It was a British idea. On June 25, 1948, Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin ordered his Chiefs of Staff to put together the largest force of transport aircraft possible to carry food to the civilian population of Berlin. The day before, Soviet occupation authorities had cut the supply of electricity to the Western half of the city and had stopped rail, road, and barge traffic from going in or coming out. Bevin organized an airlift, he told a U.S. diplomat, to boost the morale of the Berliners and show the Soviets what Western air power could do.
The U.S. Army had concluded months earlier that supplying Berlin by air would be impossible. At the end of the war, U.S. forces had been brought home faster than you can say "de-mobilize," and the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe at the time, Major General Curtis LeMay, had only about a hundred Douglas C-47s to carry men and cargo. In the tense weeks preceding the Soviet blockade, the U.S. military governor in Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, reappraised his situation but reached the same conclusion. "We can maintain our own people indefinitely," he cabled Washington on June 13, "but not the German people if rail transport is severed." Two weeks later as the blockade began, Clay cabled again: "Our people are calm and quiet. Personally, I have little fear of crisis affecting us. What I do fear [is that] such suffering [may be] brought upon Germans in Berlin as to drive us out to relieve their suffering."
Unlike the British Foreign Minister, Clay had witnessed the privations Berlin endured while its supply routes were open, and he understood the city's predicament. Clay knew that Berlin had been importing as much as 12,000 tons of supplies daily--that it needed 2,000 tons of food a day for the most meager subsistence--and he never dreamed of bringing it in by air. Instead, he repeatedly asked for, and was denied, permission "to force the issue" by sending an armed truck convoy across the hundred miles of Soviet-occupied Germany.
As the blockade began, Clay called on LeMay to supply the U.S. garrison, as he had done for a few days in April when the Soviets had interfered with military trains. He asked LeMay to fly 45 tons of food into Berlin. LeMay sent 80. And Clay decided to go for it. With the Royal Air Force already committed to throwing everything they had into an airlift--40 Dakotas (British C-47s), 35 Avro Yorks, and 26 Handley Page Hastings--Clay cabled the War Department on June 27: "it is urgent that we be given approximately 50 additional transport planes to arrive in Germany at the earliest practicable date." LeMay told Clay to get Douglas C-54 Skymasters, the biggest transport the Air Force had in any significant number. They could carry 10 tons each.
On June 28, 21 C-54s from the Panama Canal Zone and Alaska arrived at Rhein-Main Air Base. The following day 22 more flew in from Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas and Hickam Field in Hawaii. Another 43 reported for duty in July. By October, the newly formed Military Air Transport Service had committed to the operation 300 of the approximately 400 C-54s left in military service; 19 more were sent to Great Falls Air Force Base in Montana to train pilots solely for the lift. The U.S. Navy pitched in with two squadrons and 24 R5Ds, the Navy C-54. No one, not even Bevin, thought airplanes could sustain the city for more than a few weeks; after that, it was hoped that diplomacy would open the land routes once more. No one would have predicted that the operation would see Berlin through the winter, that it would become an aerial conveyor belt in continuous motion from June 1948 to September 1949, delivering 5,500 tons of food, medicine, and coal a day.
Lockheed's C-5 Galaxy, today the biggest airlifter in the U.S. fleet, can carry 130 tons without breaking a sweat. When the Air Force sends a C-5 to an airshow, it goes with a placard noting that it would have taken only 17 C-5s to do the job of the aircraft that flew in the Berlin Airlift. On the other hand, the Air Force also points out, the total tonnage delivered to Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996--179,910 tons--is less than the amount delivered to Berlin in March 1949 alone. Despite the remarkable movements of men and machines that the Air Force accomplished in Vietnam and Desert Storm, after 50 years, Berlin is still the standard by which airlifts are measured.
"It was so constant," says Bill Voigt, who flew to Berlin 116 times between July and November. "If you don't think that sharpened your ability to fly--making all those precision landings." Voigt, a stocky 78-year-old with a gray crewcut, has 11,300 hours in military aircraft, 6,000 of them in C-54s.
Landings were tricky at Tempelhof, the airport in the U.S. zone of Berlin. Seven-story apartment buildings stood not far from the end of a 5,000-foot runway. "You'd come in at a pretty steep angle," says Voigt. "It's not a heck of a lot of space with a fully loaded airplane. And the surface [pierced steel planking] would slide with you. It was pretty hard on the brakes and tires.
"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.