The Berlin Airlift




The Berlin Airlift

 Robert Annis (research contributed by Lee Simpson)



Since its beginnings in the early years of this century, aviation has had an air of mystery about it. Until the late nineteen forties, no one really had any idea what could be accomplished through flight. While air transport of cargo was commonplace, it wasn’t until the Berlin Airlift that aviation reached its full potential. But, it was also much more than that. The Berlin Airlift was one of the most crucial junctures in the global chess match that was known as the Cold War. 

As most people remember, after World War II, the Russian, American, British, and French forces divvied up the conquered Germany and its capital Berlin, which happened to be in the Soviet sector of Germany. The Allied generals knew there would be trouble after the euphoria after their joint victory over the Axis forces would end, but it’s unclear if they knew the lengths the Soviets would go to in order to drive the Western forces out.

On June 24, 1948, the Soviets, after several months of imposed restrictions upon freight moving into the Western sector, announced they were closing all rail, road, and water traffic going into West Berlin and shutting off all electricity to that section except for the two hours between 11 pm and 1 am. Food and other necessities would not be supplied to the Western sectors. They would starve the Westerners out.

The Allied commanders immediately ordered supplies to be flown in. On the first night of the informal airlift, 80 tons were flown in. Sounds impressive, but it was far short of the nearly 3500 tons  per day it would take to sustain the Berliners and the 13,500 that had been coming in daily previously. General Lucius Clay ordered all American C-47s and C-54s which were capable of hauling 3 and 10 tons respectively to West Germany. The British also sent a call out for bigger cargo planes. In the coming weeks, the tons of cargo increase dramatically. From 1,000 tons over the first ten days; a combined 2,000 tons were daily flown in by American and British planes through June and into July; and by the end of July, over 3,000 tons of supplies per day were dropped off.

As the blockade went on and a solution was not in the immediate offerings, the Allied forces brought in Maj. General William Tunner, who had masterminded a major airlift in the Himalayas during WWII. He took full charge of the operation and  at once began making improvements. Maintenance checks  became mandatory, with the cargo planes inspected every 25 flight hours,  every 200 hours for more thorough checks, and every 1,000 hours, they were sent back to the States for any needed overhaul and repair work. However soon arose a problem, one very similar to today: the shortage of qualified mechanics. With the sheer number of planes, there wasn’t enough mechanics to perform maintenance and repairs. In order to combat this, an ex-Luftwaffe maintenance officer was brought in and given instructions to translate the C-54 maintenance manuals into German and to start a training course to allow German mechanics to assist the Allieds.


More airfields were needed and steamrollers, too large too fit into the cargo holds of the C-54s, were disassembled and welded back together on the ground in Berlin. An entire city block of five story apartments were demolished for the airfield. Tunner also ordered that pilots were to remain with their planes at all times, cutting down on any wasted moments and time spent on the ground. Finally, after poor weather prevented him from landing immediately in Berlin, Tunner ordered his pilots to strictly follow instrument flight rules. Any aircraft which missed an approach would have to turn around and return to base  with its cargo. Flights would run perfectly like clockwork and no hold-ups would be acceptable.

The average time on ground was 17 minutes. Tunner told an interviewer years later that it was that final decision that made the final success of the airlift possible. Don Ross, a Navy pilot who flew in the Airlift, remembered working a near 24 hour a day schedule, the route to West Berlin filled with planes three minutes apart. Occasionally, there were calls for a “big push”  where the planes would be only one minute apart. They would fly in loaded with cargo at 6,000 feet and return empty at 8,000 feet.

It was in the fall of 1948 that Mr. Ross, who had been on inactive duty after two tours in the Pacific, volunteered for the Airlift. He was assigned to a VR-6 as a plane commander.  Based out of Rhein Maine Air Base outside Frankfurt, Germany, his squadron was assigned 15 days on duty, five off. While on duty, he would make two round trips to Templehof Airfield a day, usually taking up to sixteen hours. Their flight course brought them directly over two Russian airfields. “It had to be like rubbing salt into an open sore to them,” Mr. Ross said, “ because on a clear day, they were like bees flying around us.”

The Soviets weren’t about to let the Allies go about their mission without interference. All in all, there were over 700 recorded incidents of harassment, including one Soviet fighter which tried to “buzz” a British passenger plane, causing both planes to crash and a loss of 35 lives. Any other way the Soviets could cause disruption, they tried, but ultimately failed as the Allieds, undeterred, carried on.

There was incredible rivalry between the Air Force and Navy at this time. Tunner’s Task Force Times, a newspaper devoted to the airlift and distributed among the servicemen, published each squadron’s cargo statistics. The idea was for each unit to try to become the best and according to Mr. Ross, the Navy squadrons were nearly always ranked one and two each week. “The Air Force didn’t dare load as heavy [as us],” he said.

It was in this spirit of competition that  Tunner decided to set a one day goal of 10,000 tons to be delivered in Berlin. The previous high total had been 7,000. The day chosen was Easter Sunday, 1949. Reports were circulated throughout the day about how opposing units was doing, causing them to work even harder. At the end of the day, they had achieved their goal and then some. Nearly 13,000 tons were delivered by the Allied forces. This tremendous show of air power hastened the end of the blockade as the Soviets realized they had failed in their attempt to drive the Westerners out of Berlin. By the next month, Berlin was once again opened to ground transport. The Soviets had thought they had the West in a checkmate, but in the end, their strategy failed and they capitulated. The Airlift continued until the end of September to make sure West Berlin was well stocked in the case of a Soviet reversal.

Mr. Ross took back some fond memories of the Airlift, including a time he was “flying over a fence at Templehof and seeing the [grateful] German families waving at us....” While the Berlin Airlift will go down into history as an enormous achievement for the West and the aviation world, he’s also quick to point out that nothing will bring back the friends and roommates who are no longer with us. We should all take the time to appreciate what he and his fellow servicemen accomplished for both aviation and democracy.

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