Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

 The Airlift Begins
 AirBridge to Berlin
 Road to Confrontation
 Who's Who During Big 4
 Political Activity Resumes
 Who's Who in New Berlin Governments
 Background on Conflict with USSR
 Eye of the Storm
 Marshall Plan
 The Airlift Begins
 Pilots
 Chocolate Flier
 Grateful Berliners
 Lighter Side (Cartoons)
 "Operation Vittles" Gets Organized
 Winter Campaign
 Blockade Lifted
 Aftermath 1949 -- 1959
 Photo Collection
 

The Airlift Begins
Chapter section from:
Airbridge to Berlin ---  The Berlin Crisis of 1948,  its Origins and Aftermath 
By D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin
© 1988
(Used with permission)

 
 

  Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg opposed the sending of additional planes on the grounds that such a commitment would disrupt other operations. He also argued that another major Berlin airfield was needed to support the proper use of additional planes and, in the event of hostilities, a large number of planes might be destroyed. This would adversely affect the US ability to wage strategic warfare.

  Truman, after analyzing the input, decided the question was how to remain in Berlin without risking war?(19) He summed up the situation by stating, "the airlift involves less risks than armed convoys," and directed the Air Force to furnish the fullest support possible to the problem of supplying Berlin. The National Security Council then formally reiterated American determination to stay in Berlin. To support this determination it approved the construction of a new airfield in Berlin and approved the dispatch of approximately 75 C-54s to Europe to support the airlift. It also recommended that a diplomatic approach be made to Stalin personally. (20)

US Air traffic controllers at the Berlin Air Safety Center check and post flight progress strips indicating movement of American aircraft in and out of Tempelhof. The Soviet panel for their airfield at Schonefeld is at right and a corner of the British panel for Gatow airfield can be seen at left.

US Air traffic controllers at the Berlin air Safety Center check and post flight progress strips indicating movement of American aircraft in and out of Tempelhof. The Soviet panel for their airfield at Schonefeld is at right and a corner of the British panel for Gatow airfield can be seen at left.


  On his return to Germany on July 23, Clay told reporters he was confident that the airbridge could supply Berlin indefinitely and there was an excellent chance for a peaceful settlement of the Berlin crisis.(21)  Clay, ever the realist, had shifted gears. Recognizing the opposition to his pet armed convoy plan could not be overcome, he decided to give his full support to making the airlift work.

  Although the Western powers had only the verbal agreements with Zhukov from June 1945 for rail and road access to Berlin, the necessity for air safety had led to some important written agreements concerning air traffic by the Allied Control Council in November 1945 and October 1946.

  In November 1945, the Western powers proposed, and Zhukov agreed to, three 20 mile-wide air corridors connecting Berlin with Hamburg, Frankfurt/Main, and Hannover-Bueckeburg.(22) From this came a set of flight rules published by the Allied Control Authority Air Directorate on October 22, 1946, which proved to be crucial.

  The rules not only further defined the air corridors, but also established the Berlin Control Zone which permitted airplanes landing and taking off from Berlin airfields to fly within a 20 mile (32 kilometer) radius of Berlin. This permitted Allied aircraft to overfly the Soviet Sector of Berlin and the Soviet Zone on their approaches and departures. The three air corridors were formally specified as Frankfurt-Berlin, Bueckeburg-Berlin, and Hamburg-Berlin, each 20 English miles wide. The agreement did not specify altitude, but by practice and custom Allied aircraft have been constrained by a 10,000 foot ceiling although the right to fly higher had never been yielded in principle. (23)

  These agreements in 1945-46 also established the Berlin Air Safety Center to control flights to and from Berlin. The center was staffed by air traffic controllers of all four occupying powers. Although the Soviets walked out of the Allied Control Council and the Berlin Kommandatura, they continued to staff the Berlin Air Safety Center located in the Allied Control Authority building in the US Sector throughout the duration of the Berlin crisis of 1948-49. According to rules agreed to in 1945-46, each power was required to post each flight in the air corridors and notify the other powers' representatives.

  During the Berlin Airlift the Berlin Air Safety Center served as the initial contact for air traffic control before the information was passed to the Approach Control Centers at the Berlin airfields. It also served as the clearing house for the rescue operations of downed aircraft in the corridors. The Soviet controllers took the last known information on the aircraft and arranged by telephone to get Soviet troops to the crash site. The Berlin Air Safety Center was and still is one area where cooperation has continued over the years.

  After receiving Clay's telephone call on Friday June 25, LeMay immediately gave orders to the 60th and 61st Troop Carrier Groups headquarters at Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden Air Bases to start flying in food and supplies to Berlin. On Saturday, June 26, these two groups with their C-47s were able to fly in 80 tons of supplies. The British, who had initiated their effort on June 25 independently flew about six long tons that first day. LeMay appointed Brigadier General Joseph Smith of his staff as project officer for the US component of the airlift and the call went out immediately for every available cargo aircraft in Europe.

  All military operations must have a code name and how the Berlin Airlift came to be called "Operation Vittles" has several versions. Supposedly, at Smith's headquarters in Wiesbaden, several potential names got kicked around. One officer suggested "Operation Lifeline," but that was considered too dramatic and someone suggested "Operation Airlane." "Hells fire," said General Smith, "we're hauling grub, I understood. Call it Vittles if you have to have a name." And Vittles it became. The British dubbed their airlift operation appropriately "Operation Plain Fare."(24)

  When the airlift began, organization was makeshift, but enthusiastic. Colonel Arthur Eve, Jr. (then a Captain) was the Chief of Personnel Operations for the 7100 Support Wing, 7120 Air Base Group, Wiesbaden Military Post and recalled: "When the Airlift started, pilots assigned to staff jobs at USAFE Headquarters, Wiesbaden Military Post, European Air Transport Service, augmented the two troop carrier wings to provide around the clock flights. My assignment was to furnish German nationals as loading crews. It was Saturday, June 26th, the day after the blockade started. Fortunately, the standard work week for German nationals was six days, so it didn't take long to round up enough people to start."

The limited load capacity of the C-47 aircraft necessitated that the much larger C-54s be added to the airlift as quickly as possible. A single C-54 was capable of carrying as much cargo as four of its older cousins.

The limited load capacity of the C-47 aircraft necessitated that the much larger C-54s be added to the airlift as quickly as possible. A single C-54 was capable of carrying as much cargo as four of its older cousins.


  The C-47s had a load capacity of only two and a half tons and their relatively low cruising speed made them poorly suited for the airlift operation, but they valiantly held the line until larger aircraft could be obtained. The orders went out around the world for C-54s the only Air Force plane available in suitable quantities to fulfill the mission. The C-54s had a load capacity of approximately ten tons. The giant C-74 Globemasters, with a load capacity of 25 tons, would have been ideal for this type of operation, but in 1948 only twelve such aircraft had been built.(25)

  When the calls went out in late June 1948 for C- 54s, the first units called on to supply aircraft were: the 20th Troop Carrier Squadron, Panama Canal Zone; the 54th Troop Carrier Squadron, Anchorage, Alaska; the 19th Troop Carrier Squadron, Hawaii; and the 17th Air Transport Squadron, Great Falls, Montana. Other C-54s came from Bergstrom AFB, Fairfield Suisun AFB, California, and Brookley AFB, Alabama. By July 10 some 54 C-54s had arrived to supplement the C-47s.

  Lt. Colonel Guy B. Dunn, Jr. (then a 1st Lt.) was assigned to the 1703rd Air Transport Group at Brookley AFB, Alabama and recalled:

  The Saturday morning in early 1948 that we got the call to provide the first four C-54s from MATS (Military Air Transport Service) to the "Lift," I was enroute to the golf course when Colonel Cassidy (George S. Cassidy, CO of the 1703rd) stopped me and said let's go to work. We were to provide four aircraft, three crews per aircraft, and 62 maintenance people to start a squadron to be assigned to the 61st T. C. W. They, the 61st had four squadrons, but needed more aircraft. MATS mission at the time would not allow the movement of a complete squadron from one unit. So, Lt. Colonel Jim Haun, the Commander of the 17th (Air Transport Squadron) set up and organized a complete squadron from people from Travis AFB, California; Great Falls ABF, Montana; and Brookley AFB. We did this while in the air between Westover and Rhein-Main. When we landed at Rhein-Main, ten of the twelve aircraft were in up status so with some of the dead heading crews we had all ten aircraft enroute to Berlin within one hour."

  The French had most of their limited amount of transport planes tied up in operations in Indo-China, but the British did their part. On June 27, the RAF dispatched 16 C-47s, (which the British called Dakotas) to Wunsdorf Airfield near Hannover. These were soon joined by 42 more C-47s and 40 British Avro Yorks. However, the most dramatic aircraft to fly into Berlin proved to be the Sunderland flying boats of the British Coastal Command. Taking off from Finkenwerder on the Elbe River near Hamburg they landed on the Havel See in Berlin with nine tons of cargo to be met by Berliners paddling out in boats with flowers like some scene from a South Pacific travelogue film. Crews for the British planes came not only from the United Kingdom, but also from India, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.