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Berlin Airlift

By pr3sg1ad Jul 04, 2011 2154 Words
The Berlin Airlift

MGMT 410, Management of Air Cargo
Professor Walter Ginn
January 23, 2006

The Air Force can deliver anything (Glines, 1998)! That was the response given by Lt. General Curtis E. Lemay, then commander of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), when asked by General Lucius Clay, the U.S. Military Governor of Germany, could he haul supplies to Berlin. Little did General Lemay know that he was about to embark on one of the most massive and dynamic airlift operations ever conducted. Faced with the choice of abandoning the city or supplying the city’s residents with life’s necessities by air, the Western Powers chose the latter course and for the next eleven months sustained the city's two and a half million residents in one of the greatest feats in aviation history. Making of the Airlift

The airlift was a result of an unexpected breakdown of the alliance of nations during WWII. When Germany was defeated in WWII, the country was divided amongst the victors, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. The Soviet Union took control of the Eastern half of Germany while the Western half was divided amongst the Western powers: US, Great Britain, and France. Germany’s capital city of Berlin was located in the Soviet-controlled Eastern half and like the country, was also divided into four parts with one half being Soviet controlled, and the rest divided amongst the others.  The four countries formed a provisional government called the Allied Control Council which purpose was to control and rebuild the city of Berlin. By 1948, it became apparent that the Western Powers’ (Great Britain, France, and US) plan to rebuild Germany differed from the Soviet Union's plan. The differences were many and varied with currency, German Unification, Soviet War reparations, and ideology among them. There would be no compromise and as a result, Soviet President Joseph Stalin wanted the other countries out of Berlin.  During the spring of 1948, tensions between the former Allies climaxed and on April 9, 1948, Stalin ordered American Military personnel maintaining communications equipment out of the Soviet controlled Eastern Zone of Berlin.  The Soviets began stopping trains in the summer of 1948 and on June 21, they halted a U.S. Military Supply Train and refused to allow it passage to Berlin.  On June 24, 1948, the Soviets halted all traffic by land and by water into or out of the western-controlled section of Berlin. There were to be no more supplies provided from the West.   It was a grave situation and the Allies decided not to stand for this.  Diplomacy failed, ground invasions were planned, and World War III was on the brink of existence.  General Clay had developed a plan to break the blockade by having an armed convoy push its way through Soviet Controlled Germany.  This aggressive action would certainly have started a war. However, British Commander Sir Brian Robertson offered an alternative: supply the city by air.  Thus was the beginning of airlift operations to sustain a city of over two million people. Airlift Leaders

The men who would lead this mighty operation were Clay, Lemay, and Maj General William Tunner. General Clay announced that no Soviet action short of war would force the Americans out of Berlin. In a 1948 telegraph message sent from Berlin to Washington, D.C., General Clay sated the following, “We've lost Czechoslovakia, and we're in danger of losing Finland. If we intend to hold Europe against Communism, we dare not move from this position. I believe that the future of democracy demands that we stay put (Johnson, 1997)." The question was how to make good on that promise, for the Western sectors of the city had a total of less than two weeks of critical supplies, and the small American force in Germany could not have put down the mighty Red Army. The size of the operation had to be increased in order to sufficiently supply the city and the airlift’s heavy demands required a commander who had expertise in air transport.  That commander happened to be General Tunner, who was revered as "The transportation expert to end all transportation experts".  During his career which spanned two wars, he created the Ferrying Command which flew new aircraft to our allies in Europe and the Middle East, and developed the Air Transport Command in its famous Hump operation over the Himalayas to China. Tunner hated to see airplanes parked on the ramp not being utilized. He longed for efficiency and was about to set the standard for all that followed. Tunner’s outstanding performance in command of the Berlin airlift established the cargo airplane as an effective freight mover in an unprecedented demonstration of efficiency and productivity. Aircraft and Cargo

The primary US aircraft utilized during the airlift were C-47 Skytrains and C-54 Skymasters.  The C-47 could only carry 2.5 tons of cargo while the C-54 carried 10 tons each. General LeMay tasked his logistics staff to calculate the requirements to sustain the Berlin’s inhabitants. They determined that it would require 2,000 tons of coal and 1,439 tons of food per day to meet the minimum basic needs of the 2 million inhabitants. The normal total tonnage requirement for the city was 13,500 tons daily. But the mere 3,439 tons flown in each day with the few available C-47s appeared an impossible task. In fact, the largest quantity of anything required was coal.  It wasn't needed to heat homes as much as it was necessary for industry.  In addition, there was limited electricity, because the city's power plant was located in the Soviet sector, so that was cut off, too.  Realizing that this kind of tonnage could not be achieved using C-47's, both Clay and LeMay made requests for more C-54's, for they could carry over three times more cargo than C-47's.  On June 27, an additional 52 Skymasters were ordered to Berlin. |[pic] |C-47 "Skytrain." 26 June 1948 -- the first day of the Berlin | | |Airlift, 32 flights of C-47s carried 80 tons of supplies from | | |Wiesbaden AFB to Tempelhof AFB. Some 102 C-47s were available in | | |USAFE but none of the larger C-54s. 30 Sept 1948, the C-47s were | | |phased out since they only carried 2 ½ tons compared to the 10 ton | | |capacity of the | | |C-54 "Skymaster." |

| | |
|[pic] |C-54 "Skymaster." Unloading operations at Tempelhof. |

Flying the Air Corridors
When the airlift began, there were only two airfields in Berlin with Tempelhof in the American sector and Gatow in the British sector.  The airfields each had only one runway and the success of the airlift depended on these two invisible roads. It soon became obvious that if the airlift continued to expand, a third West Berlin airfield site must be found. An area in the French Sector was chosen to become Tegel Airfield, which was built in only 60 days using volunteer German men and women laborers. The Soviets agreed to allow the Western powers to operate aircraft via three 20 mile-wide air corridors connecting Berlin with Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Hannover-Bueckeburg. The Allied Control Authority Air Directorate established the Berlin Control Zone which permitted airplanes landing and taking off from Berlin airfields to fly within a 20 mile radius of Berlin. This also permitted Allied aircraft to overfly the Soviet Sector of Berlin and the Soviet Zone on their approaches and departures. Pilots flying in the corridors had to endure the erratic German weather.  Weather changed so often that it was not uncommon to leave a base in West Germany under ideal flying conditions only to find difficult, it not impossible conditions in Berlin.  Flying into Tempelhof airfield was even more challenging. Approaching the airfield, a pilot had to literally fly between the high rise apartment buildings at the end of the runway so he could land.  In order to land on a second runway, a steep drop over a building was required to land soon enough to have enough runway for braking.  These physical obstacles, the German weather, plus a fully loaded C-54 with a 10 ton cargo load were more than enough for any pilot to handle.  Safety and Soviet Harassment

One of the key lessons learned was the importance of flying and ground safety programs at the newly established airlift bases. There were 126 minor and major accidents in the approximately 586,901 flying hours needed to free Berlin (Spilling, 1998). The majority occurred within the first seven months of the operation. The flying accident rate for the airlift was roughly half that of the U.S. Air Force at the time. Aircraft taxiing and landing accidents were the chief categories of mishaps during the airlift. The number of landing accidents did increase, but this was largely due to gear failures resulting from the continuous operation of aircraft at maximum loads. Motor vehicle traffic control and cargo-handling operations were also problems. Personnel who were not familiar with equipment operating procedures damaged aircraft with trucks and forklifts during loading and unloading operations. To combat these problems, emphasis was put on vehicle safety near aircraft and around busy airfields. Supervisors were held accountable for loading and unloading operations, and they rigidly enforced safe operating practices. Despite the dense air traffic in the air corridors to and from Berlin, there was only one mid-air collision throughout the airlift. This amazing feat can be attributed to air crews being provided with the best flying aids that technology could offer from electronic navigational aids to radio and radar. In addition to the before mentioned obstacles, the pilots also had to deal with Soviet harassment.  The Soviets constantly harassed the pilots during the operation.  Between 10 August 1948 and 15 August 1949, there were 733 incidents of harassment of airlift planes in the corridors.  The most common acts of harassment were soviet pilots buzzing, close flying, and shooting near airlift planes.  Other forms of harassment were balloons being released in the corridors, radio interference and searchlights shined in the pilots' eyes.  However, this did not stop the pilots, the planes kept chugging on in.  In spite of all these acts of harassment, no aircraft was shot down during the operation.  That would have started a war, and the Soviets did not want that.  The Airlift’s Legacy

The end of the Soviet blockade was the beginning of the 40-year Cold War with the Soviet Union. We also forged a newfound friendship with Germany, our former foe, and established the Federal Republic of Germany as a result.  In addition, the North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO) was formed as a result of the crisis.  Less politically, our aircraft and airway system we enjoy today was greatly enhanced as a result of the Berlin Airlift.  It was a proving ground for air transport and provided aircrews and ground personnel invaluable experience in flying, air traffic control, aircraft maintenance and loading, and general operational techniques. Ground Controlled Approach or GCA was greatly improved as a necessity for the aircraft to land in Berlin, and our air traffic control system is a direct development of that technology.  The Berlin Airlift demonstrated the military need for Air Transport in addition to bombers and fighters resulting in the Air Mobility Command and aircraft like the C-141 Starlifter, the C-130 Hercules, the C-5 Galaxy, and the C-17 Globemaster III.  All of these political and logistical ideas came as a result of the resolve of the US, Great Britain, France, and Germany to resist totalitarian tactics and wage a battle of air transport.  In a matter of fifteen months in 1948-49, world history was changed by the greatest humanitarian aviation event in history, the Berlin Airlift.  General Clay summed it best when he said, “The Airlift was forced on us, but once we accepted the challenge, the problem was attacked with characteristic American ingenuity. The results have been historic ("

Allaz, Camille (2004). The History of Air Cargo and Airmail From the 18th Century Giangreco, D.M. and Griffin, Robert E. (1988). Airbridge to Berlin: The Berlin Crisis of 1948, Its Origins and Aftermath Retrieved from Glines, C.V. (1998). Operation Vittles: The Berlin Airlift Retrieved from Johnson, Ray TSgt (1997). Spirit of Freedom

Retrieved from Milton, T. Ross General (Ret) (1998). Inside the Berlin Airlift Retrieved from Spilling, Stacee CaptSkip to the main content (1998). Safety a Key Factor in Berlin Airlift Success Retrieved from

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