the Berlin Airlift
the Korean War
air war in Vietnam
Linebacker bombing raids
the Falklands War
Air War over Morocco
the first Gulf War
Venezuela’s 1992 coup attempt
the Serbian bombings
the MPQ-53 Radar

the Berlin Airlift

During the 11 months beginning in June 1948, the Western Powers sustained the Berlin's 2 1/2 million residents in one of the greatest feats in aviation history.

The 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.

At the 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 kilometres) wide.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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 minutes. Later, two levels were used with spacing that allowed for landing at the same rate.

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.

The 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.

On May 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.

For 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.

Most 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.

For 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.