Fifty years ago, they worked around the clock to keep Berlin from starving. Now, in a year-long celebration, Berlin invites them back.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, July 1998
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"The regs tell you not to cut power till you're on the deck," Voigt continues. "But there's two ways to cook eggs. Everybody has his own technique. As soon as the apartment buildings disappeared from my peripheral vision, I pulled back to idle. Then I put power on to flare." Pilots flying the same approach two or three times a day, day after day, for three months had a lot of chances to refine their techniques.
Besides all the hours flying military aircraft, Voigt has thousands more restoring them. He works as a volunteer on airplanes rescued by the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware--among them, one of the C-54s he flew in the lift. We are sitting in the museum's 20,000-square-foot exhibition hall, admiring a past project: a grandly restored Douglas C-47--one of the hundred that hauled groceries into Berlin, two and a half tons at a time, until the bigger, four-engine C-54s took over.
In the presence of this icon, Voigt confesses that he wanted to fly fighters. Instead, after basic, he was retained as a flight instructor, "finally wiggled out of it," and was sent to Air Transport Command. "Ended up flying Gooney Birds," says Voigt. "Big deal."
But in 1948, flying transports became a very big deal. The mission facing the new Air Force--to keep Berlin from the clutches of the Russians--couldn't be done with fighters and bombers. Not that the Air Force didn't try. In early July the service experimented with coal delivery by stuffing bags of it in the bomb bays of a couple of B-29s, which released their stores at low level. When the coal hit the ground, it disintegrated. And after the dust settled--everywhere--the Air Force faced the dirty, time-consuming, labor-intensive reality, and coal was instead loaded on C-54s, bag by 100-pound bag. It became the airlift's chief commodity; a million and a half tons were delivered by the time the lift ended.
"I never made a trip to Berlin that I didn't carry coal," says Voigt. "We were dirty. The planes were dirty." When C-54s returned to the States for their 1,000-hour overhauls, they were sometimes hundreds of pounds heavier because of the coal dust that had settled in their innards. In 1989, when curator Jim Leech and volunteers at the Air Mobility Command Museum started working on Voigt's old C-54, they found coal dust still clinging to the bulkheads.
The Military Air Transport Service hadn't planned for a situation in which coal would be its primary cargo and hadn't anticipated the requirements of a strategic airlift in general. MATS C-47 and C-54 transports were derived from passenger aircraft, awkward to load and unload. The first freighter designed as such, Fairchild's twin-engine C-82 Packet, was a boxcar hung between two booms with rear clamshell doors for straight-in loading at ground level, but it had less capacity and less power than the C-54.
The most daunting problem facing MATS, however, was not how to load airplanes or even how to keep them in flying condition, though the maintenance tasks for the operation were Herculean. It was how to get all those airplanes into two--later three--airports. "You had an airplane landing or taking off every 90 seconds," says Michael Leister, the director of the AMC museum.
MATS solved the problem with Ground Controlled Approach, a precision landing aid using a radar operator to tell the pilot his position relative to the approach path. The operator would pick up an aircraft on his scope from about two miles out and talk the pilot down to a landing. "GCA was very reassuring," says Harold Watson, who was called back to the Air Force from his job at TWA and made about 200 flights in the lift. "Berlin is what made it acceptable to civilian pilots. The operator was continuously talking and very calm. He'd say for example: 'You're 50 feet below the glideslope, coming up slow' or 'two degrees left.' If we didn't correct, he'd remind us. It was life-saving to us."