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Monday, June 25, 2007

The Berlin Airlift Begins, June 26, 1948

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Today in 1948, the Berlin Airlift began. This effort to feed more than two million people in the city of Berlin was unprecedented in the history of aviation, for never before had so many people in one location been supplied by air. The Airlift also showed that nonlethal forms of airpower could directly achieve national objectives.

At the end of the Second World War in Europe, the Allies divided Germany into occupation zones: the American, French, and British zones in the west and a Soviet zone in the east. Within the Soviet zone lay Berlin, also divided into four sectors, each administered by one of the wartime allies. The only guaranteed means of access to Berlin was by air. The Soviet Union had granted each of the three Western Allies a 20-mile-wide air corridor leading from their respective occupation zones to the city, but no such arrangement governed travel by road or rail--those avenues of access depended upon the continuing cooperation of Soviet authorities.

The Second World War had scarcely ended when relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate. Eastern Europe quickly fell under Soviet domination. By 1946, the reunification of Germany was out of question to the Soviets unless the re-joined nation became a satellite communist state. In March, 1948, the three Western Allies agreed to merge their areas of responsibility and institute a free, democratic government. Shortly afterward, the Soviet Union began exerting pressure on the overland routes leading into Berlin, imposing arbitrary restrictions on access, such as temporarily halting coal shipments and, on 24 June, establishing a blockade. Lacking the ground forces to punch through the blockade, the Western Allies had no choice but to rely on airlift if their sectors in Berlin, with a combined populace of over two million people, were to survive. Never before had any nation mounted so ambitious an aerial resupply operation. The Soviet leadership, conditioned by the failure of the German airlift at Stalingrad during the war, assumed that the attempt would fail.

The task of supplying Berlin by air fell upon the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, commanded by Major General Curtis E. LeMay, who had at his disposal 102 C-47s, each with a cargo capacity of 3 tons, and 2 of the larger C-54s that could carry 10 tons apiece. He called for reinforcements and entrusted the operation to Brigadier General Joseph Smith, who called it Operation Vittles because, "We’re hauling grub." The first deliveries took place on June 26, 1948, when C-47s made 32 flights into Berlin with 80 tons of cargo, mainly powdered milk, flour, and medicine.

Within a month, American officials realized a massive airlift of indefinite duration afforded the only alternative to war or withdrawal. The transports would have to deliver not only food for the populace but also coal to heat their homes during the winter, and bulky bags of coal would cut deeply into the available space within the aircraft. The airlift would continue after the good flying weather of summer had ended and winter fog, clouds, rain, and ice commenced. Because so extensive an operation exceeded the capacity of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Operation Vittles became the responsibility of the Military Air Transport Service directed by the newly-formed Air Force. Chosen to command the Berlin Airlift was Major General William H. Tunner, a veteran of the aerial supply line across the Himalayas, from India to China, during World War II, that was known as "The Hump".

General Tunner arrived in Germany in late July 1948 and promptly set about speeding up the delivery of cargo, an effort that earned him the nickname "Willie the Whip." He established a truly impossible goal of a landing every minute, day or night if the ceiling at the destination was 400 feet or more. At times the aircrews participating in the operation came close to achieving this goal, touching down 3 minutes apart. The transport aircraft entered the air corridor at a prescribed time and altitude and obeyed instructions from ground radar controllers who regulated speed and the interval between each aircraft . Each pilot in this endless procession had one chance to land. If the weather or some other reason prevented a landing, he would return to his home station and reenter the cycle later. On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1949, this system delivered 13,000 tons of cargo, including the equivalent of 600 railroad cars of coal. This so-called Easter Parade set a record for a day’s tonnage during the operation.

Soviet forces harassed but did not attack the cargo aircraft of the Anglo-American alliance, although fighter pilots and antiaircraft gunners occasionally opened fire near the corridors, and searchlights that could destroy a pilot's night vision sometimes played upon the aircraft in the dark. By the spring of 1949, it was obvious these tactics of harassment had failed to deter the American and British airmen. Consequently, the Soviet Union entered into negotiations which culminated in an agreement, signed on May 5, 1949, that resulted in the lifting of the blockade, but it did not settle the basic issue of freedom of access. Despite the resumption of surface traffic into the city, the airlift continued until September 30 to mass a reserve of food, fuel, and other supplies in the event the Soviets reimposed the blockade.

Between June 26, 1948 and September 30, 1949, the airlift delivered more than 2.3 million tons of cargo. To keep the aircraft going, military and civilian mechanics worked around the clock to support airlift operations. Maintenance technicians would perform periodic checks of aircraft components and systems after every 20 hours of flying time to ensure proper operation. After 200 hours, the aircraft received a major inspection, and after 1,000 hours, the transports were flown to their home bases for a major overhaul. The operations sustained over the 15-month period were surprisingly safe despite crowded airways and bad winter weather; the accident rate of the airlift forces averaged less than half that of the entire US Air Force during that period. Nevertheless, breaking the blockade cost the lives of 30 servicemen and one civilian in the 12 crashes.

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