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article number 207
article date 02-07-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Prelude to Today’s Rapid Airline Ops, Operations of the Berlin Airlift, 1948
author not stated
German girl toting home weekly ration of bread made from flour flown into Berlin. The bread is wrapped in a Soviet-licensed newspaper reading: “Airlift Useless.”

From June, 1949 Pagasus Magazine.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some aircraft type references, later in the article are an attempt to promote Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporations products. Pegasus Magazine was put out by Fairchild.

THE BERLIN AIRLIFT, on every count the greatest air cargo operation the world has yet seen, has supplied a vast reservoir of new technical experience of the utmost significance to commercial aviation and to military strategic air transport service. Lessons drawn from an evaluation of that experience are vitally important to the planning of sound national air policy.

Fundamental principles of strategic air transport, laid down during the “Hump” shuttle that fed supplies into China and during the air transfer of the Army of Occupation from Okinawa to Tokyo, were not altered by the Lift. Rather, the Lift underscored the soundness of those principles, and proved once again the airplane’s pre-eminence in the field of transportation. The Lift also demonstrated that, in addition to being an indispensable logistic tool in time of war, the airplane is a highly effective aid in peacetime diplomacy.

The important new lessons of the Lift, which was a sort of graduate school for strategic air transport, lie in refinements of certain basic procedures, in new techniques made possible by advances in the art of communications and navigational aids and in what was learned about aircraft maintenance and utilization.

Performing a routine check on a C-47 Lift transport at Rhein Main air base, Germany.

Ten months of forced-draft operations on the Berlin Lift dictated that any project calling for sustained mass movement of personnel or material by air must include the following essential elements: Unity of command (teamwork), centralized traffic control, uniformity of equipment, all-weather flying, preventative or progressive maintenance, precision operations, and large aircraft.

From the military viewpoint, unity of command was an absolute “must” for Operation Vittles, as the Lift is identified. The team responsible for the remarkable success of the Lift included the Air Force, the Navy, the Army and the RAF, plus British, French and American civil agencies.

The impressive performance of the Lift was due largely to the traffic control system, which utilized every modern aid to navigation and all-weather flying. And the most significant development in the handling of traffic was the complete departure from accepted air traffic control methods practiced in the United States.

German workers loading radios and radio equipment aboard a Packet at Wiesbaden AF base.

With one-way air corridor operation and with predetermined altitudes and speeds, aircraft operated as close as three minutes apart. There was an altitude variation of 500 feet between any two planes. The stacking of aircraft in a holding pattern, pending clearance to land, did not exist on the Berlin Airlift. This permitted an even flow of aircraft to an airport. Missed approaches were few but when a pilot did miss his approach at Berlin he immediately executed a departure procedure and returned to his home base, load and all. Air speeds of all aircraft, inbound and outbound, were predetermined and ground controlled throughout the flight, even to approach and landing.

GCA (Ground Controlled Approach) radar was the standard low visibility instrument approach and landing system used by the Lift Task Force. One of the so-called “miracle” aids in use at Tempelhof was a new type surveillance radar unit (AN/CPS-5) used for aircraft control. A medium-range, early-warning, solid-coverage device, it operated in conjunction with GCA. Primarily designed for a 100-120 mile search sweep range at 30,000 feet, the equipment has a maximum search range of 180 miles. It has a 60-mile solid search and 120-mile early warning coverage.

Ground crew in mobile radar trailer “talking” Lift pilots down to runway at Fassberg.

Scanning a 100-mile radius around Tempelhof, this new unit controlled airlift traffic to all three Berlin airports and fed aircraft to the final GCA approaches at a rate hitherto unattainable. It was particularly effective, since its moving target indicator recorded only moving objects and thus eliminated stationary masses known as ground clutter.

A typical trip from Wiesbaden to Tempelhof was a vivid, unforgettable experience in precision flying and precise traffic control. To maintain an even flow with minimum intervals, each plane followed an exact pattern at a fixed rate of climb and reached the entrance to the air corridor with almost split-second accuracy. Predetermined cruising speeds had to be rigidly maintained and frequent position checks made to keep the slim time interval with planes ahead and to the rear. Let-down and approach to Tempelhof called for absolute precision, too.

Credit for this unusually effective traffic control program must go to the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which almost overnight selected more than 20 of its best traffic controllers and sent them to Germany. They were definitely part of the first team of the Airlift Task Force.

German children never tired of watching American transports.

Needless to say, the best communications facilities in the world would be useless without high caliber, experienced pilots—men who can use these aids and who can maintain on every trip exact speeds, altitudes and positions. This is precision flying at its best. This combination of fine communications equipment and excellent pilots was proved during one 24-hour period when planes landed or took off at Berlin at intervals of 30 seconds.

Weather analysis played an important role in the Lift operations. Every method of collecting weather data was employed, including almost continuous enroute observations, daily conferences between the weather central offices and synoptic weather reconnaissance flights over Western Europe. To guarantee maximum use of the Vittles corridors, accurate, up-to-the-minute weather forecasting was of the utmost importance, especially during marginal weather conditions.

A mobile snack bar moved from plane to plane at Tempelhof, serving American style hot dogs and a wide variety of sandwiches.

Despite some very rugged weather, the operation continued and some tonnage moved into Berlin every day during critical conditions. The lesson learned is that the effect of weather on tonnage is minor. The Lift stopped only when fog drove visibility down below the minimums for safe GCA landings. But the dispersion of bases insured that not all of them would be closed simultaneously.

With Lift aircraft in maximum use, producing an average utilization of about eight hours a day per plane, the entire problem of maintenance was at all times urgent and difficult. In general, the following maintenance pattern was followed. After flying 200 hours, a Vittles C-54 received its 200-hour check in Germany or England. After four such 200-hour tours and four such checks, it was returned to our control point at Westover Air Force Base, Mass., and from there directed to one of three cycle reconditioning plants. At those plants the plane was given a complete 1,000-hour check. After reconditioning, the plane picked up a cargo of parts, engines and a replacement crew and returned to Germany. It was a continuous maintenance pipeline of about 75 aircraft and it insured a full operational fleet of 225 aircraft in Germany.

Looking down a line of maintenance docks during night crew operations at Oberpfaffenhofen AF base.

MATS had completed plans for the introduction of cycled reconditioning of aircraft before the Berlin Lift began. But the Lift was the crucible in which it was tested. Completely dependable data on this experience will come only after a longer period of trial, but the Air Force is convinced that for best utilization of maintenance facilities and abilities, progressive overhaul has a decided advantage over the conventional preventive maintenance so long employed by the military. Looking farther ahead, it is worthwhile to consider the possibility of eventually applying this cycled reconditioning, once it is perfected, to the entire national fleet of large transports, commercial as well as military. Such standardization would certainly offer the promise of many advantages, both in normal and emergency operations.

Of interest to commercial air line flying, was the decision to place a flight engineer aboard every C-54 airplane, regardless of the length of the flight. That step was taken after it was decided that the services of a flight engineer permitted the pilot to devote his undivided attention to his flight instruments. Azimuth or elevation of a plane is affected if the pilot’s attention is distracted from flight instruments while he is attempting to control engine R.P.M., manifold pressure, flap settings or checking position of undercarriage in takeoff and landing. The flight engineer controlled all power and flap settings and undercarriage actuations on the Lift. He also did minor maintenance work in flight and constantly checked the mechanical condition of the plane before, during and after flight.

Unloading flour from a C-74 at Tempelhof.

The Berlin Lift established an excellent safety record in its 10 months of operations, one that compared favorably with the record of U. S. scheduled air carriers in the corresponding period and bettered the record of the entire U. S. Air Force. The record was due in large measure to the pre-planned and positive control of all aircraft from the ground and to standardized instrument panels in all C-54 aircraft.

The practice of stationing a weather observer, equipped with radio communications, at the approach end of the prevailing runway when weather minimums were marginal was another new procedure. Ultimate aim was to have such weather observations reported directly to the GCA controller. The controller then could notify the pilot exactly when, during his glide path, he might abandon instruments and fly visually. This practice would relieve the pilot of the responsibility of determining that moment himself.

Block leader of 47 C-54s obtaining blanket clearance from Operations before takeoff.

From Vittles has come a greater appreciation of the big transport aircraft and its meaning for strategic airlift. Think for a moment of the effect a plane larger than the C-54 would have had on the airlift. The tonnage produced by 225 C-54s would be equaled by 86 C-74s. Fewer aircraft would mean fewer of everything all along the line: trips, flying hours, air crews, maintenance and fuel, fewer terminals, less communications and fewer air traffic problems. These are impressive economies.

The future of strategic airlift lies in the development and production of the proper transport aircraft, a big plane with the right characteristics, Maj. Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, MATS commander, believes. In his opinion, these include ease of maintenance, high utilization, direct loading and unloading, maximum useful capacity (probably 25 tons), a range of 3,000 to 4,000 miles, and a low cost of operation.

Maj. Gen Laurence S. Kuter, commanding general of Military Air Transport Service, under which the Berlin Airlift operated.

In this era of jets and supersonic speeds it is important, he believes, not to transfer the emphasis on speed to the field of air transport where it is a matter of secondary consideration. He would set the speed of the 25-ton transport at about 250 M.P.H.

Air Force orders for the C-97 and the C-124 constitute recognition of the place of the big transport in strategic air transport. May this recognition foretell a strong and unified effort, supported by the military, the airlines and the aircraft industry and the public, to develop a great national fleet of large transports. May it be a fleet that will earn its way in commerce, contributing in peace to national prosperity and to national defense in time of emergency. This is why the right plane is so important. Without it, the aircraft industry cannot expand in a healthy, profitable manner. And without this expansion of the national merchant fleet in the air, MATS would be helpless to provide the really big airlift for the Armed Forces of the United States, which is sure to be one of the first American requirements in any major emergency.

Among other things, the Berlin Airlift has underscored the importance of integration. With full control over both its Air Force and Navy elements, MATS was able to marshal its resources for Operation Vittles with minimum delay and confusion. Had the two air transport services been separate there would have been duplication of command, facilities, communications, weather and all other services. In Germany, the Air Force and the Navy flew side by side in one operation. Their logistic support came to them through one channel, over one air route.

Lieut. Gen. John K. Cannon (left), Air Force Commander in Europe, and his deputy, Mal. Gen. William H. Tunner, Commander of Airlift Task Force.

These are some of the specific returns from America’s investment in Operation Vittles. Beyond them, and standing beside the great diplomatic victory of the Lift, is the gratifying realization that strategic air transport is recognized and respected in the thinking of those who are most concerned with the formation of national aviation policy. The Lift crowded years of education into months, to the tremendous gain not merely of air transport but of the very security of our country.

No longer is there danger that the United States may develop a first-rate combat Air Force, Army and Navy which might be ham-strung by inadequate support by second-rate air transport. If Operation Vittles has eliminated this danger, then the great investment in that operation will have been repaid in full. Time, calculated not in weeks or months but in days and even hours, will decide the issue in the next war. In such an emergency, one of the first calls would be for airlift, strategic airlift, and enough of it right then to permit striking forces to go into full operation. It would be tragic, perhaps fatal, if on that day our national air transport should be found wanting.

Operation Vittles, which has dramatically held the central position on the international stage for the past year, has underlined, as nothing else could, the immense potential of strategic airlift as the best means of piling up sustained tonnages. We know now that anything that is really needed can be moved by air anywhere and anytime.

One of the Fairchild C-119 ‘Packets’ assigned to the Airlift to carry cargo too bulky to fit into conventional, side-door transport planes. Truck-bed floor height of the Packet aided loading and unloading.
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