Berlin Airlift: Plus Fifty
With needle, ball and a hell of a lot of guts, a bunch of guys flying beat-up C-47s won the first round of the cold war. It was the most challenging IFR flying imaginable with equipment generously described as primitive.
Editors Note: This article originally ran in our sister publication, IFR magazine in the June 1998 issue to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. With the 70th anniversary approaching, and with the passing of so many of the veterans who acted courageously to supply the citizens of Berlin, we are running it again to help keep alive the memories of what they accomplished.
June, 1948. It seems like a lifetime ago. Come to think of it, aviation-wise, it is. By today’s standards, the aircraft were primitive, air-traffic control procedures were archaic—sometimes non-existent—and our instrument proficiency left much to be desired, to put it generously.
I had just celebrated my 24th birthday in Athens, where I was assigned as Air Attaché, when the call went out for all pilots in the theater who were qualified in the venerable C-47 “Gooney Bird.”
The Russians had just closed down the road and rail corridors into Berlin from West Germany and the U.S. proposed to support the entire city by air.
I had 3000 hours, most of it in fighters, with 300 hours in the Gooney. Upon arrival in Weisbaden, Germany, the initial staging area, I discovered that this “qualified” me as first pilot. A single orientation ride with a young 60th Troop Carrier pilot named Frenchy Bennett and I was certified to fly the airlift. In any weather.
They assigned me a co-pilot, Captain Eddie Onze (later killed in Korea), who had never been in an aircraft with more than one throttle. Our combined instrument proficiency, on a scale of 0 to 10, rated about 1/2 to 1.
During World War II, pilots who went through fighter school spent most of their instrument rides doing aerobatics under the hood. This made us moderately proficient in unusual attitudes, but as for straight-and-level down the airway and approaches, we weren’t so hot.
When the press and movie makers got around to glamorizing the operation in The Big Lift, most of the credit went to the “Big Willies,” the C-54s and their crews. My good friend Al Freiberger even got a speaking part in the movie, mostly on the strength of his involvement in “Operation Little Vittles,” the famous candy bar drop to kids on handkerchief parachutes.
War Weary C-47s
Not to detract from Al and his buddies, but when Operation Vittles started, we were all flying old troop carrier C-47s. These ships were war-weary in the extreme, with thousands of hours on airframes, and, to a lesser degree, engines. They had been in constant use since well before D-Day, carrying paratroops, towing gliders, hauling cargo. Some had seen service with European Air Transport Service, essentially a military-operated airline.
A word of praise for the Douglas C-47: No more reliable or forgiving aircraft has ever been built. We got away with youthful stupidities that would have killed us in any other airplane. I once flew a Goon from Wiesbaden to Tempelhof—slowly—with a load of 12,500 pounds, two-and-half times the design payload. It didn’t look that heavy. I should have aborted the takeoff. Didn’t. I should have checked the weight and balance. Didn’t.
Fortunately for us, Air Force maintenance crews were superb. We had little trouble with engines—let’s give some of the credit to Pratt & Whitney, too. We experienced few inflight emergencies. Radios were the toughest to maintain because of the constant damp and ever present flour and coal dust. We flew the first six weeks of horrible weather in those old clunkers with just one fatal accident, thereby dumfounding both ourselves and the Russians.
Avionics—I use the term loosely—were another matter. All the gyro instruments were vacuum driven. Attitude and heading indicators were subject to tumbling if certain bank and pitch angles were exceeded or even if an abrupt change in attitude occurred. You could be—and we often were—reduced to flying needle, ball and ripcord. At the time, we didn’t think much of it.
Comm radios consisted of the old four-channel push-button VHF sets left over from the war. Navigation radios were low-frequency receivers for the old four-leg radio ranges. It seems archaic now, but the most reliable nav radio we had was ADF; it was our version of GPS.
Although thunderstorms made it necessary to use ADF in the loop position to find an aural null, we flew in horrible weather with a navaid most pilots now consider little more than a glorified AM radio.
All of these limitations kept the two-man crew of a C-47 pretty busy; we did our own flying and our own navigating. Navigators would have been nothing but extra weight. Some RAF Yorks carried them to operate their “Gee” radar equipment, but we had no such luxuries. Even the C-54s stopped carrying navigators; they weren’t worth the payload.
Things got hectic when there was icing. Boots on the Gooney, while usually adequate for light rime, required judgment in heavy or mixed icing. The same boots were installed on C-54s, but they had it easier because they carried a flight engineer to keep an eye on things.
Did I mention that the weather was horrible? The Russians must have had excellent forecasters, for they picked the right time to blockade Berlin. Although the lift started during the European High Summer, when the weather is supposedly best, the first few weeks gave us the worst weather of the entire operation, at least for the months that I flew it.
Thunderstorms, heavy rain, icing—all were everyday phenomena. One hundred-foot ceilings were the norm on many days during those early weeks. Three hundred feet was a luxury. The approach to Tempelhof was between seven-story apartment buildings 1/4-mile apart, yet we managed it day in and day out, achieving a remarkable safety record.
As the airlift evolved, so did the air traffic and routing plan. There were three 20-mile-wide corridors in and out of Berlin. The northern corridor, which ran northwest (about 300 degrees) was used mostly by the British. The southern and longest corridor ran from Fulda Beacon northeast (about 45 degrees) and was used exclusively by inbound U.S. aircraft. The central corridor—about 270 degrees—ran from Berlin to the Brunswick Beacon, then southwest to Fritlzar, then back to Wiesbaden. The central corridor was used solely for return flights.
Air traffic control wasn’t a bit like what we’re used to now, of course. There was no en route or terminal radar during the early days of the lift, although both Tempelhof and Wiesbaden had GCA radar—ground controlled approach.
Navigation was strictly dead reckoning, with what help we could get from ADF fixes. Fortunately, USAF and RAF weather services were excellent, so winds aloft forecasts were usually accurate.
A typical C-47 run to Tempelhof began with a climb northeast to assigned altitude to the Fulda Beacon, an ADF fix. At this point you checked in with ATC and adjusted airspeed if necessary to maintain separation. In-trail separation at same altitudes en route was nine minutes, with 500 or 1000 feet of vertical separation.
Once into the corridor, however, you were on your own until near Berlin, a 200-mile dead reckon leg with no intermediate fixes. Because the corridors were only 20 miles wide, in-trail separation was important to avoid collisions. (We never had one.)
In the early weeks of the lift, we flew an inbound leg of the Tempelhof Range, but the Russians soon jammed the frequency so that we couldn’t get a cone-of-silence as the volume continued to build as we flew into East Germany. So we flew the fix purely on the clock.
Later, they gave us an ADF fix, a “buncher beacon,” at Wedding, about six miles northwest of Tempelhof. On a good day, thunderstorms permitting, you could pick it up from 20 miles out. Once at Wedding, GCA vectored us onto final approach, at three-minute intervals.
Despite the flow of traffic into Tempelhof, holding patterns were used only at the western (return) end, as they would have created too much congestion around Berlin.
When used at Wiesbaden, they were standard, one-minute, left-hand holding patterns, with aircraft in a stack awaiting approach clearances. There was an ADF approach for Wiesbaden, plus GCA when we really needed it. By-and-large, Wiesbaden weather wasn’t as bad as what we encountered at Berlin.
If there were any published minimums at Tempelhof, I’ve forgotten what they may have been. GCA—the precursor of PAR—brought us all the way in until we either broke out or ran out of guts.
My own personal minimums were about 100 feet and 1/4 mile.
I have, over the years, flown a few zero-zero approaches, but only one on GCA and that was a matter of necessity. After many years and several hundred GCA approaches, in hindsight, I’d say that GCA is about as reliable as the pilot at the controls.
There’s inevitably a built-in delay between the controller’s instruction and the pilot’s execution. However, at the time, most of us had absolute confidence in the Tempelhof GCA and probably pushed our minimums lower than would have been safe with the average CCA. In retrospect, if I’m going below 300 feet with less than 1/2 mile now, I prefer ILS.
We began to regard the return approach to Wiesbaden as more dangerous than Berlin. ATC was just better at Berlin. For instance, I was flying “Willie One” (first aircraft in a westbound block from Tempelhof to Wiesbaden) in the soup, with a malfunctioning transmitter.
We acknowledged instructions from ATC by clicking the mic button—once for “yes,” twice for “no.” Wiesbaden approach cleared us to hold one minute east of the Wiesbaden Beacon at 5000 feet. Click. A few minutes later I heard approach say, “Willie Six, hold one minute east of Wiesbaden Beacon at 5000.”
I chopped the power, slammed the nose down and caught a glimpse of Willie Six as he passed about what looked to be 20 feet overhead. Just then the Wiesbaden controller gasped, “My God, I forgot Willie One!”
The controller was a good friend of mine, but we had a few words that evening over a martini. In all fairness, at that stage, the operation was so disorganized and everyone was so overworked that mistakes were bound to happen.
Flight crews flew around the clock, grabbing coffee and a sandwich while aircraft were serviced and reloaded. After about 36 hours on the job, we’d catch 12 hours sleep, hopefully a solid meal and start over. Controllers were just as overworked.
In the early weeks of the airlift, we learned our IFR skills on the go. By operating aircraft in blocks of the same type, airspeed conflicts were minimized.
But loading and maintenance problems gummed up the works. Eventually, many of these problems were overcome by moving everything but the Gooney Birds to other bases. Still, the total tonnage required to support Berlin fell short.
Enter Gen. William H. Tunner. Tunner had made his reputation running the famed “Hump” in World War II, supplying China across the Himalayas. The man knew how to run an airlift. In a very short time, Tunner had things running smoothly.
A block of aircraft took off three minutes apart, flew to Tempelhof and landed three minutes apart. One corridor in, another out. If you missed the approach—pretty rare, actually—you simply climbed out, took the “out” corridor and went back to Wiesbaden. No delays. Maximum tonnage.
Oh, the navigation equipment was still primitive and the airplanes stunk to high heaven of sour milk and coal dust, but things ran smoother. By then, most of us had become very proficient instrument pilots—we were alive to prove it—and could find our way to Berlin without much help.
I always tried to get the first aircraft in my block because it was usually loaded with milk and was assigned the lowest altitude. The milk came from Denmark in bottles similar to today’s one-liter Pepsi bottles.
At altitude, the milk tended to rise in the neck of the bottle and pop off the pressed-paper cap. Funny thing, on every trip, there always seemed to be two liters whose tops would pop at altitude and would be empty on arrival. Milk was hard to come by in Germany in 1948 and we all craved it.
Although he was an organizational genius, Gen. Tunner couldn’t solve one problem: Tempelhof was a terrible airfield for an air-cargo operation.
Located in the center of Berlin, very near the East German boundary, it was small, more or less circular in shape and little more than 5000 feet in diameter.
The eastern side was taken up by terminal buildings, and there was a concrete taxi ramp 400 to 500 feet wide around the exterior boundary, which was a brick or concrete wall about five feet high. The surface was grass; no paved runways at first. Later, engineers built a proper runway.
Obviously, the German engineers had never foreseen the volume of traffic generated by an airlift. Landings were, of necessity, mostly to the east and takeoffs to the west, regardless of wind.
Tunner brought over the C-54s and got them flying out of Rhein-Main, near Frankfurt. They had trouble with Tempelhof, which by now was heavily rutted. Those ruts were axle-deep to a C-47. Not at all good for aircraft with nosewheels. It was obvious that the 54s couldn’t operate off that rutted grass, so they built them a runway. Till the day I left, however, we C-47 pilots always used the grass or cheated off the taxi ramp. Hold the brakes. Set takeoff power. Release brakes. Roll about 400 feet and pop half flaps.
Stagger into the air and wallow out for the next three or four miles at V2, until you could safely milk up the flaps. It wasn’t real bright of us, but we had the only airplane that would allow us to do it. So we did.
I’ve had the privilege of flying with many of the world’s best aviators. Any airline pilot does. But none of them were any better IFR pilots than that bunch of young C-47 pilots who carried the ball in those first few months of the Berlin Airlift.
My logbook tells me that I flew 196 round trips to Berlin in 1948; right around 1000 hours. Since then, I have logged nearly 38,000 accident-free hours, 8000 of them in Gooney Birds, of either the C-47 or DC-3 persuasion. I’ve flown military jets and civilian airliners, some lovely aircraft and some real dogs. The softest spot in my heart, however, is reserved for the old girl that some wag at Carswell once christened “Hustler’s Mother.”
She came off the line at Douglas before most of today’s pilots were born and at airfields scattered around the globe, she’s flying still. Long may she continue to do so.
J.B. McLaughlin retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1961.
Tempelhof GCA Best in the Business
Sidebar by Forrest Ott
I had been trained as a pilot during the war but when it ended, we were told we either had to learn another specialty or leave the service. That’s how I ended up as an air traffic controller at Tempelhof.
The way the Air Force was in those days—and the way the lift was—I did a lot of flying, too, and ended up as a C-54 commander by the end of the operation, even though I’d never flown a four-engine aircraft going in.
When the lift started, ATC was chaotic, to say the least. We were strictly non-radar; separation was entirely by time and pilot position report. Early in the lift, it became obvious that standard procedure wasn’t going to work.
I can recall one day shortly after the lift began that we had airplanes stacked up over Berlin to 10,000 feet, waiting for approach clearance. As activity increased, we would soon run out of sky.
Then someone in General Tunner’s staff figured it made more sense to have the airplanes commence a GCA when they arrived at Tempelhof then go back to Rhein-Main or Weisbaden if they had to miss the approach. It worked. After that, no more holding.
We got limited en route radar at Tempelhof in early 1949, so separation was done with radar, time and position reports. But sure wasn’t the sort of ATC we’re used to now.
Pilots announced time and position over a certain fix, say the Fulda beacon, and the pilot behind would know that he was supposed to be over the same fix three minutes later. If he were early, he would slow down, if late, he would speed up. ATC wouldn’t necessarily say a word.
Even with the en route radar at Tempelhof, we had no transponders. Fighters had IFF, but it returned identical codes so all of the targets looked the same. For radar identification, we had to issue turns.
To keep conflicts to a minimum, we would launch blocks of the same type of aircraft. They’d come as a block and go out as block. The altitudes involved were quite low. Since there was no terrain to speak of, we flew as low as 2000 feet, which was more efficient, since descending and climbing just took up time to no advantage. We reserved one altitude for C-54s on three engines. If one landed on three, it was going out on three, too. It was all fairly routine.
Tempelhof had GCA—ground controlled approach—from the start of the lift and it was used even in good weather, to stay proficient. It was a new system and although very few crews had flown it, they learned fast. They had to.
The minimums were nominally 200-and-a-half, same as modern ILS. But you really set your own. You got called a “senior smogger and fogger” when you got the reputation for landing in any kind of weather. I clearly remember a night GCA into into Tempelhof between those apartment buildings in 1/8th-mile visibility. Those buildings were out there but I sure couldn’t see them. But we had confidence in the GCA operators. I thought it was the best approach aid ever invented. And to this day, I still do.
Forrest Ott was both a radar controller and pilot. He served as a pilot in Vietnam before retiring from the Air Force in 1971. He died in 2013.
This article and sidebar first appeared in the June 1998 issue of IFR magazine.