift).
Similarly, production of the new Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter transport, which first flew in late 1944, was severely curtailed.
Only 60 of these transports were procured, although more than 800 of a later tanker version, the KC-97 Stratotanker, would be purchased. The C-97 could carry 96 troops or 16 tons of cargo, and incorporated clamshell doors below the rear fuselage to facilitate the loading of large items of freight, as shown below at an air show, being examined by curious spectators.
Another very useful, albeit flawed, transport was the Fairchild C-82 Packet.
This aircraft first flew in 1944. It could carry up to 9 tons of freight or 42 paratroops. Its chief claim to fame was that the rear of the fuselage had clamshell rear doors that could be opened, or detached completely, to permit the straight-in loading of vehicles and other large items of freight.
The twin-boom design proved irresistible to cartoonists documenting the Berlin Airlift:
Regrettably, the C-82 proved to be severely under-powered, and its airframe was too light to stand up to the pounding of heavy-lift cargo operations. It never achieved its full potential, but it was further developed into the C-119 Flying Boxcar, which proved a very successful transport during the 1950's and 1960's.
The Soviet Union first began to impede surface access routes to West Berlin on March 31st, 1948. A "Little Lift" was immediately commenced by the Allies, lasting only about ten days, but this gave them advance warning that a much larger effort would be needed if Soviet interference continued. Sure enough, it did, culminating in the severing of all land communications with West Berlin on June 24th, 1948.
During the "Little Lift", British Air Commodore Reginald Waite suggested that Berlin could be entirely supplied by air if necessary, and calculated the supplies that would be required to support the city.
His calculations indicated they would need to supply seventeen hundred calories per person per day, consisting of 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese. In total, 1,534 tons were needed daily to keep the over 2 million people alive. Additionally, the city needed to be kept heated and powered, which would require another 3,475 tons of coal and gasoline.
The agreement under which the Western Allies had taken occupation of part of Berlin had not guaranteed ground access to the city. However, it had set up three "air corridors", one from the US sector of Germany in the South and two from the British sector in the center and North of Germany.
These air corridors were specifically guaranteed by agreement with the Soviet Union, and thus could not be legally blockaded (although the Soviets would periodically harass Allied aircraft using them, causing many delays and some mid-air collisions, resulting in the loss of aircraft and crews).
Aircraft immediately available for an airlift were far from adequate for the task. The USA had two squadrons of C-47's in Europe, capable of carrying up to 300 tons of supplies per day. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) had more aircraft available, as they had reinforced their transport squadrons after the "Little Lift", and could haul up to 400 tons per day. The RAF also brought in more aircraft from England, including C-47's and the Avro York, a transport development of the famous Lancaster bomber.
It could haul up to 10 tons of freight or 56 passengers, and was roughly comparable in transport capability to the C-54. Before long, the RAF was operating 150 C-47's and 40 Yorks on the airlift, as well as many other types of aircraft. They solved the problem of transporting highly corrosive salt, which affected the airframes of aluminum-built aircraft, by bringing in Sunderland flying-boats. Their hulls were designed to be corrosion-resistant when operating from the surface of the sea. They landed on lakes in Berlin to offload their salt cargoes.
A major problem was that there were only two airports in Berlin: Tempelhof in the American sector, and Gatow in the British sector. These rapidly became overcrowded, hampering aircraft movements and cargo unloading. It soon became clear that the largest possible aircraft had to be used, requiring fewer flights to move the required amount of freight. Another complication was that the number of different types of aircraft involved had to be reduced to a minimum, so as to make maintenance and the supply of spare parts easier.
Within the first month, operations built up to a staggering tempo, despite these problems. By the end of July over fifteen hundred daily flights were delivering 4,500 tons of supplies. However, the problems mentioned above were complicated by bad weather, which would worsen over the oncoming winter months. The picture below shows a typical example of the weather conditions that hampered the Airlift.
Lieutenant-General William H. Tunner of the USAF's Military Air Transport Service (MATS) was appointed to command the Berlin Airlift. He soon saw these problems for himself. On "Black Friday", July 30th, 1948, he flew into Berlin, to find clouds down to rooftop height and heavy rain. A C-54 crashed at the end of the runway, and another landing behind it blew its tires under heavy braking, trying to avoid hitting it. Another aircraft ground-looped on the auxiliary runway, forcing the closure of Tempelhof airfield. Tunner immediately ordered a halt to flight operations until the weather improved.
Having seen the problems for himself, Tunner didn't take long to reorganize the Airlift. He insisted on getting as many C-54's and Navy R5D's as possible, removing the smaller C-47's from the Airlift altogether. A single C-54 could carry as much cargo as three C-47's, and was easier to load and unload because it stood level, on a nosewheel undercarriage, rather than slanting down to a tailwheel as did the smaller aircraft.
All flights, irrespective of actual weather conditions, were to be conducted under Instrument Flight Rules. All aircraft would proceed to Berlin along one of two air routes designated for the purpose, and leave the city along a third. Only one opportunity to land would be provided: aircraft missing their approaches would immediately leave Berlin and return to their bases. This ensured that landing hold-ups were minimized, and the risk of mid-air collision caused by 'go-arounds' was largely eliminated.
To assist with instrumented flight, Tunner ordered a number of Ground-Controlled Approach (GCA) stations to be installed. Special GCA stations, built in small sections for ease of air transport, were rushed to Berlin to be installed at its airports. One is shown below.
Even though Tunner standardized the US airlift on the C-54, it was inevitable that some other aircraft would be required to handle larger or specialized cargo. From time to time C-74's, C-82's and C-97's would land in Berlin. Below, a C-74 is shown at Gatow airport in 1949, attracting many sightseers.
However, every effort was made to minimize such flights, as the different speeds and handling characteristics of these aircraft sometimes made for confusion and difficulty for the controllers. Also, their non-standard maintenance requirements stretched an already overburdened support organization to the limit. They were largely confined to bringing cargo to the airports in the US and British sectors, from where it was transshipped to C-54's for onward delivery to Berlin.
A third airport was an early and urgent requirement. The French offered to build one in their sector of Berlin, on the shores of Lake Tegel, and set to work at once. All the earthmoving machinery, tarmac, concrete, etc. for this airfield had to be flown into Berlin via the other airports, imposing an additional transport burden. Five C-82's were used to ferry earthmoving machinery and other large items, their clamshell tail doors proving invaluable for this purpose.
Larger equipment was cut into smaller sections with welding torches, flown to Berlin in pieces, and welded together on site. Below you see some of the 10,000 barrels of tar flown in to surface the runway.
The new airport had one major problem. The Soviets had built a radio tower at the premises of Radio Berlin, which they controlled, and which obstructed the flight path to the new airport. The French commander in Berlin, General Jean Ganeval, politely asked the Soviets to dismantle the tower. They refused, somewhat less politely: so he sent in sappers one night and blew it up. When the Soviets furiously protested, he blandly replied that the act must have been committed by one of the 'gangs of saboteurs' whom they had blamed for interrupting normal land routes to Berlin. The Berliners loved it, of course, and it became a standing joke, to the ire of the Soviets.
The new airport was completed in only 90 days, a phenomenal feat of engineering and endurance. Most of the labor was supplied by Berliners, 17,000 of whom worked in shifts around the clock for meager wages and a hot meal. The foundations for the runway and apron were made from the rubble of bomb-damaged buildings left over from World War II.
The first C-54 landed at Tegel on November 5th, 1948, even before construction had been completed.
Tegel Airport was dedicated on December 1st, 1948. General Ganeval is on the left of the three saluting officers.
A new runway was also built at Tempelhof, and the existing runways reinforced with pierced steel plating. This also had to be flown in aboard aircraft.
Gangs of German workers would inspect the runway after each landing or take-off, removing debris and putting new sheets of PSP in place wherever necessary. They had to move fast, or be run over by the next aircraft in the queue for landing! Somehow, despite the immense number of aircraft movements, the runways were kept in operation.
Airlift operations continued around the clock. Berliners grew used to the constant drone of aircraft landing and taking off. Gangs of airport laborers worked through the night to continue offloading supplies.
A massive maintenance organization was set up to service the hundreds of aircraft involved in the airlift. A particular problem was the coal dust deposited inside aircraft fuselages from the sacks of coal flown into Berlin. Special washing stations had to be set up to flush this out, lest it build up to such an extent that it obstructed the flight control cables and other mechanical components. This had to be done during routine 200-hour flight inspections.
Huge stocks of spare parts were accumulated at maintenance bases. Below you see tires for the C-54 transports.
Maintenance continued around the clock. Below you see the maintenance docks at Rhein-Main airport, in the US sector of Germany, at night.
Back in the USA, every effort was made to support Airlift operations. MATS contracted with US airlines to fly cargo around the country, thus freeing up its own C-54's and other aircraft to be sent to Europe. In addition, more than 600 airline charter flights carried supplies and personnel to Germany for the Airlift. Civilian aircraft weren't allowed to fly into Berlin, as it was considered too dangerous and their insurers refused to cover them. Instead, they offloaded their cargoes at US and British air bases, from where they were loaded onto military aircraft to be flown to Berlin.
The USAF created a special school at Great Falls, Montana, with duplicates of the three air corridors to Berlin, a GCA approach radar, and navigational beacons resembling those in Germany. Aircrews assigned to the Airlift were first trained there, so that they became familiar with Airlift operations even before their arrival in Germany. This saved a great deal of time and effort. Typically, a new pilot joining the Airlift would need only two trips as co-pilot to an experienced flyer before he would be capable of commanding an aircraft himself.
The flight regime to and from Berlin was very strictly regimented, to ensure minimal deviation from planned routes and times. Claude Luisada described it as follows:
The lift system utilized the northern and southern air corridors for eastbound flights to Berlin, and the center corridor for westbound flights. On a typical flight, the crew would board their C-54 at Rhein-Main Base. At a specified time, they would taxi behind other C-54's, each fully loaded with ten tons of cargo. Takeoff followed a split second schedule. Climb-out was toward a radio beacon which marked the beginning of the air corridor leading to West Berlin. This procedure required a set airspeed and rate-of-climb. All aircraft had assigned altitudes between 5,000 feet and 7,000 feet at 500-foot intervals. Airplanes at the same altitude were fifteen minutes apart. Every three minutes, aircraft were taking off or landing.
The C-54 would reach its assigned altitude before reaching the corridor. Entering the twenty-mile-wide corridor, the airspeed was set at 170 mph, the rate which all aircraft maintained throughout their [eastbound] flights. In the vicinity of Berlin, radar would direct the flight to its final heading for the airport runway. As soon as the aircraft landed and was parked, unloading crews would swarm aboard and unload all cargo in less than thirty minutes. Flight crews were not permitted to leave the vicinity of their plane, since they were normally airborne for the return flight exactly thirty minutes after landing.
(Quoted in Robert J. Serling, When The Airlines Went To War, Kensington, NY, 1997, pp. 267-268.)
William Lafferty, one of the Airlift pilots, remembers the flying.
The GCA approach to one of the original Tempelhof runways took you smack over some tall apartment buildings, and when you cleared the last one you were only seventeen feet from the top of the roof. I saw one C-54 clip that roof with its landing gear. It ended up on its back, and although everyone walked away, it was the classic case of stretching your ability just a little bit too far.
We never took off at maximum weight, always a couple of thousand pounds under. But because our fuel load was light, we always landed way over max. The book said you couldn't land on those steel mats or asphalt with an overweight airplane and stop in time. So we made a habit of touching down right at the end, hitting the brakes as soon as the main wheels touched, and then rotating the nose up until the tailskid hit the runway and slowed you down. It was tough on the airplane, but not as tough as running into something. I saw one C-54 land too fast and too far down. When the guy tried to make the turnoff the nose wheel collapsed. Nobody chewed you out for aborting a landing and going back to base, but tearing up an airplane brought you a lot of unwanted attention.
A lot of pilots violated bad weather landing limits, especially when the new runway at Tempelhof opened with new high-intensity approach lights, and we'd land even with a hundred-foot ceiling just to get the job done. Normally in a C-54 you'd make a GCA approach at a hundred and thirty miles an hour indicated airspeed, with twenty-degree flaps. But on the airlift with those narrow corridors, because you had to keep from straying too wide, you'd approach a lot slower at a hundred and twenty, with flaps at thirty degrees. No sweat unless you had to abort, and then things got interesting. By the time you started to increase power to climb, you'd already lost a hundred feet of altitude and you needed another ten mph to get any rate of climb. If you lost an engine at that point, you had problems.
(Quoted in Serling, op. cit., pp. 271-272.)
The loading and unloading procedure was manpower-intensive. This proved a major problem, requiring the hiring of thousands of German laborers.
Colonel Donald C. Foote describes how a typical planeload of coal was unloaded.
We shall take as an illustration a 10-ton truck from the ready line and dispatch it to a plane loaded with coal bags and follow it from plane-side to the time it is unloaded at the coal pier.
First, the alert driver watches the yellow "Follow Me" jeep spot the plane on the apron. Several minutes before the plane comes to a stop, the driver, with the 12 German laborers and cargo checkers turns and backs the rear of the vehicle to planeside. By the time the doors are thrown open by the plane pilot, the 10-ton trailer is backed and stopped. Since nearly every vehicle has empty jute or duffle bags to the tune of 1,000 pounds, the bags are quickly thrown by the labor crew from truck to plane. This process normally takes two minutes. Then six of the twelve laborers immediately ascend into the plane to quickly pass each of the 110 lb. coal bags to a chute which has already been laid down between plane and rear of truck. The remaining six laborers lift and stack the bags of coal as they slide down the chute. Each plane load consists of from an average of 180 to 200 bags. This phase of handling takes from six to 10 minutes, contrasted to an average of fifteen to twenty minutes before the chain system was inaugurated.
With the plane empty, the truck driver immediately repairs to Headquarters, TCAHT (known as the Little White House) where one copy of the manifest is quickly deposited for recording of pertinent information. This is used for statistical and other recording. Following this step, which takes less than a minute, the vehicle proceeds to a scale house for weighing to determine the differential between manifest and actual weight—and it varies from 5 to 10%, depending upon weather conditions and if the load is coal or coke. At this station the operation takes from 2 to 4 minutes.
The last hauling phase is from scale house to coal pier, where the same twelve laborers who unloaded the cargo from plane to truck unload the sacks into empty freight cars. The freight cars are then directed by German rail personnel to redistribution points (coal dumps) where the coal is parcelled out to the German economy and rationed to the individual German. A percentage of the coal is for U. S. Military consumption, which is allocated to the Engineer who trucks his portion to an empty dump.
Inasmuch as 65 to 70% of the total tonnage handled at Tempelhof is coal, we have used coal as an illustration of our operational procedure. Other materiel, consisting of food, industrial goods and perishables are handled in about the same manner, except that food for Civil Affairs is hauled to the land pier and CA industrial to the intransit storage warehouse in Hangar 4 for redistribution to German factories.
The lessons learned on the Berlin Airlift would lead to efforts to containerize or palletize airborne cargo, which would bear rich dividends in future airlift operations. Cargo-handling machinery and facilities were improved at airports and on aircraft as well.
Aircrew fatigue was a major problem. The constant flights (sometimes up to three per day when weather permitted) took their toll on pilots, and doubtless caused some serious accidents. In an attempt to alleviate the problem, pilots were rotated to easier assignments after six months. A USAF cartoonist saw the procedure like this:
Despite all these arrangements and new techniques, the bitter winter weather proved a huge obstacle. During November and December 1948 a long-lasting fog blanketed large parts of Europe for weeks on end. The poor visibility played havoc with flights to Berlin. On November 20th, 1948, 42 aircraft left for Berlin, but only one was able to land. At one time there was only a week's supply of coal for Berlin's power generating plants. Snow also hampered flight operations.
However, as experience was gained, new GCA equipment installed and the third airport at Tegel brought into operation, matters improved. B-17 bombers were deployed as weather reconnaissance aircraft, flying along the Airlift routes and radioing regular reports to the air traffic control centers (the Tempelhof center is shown below). These measures helped to nullify the 'weather enemy'.
In January 1949 over 170,000 tons of freight was delivered. In a special effort on April 16th, 1949, 12,941 tons of coal were delivered on 1,383 flights. By April 21st, the tonnage of supplies flown into Berlin exceeded that which had been previously brought in by rail and road. That month a total of 234,476 tons of freight was delivered. The Berlin Airlift could now be proclaimed a definite success, and could be continued as long as required.
The Soviets realized that their blockade had failed, and after much face-saving maneuvering, lifted it on May 12th, 1949. However, the Airlift continued until September 30th, 1949, building up a three-month reserve of supplies in case of any future repetition.
In all, US aircraft delivered 1,783,573 tons of supplies, while the RAF delivered 541,937 tons, for a total of 2,326,406 tons of supplies carried on 278,228 flights. The aircraft flew over 92 million miles in the process. Expenditure on the Airlift was approximately $224 million, equivalent to over $2 billion in today's inflation-adjusted currency. Money was not the only cost. Seventeen US and eight British aircraft were lost during the Airlift, causing 101 fatalities among aircrew and civilians on the ground.
There are several good video clips of the Berlin Airlift available on YouTube. The one below shows the situation at the beginning of the Airlift:
This video highlights the British contribution, and provides rare footage of some little-known British aircraft:
The following two videos were recorded a few days ago, on the 60th anniversary of the Airlift:
You'll find many more on YouTube if you search for 'Berlin Airlift'.
The Berlin Airlift Monument at Tempelhof, shown below, displays the names of the US and British aircrew who died during the operation. The monument is known by various nicknames: die Gabel (the fork), die Hunger-Harke (the hunger rake), or die Hunger-Kralle (the hunger claw). Its three prongs symbolize the three air corridors into and out of Berlin during the Airlift. A similar monument stands at the Rhein-Main air base near Frankfurt, the other end of the "airlift bridge".
The Berlin Airlift was the first encounter of the Cold War. It proved that military air transport, with civilian assistance, could function as a strategic weapon, not just as a tactical problem-solver. Prior to the Airlift, no-one would have believed it possible to keep a city of 2,000,000 people supplied by air with the necessities of life on an indefinite basis.
Military airlift went from strength to strength following the Airlift. The Korean War, beginning a year later, would place fresh demands upon it. New and larger aircraft would be developed, building on the foundation of the C-74, C-82 and C-97's flying at the time of the Airlift. New methods of cargo packaging and handling would be devised, as well as new equipment to speed this up. Air traffic control systems would be further developed to handle frequent aircraft movements, to the point that today, a large airfield can handle more than four aircraft movements per minute if necessary (and if sufficient runways and taxiways are available).
The Berlin Airlift was indeed a seminal event in aviation history.