Out Of Thin Air
EVERY AIR TRAVELER HAS SEEN LIGHT WANDS—THOSE glowing Plexiglas rods at the ends of flashlights that guide taxiing airliners—but few realize that they were an important weapon in the Cold War. Fifty years ago an Air Force enlisted man, his name lost to history, developed the wands to communicate through the thick German fog with the planes of the Berlin airlift—that monumental effort to save West Berliners from slipping behind the Iron Curtain. The 2.5 million citizens of the western sectors of the divided city emerged from those dark months free of Soviet rule thanks in part to technological innovations, like the light wand, that are still in use today.
The crisis arose in the aftermath of World War II, when bomb-shattered Berlin lay more than a hundred miles inside the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany. Agreements made while the war was still being waged had placed the city under a four-power administration shared by the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The three Western powers had access to the city only by canal, a single rail line, one highway, and three narrow air corridors.
The Soviets proved difficult and obstructive from the beginning of the joint occupation. Bitter about heavy losses suffered during the war, they were staunchly opposed to reviving the German economy. As a result of their initial capture of the city, the reconstituted government was laced with Communist party members. When free elections were held, the Soviets canceled voting in their sector and refused to recognize the results. Liberal and democratic Germans were kidnapped by goon squads, and shooting occasionally broke out between the Western Allies and the Soviets.
Western fears of Soviet expansionism intensified after the war. Under the Truman Doctrine, America aided the Greek and Turkish governments resisting Communism, and the Marshall Plan fostered European recovery in hope of deterring Communism’s spread. There was little force to back up these economic measures, however; a single under-strength infantry division and a constabulary force for police duties were all the American military left in occupied Germany. The American garrison in Berlin numbered less than 3,000; the total for the three Western powers was 6,500. The Soviets, on the other hand, had undertaken no demobilization, maintaining fullstrength combat forces in conquered Poland, Hungary, and Romania. More than 300,000 Soviet troops were stationed in the eastern half of Germany; 18,000 were in Berlin itself.
In the spring of 1948 tensions between East and West continued to mount as the democratic government of Czechoslovakia fell to a Communist coup. Now the Soviets wanted control of Berlin, and Western leaders grew fearful, envisioning a domino effect. “After Berlin will come western Germany,” warned the military governor of the American zone, Gen. Lucius D. Clay. ”…If we mean that we are to hold Europe against communism, we must not budge.”
The breaking point came over money. The inflated occupation currency had no value. Cigarettes, coffee, and chocolate were the accepted medium of exchange both for the limited supply of legal goods and on the thriving black market. The Soviets refused to take any part in economic reforms that would lead to German recovery, so the Western Allies took matters into their own hands and instituted currency reform. The Soviets were furious. They had hoped that the Western Allies would eventually give up the city, but the reforms indicated they were there to stay.
Thus began one of the more unusual standoffs in history. On June 24 the Soviets cut off all the highways and train lines to Berlin on the ground of “technical difficulties.” The 15,000 tons of goods that had been imported daily were blockaded. The Soviets also shut off the fraction of West Berlin’s power supply, roughly half, that they controlled. Three-quarters of the world’s fifth-largest city was suddenly hostage in a war of wills between East and West. The Soviets expected the Berliners to rebel against the Western Allies rather than face the hardships of an embargo.
Things seemed bleak for the West. The use of military force on the ground was out of the question, for it would have surely started World War III. But there was nothing to stop the Western Allies from flying supplies in (the Soviets could not shoot down Allied airplanes without precipitating a war) except for the sheer audacity of the thought. Supply an enormous city with food and fuel using only airplanes? It was unheard of. Yet the only hope for a free Berlin was in the air, via three 20-mile-wide air corridors from the west to Tempelhof and Gatow, the city’s two airports.
The West wasted no time. The day after the blockade was announced, General Clay called Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of the United States Air Force in the European theater.
“Curt,” he asked, “do you have any planes that fly coal?”
LeMay was astonished but responded, “The Air Force can deliver anything.”
It was a proud boast, considering that the newly independent USAF had only 100 transport aircraft available in the whole of Europe, and all but two of them were aging C-47s with a cargo capacity of a meager two and a half to three tons; some still bore pink desert camouflage from the North African campaign of 1942. With pilots hastily assigned to temporary duty on the improvised effort, the Air Force managed to deliver 80 tons of goods with 32 flights to Berlin on June 26, the first day of the airlift. The British chipped in with six tons. Together, that was less than 2 percent of the city’s essential daily needs.
Of all the supplies necessary to sustain the metropolis, fuel, specifically coal, was the most precious. While the city needed at least 1,400 tons of food each day, it also needed 2,000 tons of coal and kerosene in the summer and 3,100 in the winter. Coal heated homes, fired bakers’ ovens, and powered generators at the few electric plants operating in West Berlin. Converted to gas at the municipal works, it was the source of cooking fuel for most Berliners. But no one had ever shipped coal by air before.
In fact, massive aerial supply operations were rare, and rarely successful. The technology was simply not up to it; planes couldn’t carry enough weight to make the sort of massive deliveries that an airlift requires. The British garrison at Kut had fallen to the Turks during World War Fs Mesopotamian campaign in spite of a primitive effort by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Hermann Göring’s offer to have his Luftwaffe bring 300 tons of supplies a day to the German army at Stalingrad had ended in ignominious surrender. The single successful large-scale aerial supply effort ever was one conducted by the United States over “the Hump” of the Himalayas during World War II. In its very best month it had delivered 72,000 tons, Berlin’s minimum requirement for sixteen days.
The prospects for a successful airlift to supply the beleaguered city seemed slim at best. Yet in theory it was possible. If a sufficient number of the most modern transport aircraft available, the 10-ton-capacity C-54 (originally designed for passenger service and modified for cargo), were assigned to the effort, and if a logistical system could be devised to dispatch them, fully loaded, to Berlin at a rate of one every three minutes, 24 hours a day, the minimum needs of the city could be met. Barely. (The task looked less enormous at first since American diplomats expected the standoffjerfast only a few weeks.)
When the airlift began, there were only two C-54s in all of Germany. Within days of the initial decision to attempt an airlift, however, C-54s were reassigned from Hawaii, Alaska, the Canal Zone, Japan, Guam, and the continental United States to American bases at Wiesbaden and Rhein-Main. Eventually 319 of the U.S. fleet’s 400 C-54s were active in the airlift.
Traditionally, heavy goods moved from the source by ship or by rail to a depository, where trucks were loaded for delivery to consumers. The integration of the airplane into this pattern required many adjustments. Brig. Gen. Williston B. Palmer, a stocky former artillery commander, was put in charge of ground transportation from the depositories to the airfields. He set up a rail-regulating and consignment point in the Frankfurt rail yards. So enormous was the task of moving freight through Frankfurt and on to the two airlift bases that Palmer assigned 800 enlisted men and officers to the Frankfurt unit. Eventually more than 1,000 displaced persons would work loading the planes at Rhein-Main, and 500 at Wiesbaden.
Meanwhile, the addition of the C-54s posed new problems. They were faster than,C-47s, which created a scheduling nightmare. The difference in capacity between the two planes also caused problems for the ground crews doing the loading. And the primary cargo, coal, was proving intractable.
Dust from the soft, brown lignite available in Germany seeped through the surplus GI duffel bags that it was packed in, covering the crews and the insides of the aircraft with a sooty grime. It fouled instruments, shorted electrical circuits, turned hydraulic fluid into taffy, and abraded the aircraft’s control wires. Flour proved almost equally difficult for the same reasons. The problem remained unsolved until one ingenious aircrew member discovered that a wide hose, thrust through a porthole into the aircraft’s slip—stream, could vacuum out much of the fine coal or flour dust that swirled around the interior in flight. Soon all planes on the lift had these devices or similar ones. No way was ever found to eliminate all the dust, however, and coal remained a headache to mechanics and cleanup crews for the duration of the lift.
Early in the airlift LeMay’s staff thought they had a solution to the problem of coal delivery. They envisioned a scheme in which the coal would be dropped directly from the bomb bays of B-29s, using canvas or wooden chutes and without bothering with bags or containers. The first and only experiment with this method was a fiasco. The soft lignite gained speed as it rained from the bomber and shattered on impact, pulverizing it into a fine dust that rose from the target area in a mushrooming cloud that begrimed the tan summer uniforms of the high-ranking observers. The base commander announced to the press, with classic military understatement, that bombers would not be used in further such deliveries because “there might be a wastage of coal.”
By July 27 the daily tonnage figure had risen to 1,700, just over a third of the amount the city required. While brave Berliners struggled to survive on meager rations, the airlift operations grew more and more chaotic. Pilots were exhausted, planes were overdue for maintenance, spare parts were scarce at best, and the runways at the airports in Berlin began to break up under the constant takeoffs and landings. At Tempelhof, where the airstrip consisted of pierced steel planking over a bed of rubble, repair gangs (often made up of German women) would rush onto the runway after a landing plane passed by, fill the gaps with sand, pound loosened or broken pieces of planking down, and then rush off to await the next plane. To make matters worse, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Soviets were not going to lift the blockade anytime soon. The emergency phase had passed; now, more than anything else, what the airlift needed was organization.
Gen. William H. Tunner described the airlift as a “real cowboy operation” just before he assumed command on July 29. Tunner had been the architect of the achievement on the Hurnn, and he had a simple philosophy: Either his men were working or they were resting up between shifts. There was no room for socializing, leisure time, or outdated bureaucratic procedures. The only excitement came from watching as lines on a dozen or so charts—tonnage delivered, aircraft utilized, maintenance performed—climbed, while accidents and injuries fell.
Tunner’s first order, issued on his third day on the job, prohibited crews from leaving the immediate vicinity of their airplanes while in Berlin. Rather than have his airmen drift around getting orders, signing forms, checking meteorological information, and picking up coffee at the canteen, he arranged for officers and a mobile canteen unit (staffed with pretty fräuleins, to soothe the harried pilots) to meet each plane on the runway. Ground delay time immediately dropped.
During their first two weeks Tunner and his staff, most of whom were Hump veterans, put a myriad of such seemingly simple solutions in place. A derelict Luftwaffe base at Oberpfaffenhofen—promptly dubbed Over-huff-and-puffen by the overworked mechanics assigned there—was reopened as a maintenance facility so that aircraft could be checked in detail after every 200 hours of flight time. Radio approach marker beacons that normally took months to install were mounted on generator-equipped trucks and put in place immediately. Discussions began about integrating a smaller, parallel operation that the RAF had launched with the USAF’s efforts. (As part of the British operation, a fleet of 10 Sunderland flying boats got around the runway shortage by landing on Berlin’s Havel Lake. For much of the airlift, they were the only planes that could carry salt without risk of corrosion, because they were built to resist salt water.)
At the same time, ground was broken for a sorely needed third airport at Tegel, in the French section of Berlin, and additional runways were begun at Tempelhof and Gatow. The work was done almost entirely by hand, since the only piece of heavy equipment available was a single ancient power roller and most modern grading equipment was too large to fit into a C-54. Then a member of Tunner’s staff recalled an incident during the construction of air bases for antisubmarine patrols from Brazil during the war. An Army civilian employee had deftly cut up bulldozers, rock crushers, and graders into manageable pieces, flown into primitive jungle airstrips with them, and welded them back together. According to legend, a team of FBI agents located the welder, H. P. Lacomb, working in a junkyard in the Midwest, and he was soon on his way to Germany to practice his unique craft. Before long the 15 officers and 150 men of the hastily organized 503d Engineer Company (Light Equipment) joined the construction team at Tegel, clanking about on freshly reassembled equipment.
All these accomplishments, along with the clear summer flying weather, meant that by Thursday, August 12, the total cargo lifted into Berlin daily by America and Britain had reached 4,700 tons. The minimum daily requirement had been reached for the first time, but the celebration was short-lived.
On Friday, August 13, Tunner was scheduled to go to Berlin to present an award to the young pilot who had flown the most airlift missions. Driving rain was falling as Tunner’s C-54 lifted off the runway at Wiesbaden. The weather was even worse in Berlin. The ceiling was zero, and the operators in the Tempelhof tower couldn’t see the runway through the rain. At 10:22 A.M. a pilot who had been circling for 45 minutes thought he glimpsed the runway through a break in the clouds and tried a visual approach. What he had seen was the rubble base course of a new runway under construction; his undercarriage collapsed as it plowed through a layer of crushed brick 18 inches deep. Seven minutes later another pilot overshot his approach and piled into a fence at the end of the actual runway. His left gas tank exploded, engulfing the plane in flames as the crew scampered to safety. A third pilot, seeing the fire as he was landing, braked too hard, blew out his tires, and stranded his plane in the middle of the runway. By the time Tunner arrived over Berlin, ground control had aircraft circling in stacks between 3,000 and 12,000 feet.
“This is a hell of a way to run a railroad,” Tunner growled to his chief of operations, Col. Robert (“Red”) Forman, and his chief pilot, Lt. Col. Sterling Bettinger. Then he snatched the radio microphone and ordered the tower to send every airplane other than his own back to its home base. Once on the ground he turned to his aides and said, “I want you to stay in Berlin until you’ve figured out a way to eliminate any possibility of this mess ever happening again—ever! I don’t care if it takes you two hours or two weeks, that’s your job.”
The general gave Bettinger and Forman only two instructions. Knowing that Central European flying weather is among the most fickle in the world, Tunner directed that all flights operate under instrument rules; pilots could no longer rely on instinct. Night or day, good weather or bad, there would be one steady standard for flight operations. Second, no pilot missing an approach at Berlin would be given another chance at it; the plane would have to return immediately to its home base. Air-traffic experts were dismissive, but Tunner’s unconventional rule eliminated stacking in the crowded airspace over the city and helped keep the flights on schedule. The Civil Aeronautics Authority, precursor of the Federal Aviation Administration, sent a team to Germany to observe the system, and today, with some modifications, it has been integrated into standard air-traffic control.
Bettinger and Forman closeted themselves in a conference room at Tempelhof. With cardboard cutouts of C-54s dangling from coat hangers attached to strings festooned around the room, they worked out, in miniature, a complex aerial ballet that would make the airlift a precision operation. The plan they presented to Tunner called for aircraft to depart in blocks, with a plane taking off every three minutes, supplied with the departure time of the three flights immediately ahead and behind. The northern and southern corridors would be used for lifts into the city. The central corridor, which was the shortest and had no mountains to cross, would accommodate all return flights. On reaching a radio beacon at the beginning of the ingoing corridors, each pilot had to announce his exact time by radio, allowing other aircraft in the block to adjust their speeds to maintain an exact three-minute interval between planes. While at first there were not enough aircraft to maintain the one-every-three-minute pace 24 hours a day, the system was designed to operate with the anticipated addition of bases at Celle and Fassburg in British-controlled northern Germany and the nearly completed third Berlin airfield at Tegel.
Given the risks of such frequent flights, it was a remarkably safe operation. The Combined Airlift Task Force had the lowest number of accidents, injuries, and fatalities per mile and hour flown of any unit in the Air Force during the period it was in operation. There were considerable risks, however, in the bad flying weather, narrow air corridors, and tight schedules, and serious accidents did occur. During the fifteen months of the airlift, mechanical failures, pilot error, and midair collision cost 31 Americans their lives. Thirty-nine British airmen also died, as did an Australian, a South African, and nine German civilians (mostly residents of houses that planes crashed into).
Since every airplane had to be fully utilized, a policy of marrying cargoes so each carried its full capacity of 10 tons was instituted. A cargo of pasta, for example, would occupy the entire cargo space of a C-54 but weigh only 6 to 8 tons. Experts mixed the cargo, substituting a few sacks of much heavier sugar for some of the pasta, to bring the total weight up to 10 tons. Marrying was performed at the railheads, so each of the trailers arriving at the air base carried exactly a 10 ton load. That way only a single trailer had to pull up to each plane. Besides keeping the weight at the maximum safe amount, loading crews had to distribute cargo carefully within the plane to maintain the proper balance.
The need for strict quality control of loading was brought sharply home to General Tunner after he had received repeated complaints that the C-54s were sluggish when flying loads of coal. Tunner visited the loading point where the coal was placed in duffel bags for shipment. Each bag was supposed to hold 100 pounds, but Tunner found that only one bag in ten was being weighed. He immediately ordered every bag on a nearby truck weighed; the average was 115 pounds. Each plane was flying with a cargo about a ton and a half over its design load.
The Transportation Corps officers worked out of trailer offices that were wallpapered with charts. Some charts gave the location of airport hardstands, while others showed quantities of stockpiled supplies and cargoes awaiting shipment. Still others gave the number and performance characteristics of each operating aircraft. “Each plane has its own idiosyncrasies,” Lt. Col. R. L. Ford, the officer in charge of the Transportation Corps at Rhein-Main, would explain to the curious. “Some will take a few hundred pounds less than others.” The principles of cargo allotment and tracking that evolved on the Berlin airlift rapidly found their way into the civilian shipping industry. Adapted to computer programs in the electronic age, they still serve as guides for such shippers as UPS and Federal Express and for retail giants like Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart and other massive retail operations also rely on electronic data interchange (EDI), whose precursor was developed to facilitate shipments during the airlift. Maj. Edward Guilbert was Tunner’s traffic manager, and he realized that one of the most timeconsuming aspects of the airlift was paperwork. Supplies often arrived in Berlin only to sit untouched because the ground crews didn’t know what to do with them. Guilbert suggested that a simple, standardized code be implemented and that messages be sent ahead to identify incoming cargoes. The system was primitive but effective, and today large retailers can’t function without it. Its descendant, EDI, uses a universal electronic language to track the movement of goods, letting a supplier know the exact status of its inventory at any given time.
Meanwhile, as the process of shipping became more refined and the capacity of the air element grew, some distinctly odd lots began to appear on cargo manifests. Dried bananas were one of the food items normally supplied to the city. When the requirements officers were informed that 19month-old Peter Bucher suffered from a rare intestinal disease that limited his diet to fresh bananas, odd space was found for five bunches of them to be flown in each week. After the death of the beloved mascot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, part of the British garrison in Berlin, 85 pounds of cargo space were allocated to flying in a replacement, a loudly protesting white nanny goat.
American ingenuity continued to solve thousands of such pressing problems. When the number of mechanics assigned to the airlift grew, a shortage of workstands—the metal scaffolds they climbed to gain access to the engines—developed. A cache of metal Luftwaffe bunk beds was located and welded together to create them. When the approach lights were installed at Tempelhof, no steel pylons were available to mount them on, and flying the heavy parts in would have cut into the food and fuel shipments. Pieces of Tempelhof’s pierced steel runway planking too worn to be used any longer were cut up, re-welded, and fashioned into light towers. With the approach of winter, icing on the wings of planes awaiting takeoff developed into a dangerous situation. Mechanics mounted the engines from out-of-commission jet fighters on the backs of trucks and drove them from plane to plane, using the exhaust blast as de-icing equipment.
The assignment of sufficient C-54s allowed the removal of the old, slower C-47s from the lift in October and established a near-metronomic certainty in air operations. Berliners reported that they feared for their survival only when they did not hear the drone of an airplane overhead every three minutes. The regular pattern of the flights, coupled with the efficient supply operations on the ground, finally allowed the airlift consistently to exceed its minimum goal of 4,500 tons per day.
The British and American efforts merged on October 15, 1948, and the mission changed from meeting the daily minimum (which had been raised from 4,500 tons of food and coal to 5,600) to delivering “the maximum tonnage possible.” The British had many fewer planes and men to contribute, but their air bases in northern Germany were closer to Berlin. Eventually airlift planes would fly from eight bases in the British zone and only two in the American zone.
The fogs and foul weather of winter slowed the lift, but not by much. The winter was very mild by Berlin standards, which decreased both flight cancellations and coal consumption. Also, the latest in ground-controlled approach (GCA) radar had been shipped into Berlin and was operating out of trailers at Gatow and Tempelhof. By February more GCA landings were taking place in Berlin each day than at all the civil airports in the United States combined. That experience would soon filter back into the civilian sector as airtraffic controllers trained in Berlin joined the civil aviation industry after their service hitches expired. The safety of the American flying public, just entering a period of phenomenal postwar growth, was greatly enhanced as a result.
The need to forecast the weather as it approached from over the Atlantic led to the establishment of the most extensive meteorological service yet developed, with hundreds of ground stations in a chain that stretched from the continental United States to Iceland, Greenland, and Europe; dozens of weather ships at sea; and observation aircraft and balloons—all reporting to Airweather Central at RheinMain. Daily, three-day, four-day, and long-range forecasts were produced with unprecedented accuracy. This was vital to the scheduling of the airlift operations, and like the GCA operations, its techniques and many of its veterans soon found their way into the civilian world.
By the spring of 1949 the Soviets had begun to realize that the ruthless Cold War ploy they had initiated not only had failed but was becoming an embarrassment and hardening world opinion against them. Secret negotiations to end the blockade were opened while the planes continued to drone over the city. On Easter Sunday, April 16, General Tunner pulled off another surprise. He staged his own version of an Easter parade. Limiting the cargo to coal for that day, the Combined Airlift Task Force put on another all-out effort, and just before the last flight of the day took off, someone on the flight line slapped a message in bright red paint on the C-54’s nose: “Tons: 12,941—Flights: 1,398.”
There are only 1,440 minutes in a day. The airlift came close to averaging one roundtrip per minute that Easter. Col. William Bunker, an Army Transportation Corps officer more used to thinking in terms of ground freight than of air cargo, said to Tunner’s staff, “Have you guys ever seen a fifty-car coal train? You’ve just equaled twelve of them.”
The Soviets conceded their failure, and a joint announcement was made that the blockade would end on May 12, 1949. The relentless procession of planes in the Berlin skies went on, building up the stock of supplies in the city in case the agreement collapsed. When it didn’t, the airlift wound down, and it ended on September 30, 1949. In all, 276,926 American and British flights had carried more than 2.3 million tons of goods into Berlin.
Today the light wand in the hand of an airport groundcrew member remains a small and tangible reminder of the desperate days of the Berlin airlift. As enduring, and far more important, are the technological innovations in freight handling, inventory control, packaging, aircraft maintenance operations, and GCA technology that were developed then. Pioneered in that dangerous time in Berlin, half a century ago, they continue to contribute to the safety and efficiency of the air cargo and passenger industry today.