Although, the “Cold War” lasted for decades, the first major test of the Free World's will to resist Soviet aggression came in June 1948 when Soviet authorities, claiming "Technical difficulties," halted all traffic by land and by water into or out of the western-controlled section of Berlin. The only remaining access routes into the city were three 20 mile-wide air corridors across the Russian zone of Germany. Faced with the choice of abandoning the city or attempting to supply its inhabitants with the necessities of life by air, the Western Powers chose the latter course and for the next 11 months sustained the city's 2 1/2 million residents in one of the greatest feats in aviation history.
Lt. Halvorsen dropping candy during the “Berlin Airlift.”
“Operation Vittles,” as the airlift was unofficially named, began on June 26 when USAF C-47s carried 80 tons of food into Berlin, far less than the estimated 4,500 tons of food, coal, and other material needed daily to maintain a minimum level of existence. But this force was soon augmented by U.S. Navy and Royal Air Force cargo aircraft. On Oct. 15, 1948 to promote increased safety and cooperation between the separate U.S. and British airlift efforts, the Allies created a unified command, the Combined Airlift Task Force under Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, USAF.
To underscore Allied determination to resist Soviet pressure, three SAC bomb groups were sent to Europe, placing Soviet targets well within B-29 range.
Berlin Airlift - The Story Of A Great Achievement 1949
Airlift aircraft used three airfields within Berlin: Tempelhof in the U.S. sector, Gatow in the British sector, and Tegel which was built in the French sector in only 60 days using volunteer German men and women laborers.
C-47s unloading at Tempelhof
C-47s unloading at Tempelhof, formed the nucleus of the airlift until September when the larger and faster four-engine C-54s capable of hauling ten tons had been put into service.
Airlift pilots flew under an extremely rigid system of traffic control, which required each pilot to fly an exact route at predetermined speed and altitude. If an arriving plane was unable to make a landing at Berlin on its first attempt, it had to return to its base in West Germany. Adding to the routine dangers facing airlift pilots was Soviet harassment in the form of jamming radio channels, directing searchlights at aircraft taking off at night, the "buzzing" of cargo planes by Russian fighters, and barrage balloons allowed to drift into the air corridors.
Cross-sectional view of flight into Berlin
Cross-sectional view of flight into Berlin as of September 1948. This arrangement allowed for landing at the rate of one plane every 3 minutes. Later, two levels were used with spacing that allowed for landing at the same rate. (from AU ECI course 50 pg.103)
At midnight on May 12, 1949, the Soviets reopened land and water routes into Berlin. However, the airlift continued until September 30 to build a backlog of supplies. The Allied airlift had saved Berlin from Soviet takeover and had taught valuable lessons in air traffic control, aircraft maintenance, standardized loading and unloading procedures, and other aspects of sustained mass movement of cargo by air. Cost of the effort in human lives totaled more than 65 U.S., British, and German personnel, including 31 Americans.
The “Candy Bomber”
Lt. Gail Halvorsen, the “Candy Bomber”
During the “Berlin Airlift” American C-54 pilot Lt. Gail Halvorsen flew food and supplies into Berlin during the airlift of 1948-1949. He loved children and wanted to do something special for them. He thought up an operation that he called "Little Vittles." He bought candy at local stores and dropped it with tiny parachutes that he made by hand. His Air Force buddies donated their rations of candy and gum and their handkerchiefs to make the parachutes. For those readers old enough to remember the American wartime "K" or "C" rations, they came with a small candy bar and a tiny green box containing two pieces of Chiclets chewing gum. Today, the American meals ready to eat (MRE) ration comes with a commercial candy bar.
Newspapers printed stories about this "chocolate bomber" and he began receiving packages of candy bars and handkerchiefs in the mail for "Operation Little Vittles." The American Confectioners Association joined the humanitarian operation and sent tons of candy and gum to Westover AFB where it could be forwarded for dropping to the children of Berlin at Rhine Main AFB.
Soon, all the pilots were dropping candy over the city of Berlin. By January of 1949 Lt. Halvorsen had air dropped more than 250,000 parachutes loaded with candy on for the nearly 100,000 children of Berlin during the Russian blockade. Due to continuing bad publicity and their inability to starve the people of Berlin, the Soviets ended their blockade in May 1949.
Candy Bomber honored at Travis AFB 2004 Tattoo
Candy Bomber honored at Travis AFB 2004 Tattoo Retired Col. Gail S. Halvorsen and Col. Lyn Sherlock (U.S. Air Force photo/Ed Drohan)
The Berlin Airlift is valued by today’s military. It is saluted as a benchmark for humanitarian airlift. During the Tattoo held at the Travis Air Museum and the Travis Air Force Base’s flight line, Col. Lyn Sherlock, 60th Air Mobility Wing commander, joined Retired Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, also known as the "Candy Bomber," in saluting the American Flag. The flag was present to Col. Halvorsen on behalf of the Base in recognition of his achievements.