Heroes Welcome

Fifty years ago, they worked around the clock to keep Berlin from starving. Now, in a year-long celebration, Berlin invites them back.

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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."

Though the accident rate was low--31 U.S. fatalities in 189,963 flights--the congested airspace over Berlin dramatized the need for ever larger transports to lift the same loads in ever fewer trips. The airlift helped fuel a "bigger is better" trend as well as a push for mission-specific airlifters--both apparent in the heavy-lift C-5 and the short takeoff-capable McDonnell Douglas C-17A flying today.

"We have policies today that are directly related to the Berlin airlift," says Tom Cossaboom, the historian of the Air Mobility Command. "It's more than Air Force policy. Airlift is today an instrument of national policy."

The success in Berlin, he continues, also had a tremendous impact on the course of U.S. foreign relations. "Remember there was a Republican-controlled Senate at the time," he points out, "and Republicans were historically reluctant to get involved in long-term foreign alliances. The airlift influenced the decision to stay in Europe." Not only did it make the U.S. Congress a more willing participant in NATO, says Cossaboom, "it did a lot to push European governments into the alliance."

It instantly changed the attitudes of the people involved in it. Some of the pilots who flew to Berlin had bombed the city just a few years earlier, and most flying the lift still considered Germans the enemy. Earl Moore, a retired Navy commander, remembers the animosity he and his colleagues felt toward the Germans at first. "I didn't give a damn whether they lived or died," he says, "until I saw them."

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