"Operation Vittles" Gets Organized
Chapter section from:
Airbridge to Berlin --- The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath
By D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin
(Used with permission)
After President Truman made the decision to commit to the airlift and furnish an additional 75 C-54s, the US Air Force decided to better organize airlift operations. General Curtis LeMay had appointed General Joseph Smith in June to manage the airlift, but this had been a temporary assignment. Smith and his British counterpart had done a remarkable job in getting the airlift started and up to 2,500 tons delivered daily by July 20. However, if the airlift was going to increase this tonnage, it not only required more planes, but better organization. The romanticism would have to be sacrificed for a standardized precision operation.
In July 1948, the US Air Force had one of the best possible men available sitting in Washington, D.C. as deputy commander for operations of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). He was General William H. Tunner. Tunner, the son of Austrian emigrant parents, had graduated from West Point in 1928 and had picked the then fledgling Army Air Corps. In 1941, Tunner helped organize the Army Air Corps Ferrying Command which delivered airplanes to England under the Lend-Lease Program.
In 1941, the Army Air Corps had no capability to transport materials and had very few transport planes of any type. By June 1944, Ferrying Command had grown into the Air Transport Command with the Ferrying Division as its major component. Tunner had advanced to commanding general of the Ferrying Division with 50,000 military and civilian personnel
under his authority. It had delivered more than 21,000 airplanes to foreign designations and made more than 291,000 domestic ferrying movements. It had regular routes to all parts of the world including Africa, the Soviet Union, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific.
In the summer of 1944, Tunner was selected to take over the Air Transport Command airlift in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater, which was commonly referred to as the "Hump" operation because the airlift was over the Himalaya Mountains from India to China. The Hump had begun in April 1942 as a makeshift operation under the US Tenth Air Force, a combat command. In December 1942 it was decided to turn the job over to the Air Transport Command.
Although ATC had managed to raise the monthly tonnage to 23,000 tons by the time Tunner took over, this was not sufficient to meet the needs of the China Theater, under command of General Albert Wedemeyer. In addition, the accident rate was high, morale low, and the airlift command had been a graveyard for several previous commanders. By July 1945, Tunner had upped the monthly tonnage to more than 71,000 tons, lowered the accident rate, and raised morale.
The CBI Theater did not receive the media attention of the European or Pacific Theaters and, therefore, Tunner's efforts were not well-known at the time. However, Wedemeyer, who had directly benefited from the Hump was well aware of Tunner and the potential of airlift operations.
Prior to returning from his inspection trip to Europe in June-July 1948, Wedemeyer sent a recommendation to General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, chief of staff of the Air Force,* that Vandenberg appoint Tunner to run the Berlin Airlift. Although General Lucius Clay felt he had suitable personnel operating the airlift, Wedemeyer felt the job should be entrusted to the one person who had successfully operated an airlift.(1)
There was no immediate action on Wedemeyer's recommendation. Clay was happy because tonnage was increasing. LeMay and Smith, both Air Force combat commanders, were doing a good job. There was a lot of good publicity and the run to Berlin had been humorously dubbed "LeMay's Coal and Feed Company." However, LeMay realized the Berlin Airlift was not going to be a short-term operation: "That was when we yelled for Bill Tunner to come over and take the chore. He was the transportation expert to end transportation experts. He had run those ferries over the Hump in the CBI and he had headed Ferrying Command for a while . . . it was rather like appointing John Ringling to get the circus on the road."(2)
*General Vandenberg was also the nephew of Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, one of the principal backers of the Marshall Plan.
When Wedemeyer returned to Washington, he visited Vandenberg and again recommended Tunner be given the job. After the July 22 National Security Council meeting and the decision by Truman to commit to the airlift, Vandenberg finally decided to name his best man for the job. Tunner gathered up some selected staff and reported to LeMay in Wiesbaden on July 29, 1948. LeMay told Tunner simply, "I expect you to produce." Tunner answered, "I intend to."(3)
Tunner and his staff spent the next few days inspecting and reviewing airlift operations. As he had anticipated, Tunner was confronted with a "cowboy" operation. Flight crews and ground crews did not have any schedules, maintenance was haphazard, loading and unloading were not well coordinated, everything was temporary, and confusion reigned.(4) In spite of these shortcomings, the airlift had been a success up until the end of July, but tonnage had reached a plateau and the operation required better organization if it was to keep increasing the tonnage.
Tunner and his staff began almost immediately to tighten procedures. After noting crews lounging around Tempelhof in snack bars, frequent departure delays, and schedules not being met, Tunner initiated his first unpopular order on July 31, only three days after his arrival. No American crew member was to leave the site of his airplane at Tempelhof or Gatow in Berlin. Upon taxiing to the unloading ramp, the plane was met by a large truck with an unloading crew.
An operations officer met the plane with a clearance slip and passed along any problems anticipated on the return trip. A weather officer provided
information on weather conditions and a mobile snack bar provided coffee, doughnuts, and sandwiches. Although plane crews were unhappy at first about these regimenting procedures, they soon came to like the idea because the mobile snack bars were manned by very pretty Berlin girls hired by the German Red Cross. Turn around time in Berlin was reduced to 30 minutes.
Tunner noted on his first trip to Berlin that the southern air corridor used by US planes departing Wiesbaden and Rhein-Main was the longest. It required an altitude of 5,000 feet to get over the Harz Mountains while the central corridor from the British Zone was the shortest and over flat terrain all the way. An airplane using the central corridor could make three trips for every two trips by planes using the southern corridor. Tunner decided he would request permission from the British to station US planes at British airfields so that better use could be made of the short central air corridor. The British agreed and during August the Air Force moved three transport groups to the British air base at Fassberg which was used primarily to fly critical coal from the Ruhr to Berlin.
Tunner also found that his operational problems were completely different than he had experienced in the Hump airlift. In India he had 13 bases feeding airplanes into six bases in China, all of Southeast Asia to maneuver in, and little interference from the enemy. The Berlin Airlift had or could have had sufficient bases to feed planes into Berlin, but there were only two Berlin airfields available to accept planes that had to fly in restricted air corridors over or near Soviet airfields. If planes could not land, they had only a 20 mile radius to circle in, and that almost directly over the two Berlin airfields.
This latter problem became readily apparent to him on Friday, August 13, 1948, known as "Black Friday." Tunner was in the air over Berlin. The ceiling sank early and fast that day on Tempelhof.
The clouds dropped to the tops of the apartment buildings surrounding the field, and then they suddenly gave way in a cloudburst that obscured the runway from the tower. The radar could not penetrate the sheets of rain. Apparently both tower operators and ground-control approach operators lost control of the situation. One C-54 overshot the runway, crashed into a ditch at the end of the field, and caught fire; the crew got out alive. Another big Skymaster [C-54] coming in with a maximum load of coal, landed too far down the runway. To avoid piling into the fire ahead, the pilot had to brake with all he had; both tires blew. Another pilot, coming in over the housetops, saw what seemed to be a runway and let down. Too late he discovered that he'd picked an auxiliary runway that was still under construction, and he slithered and slipped in the rubber base for several precarious moments, then ground-looped.
With all that confusion on the ground, the traffic control people began stacking up the planes coming in-and they were coming in at three-minute intervals. By the time we came in, the stack was packed from three thousand to twelve thousand feet. A space was saved for my plane at eight thousand feet, and we flew right into it. Planes behind us, however, had to climb to the top of the stack-God knows why there were no collisions. As their planes bucked around like gray monsters in the murk, the pilot filled the air with chatter, calling in constantly in near panic to find out what was going on. On the ground, a traffic jam was building up as planes came off the unloading line to climb on the homeward-bound three minute conveyor belt, but were refused permission to take off for fear of collision with the planes milling around overhead.(5)
To avert a disaster, Tunner took the unusual action of ordering the Tempelhof tower to send every plane in the stack back to their home base. As a result of this experience, Tunner ordered an unusual and, for the time, revolutionary procedure. Thereafter, any plane arriving over Berlin would have only one pass at landing. If for any reason, the pilot could not bring his plane in, the pilot was ordered to return to his home base in West Germany. This avoided "stacking" planes over the small 20 mile radius over Berlin. With planes landing and taking off every three minutes this reduced accidents. Thereafter, the system truly worked like a conveyor belt.
Another procedure introduced by Tunner was that all US planes in the Berlin corridors would fly under instrument flight rules, at all times, regardless of weather. Tunner initiated this policy because of the constantly changing weather conditions in the Berlin air corridors. The choice was between visual or instrumental flight rules and the need to standardize. A pilot can fly visually or on instruments in clear weather, but only under instruments in poor weather. Therefore, the choice of instrument flight rules was logical.
Other standard procedures were instituted to make the maximum number of flights per day. Planes were to take off every three minutes, hit certain check points at certain altitudes and air speeds, descend and land at approximately three minute intervals between planes. Pilots and crews normally flew two roundtrips to Berlin per day and then turned the plane over to the next crew.