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67 Years Ago, We Beat The Soviets With Cargo Planes

Berlin Airlift successfully sustained Germans for 15 months and demonstrated the power of airlift

September 30 marks the 67th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift, historically the first major showdown of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West.

World War II hand ended in 1945, and the Allies—the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union divided Germany into four occupation zones. The Soviets controlled the eastern portion of Germany, including the city of Berlin. Although isolated in the Soviet sector, the city was also subdivided into occupation zones. Initially, the Soviets Permitted highway and railroad access to the city. Stalin fully intended that Germany would become a part of the Soviet Union and blockaded rail and road access to Berlin, cutting off critical supply lines of food and fuel.

Berliners watch as a C-54 arrives in Berlin in 1948.
Berliners watch as a C-54 arrives in Berlin in 1948.

 

Three air corridors remained open, and in June of 1948, the west initiated “Operation Vittles” (the United States) and “Operation Plainfare” (United Kingdom), delivering food, fuel (coal and gasoline), and other essentials. Russia did not believe the airlift could adequately supply the city of Berlin expecting the city would submit to Soviet rule. The Soviet Union was more focused on its post war recovery, and did not challenge the airlift. Additionally, the western allies were still strong, and had demonstrated the use of nuclear weapons, and the Soviets were not prepared for direct conflict.

The American government, using 1,990 calories as a daily minimum per person and 2 million people in Berlin to feed, set a daily minimum of 1,534 tons of food stuffs including flour, wheat, meat and fish, dehydrated potatoes and vegetables, sugar, salt, coffee and powdered milk. Additionally, for heat and power, 3,475 tons of coal and gasoline were required daily.

The U.S. began the airlift with C-47 (DC-3) aircraft and then added C-54 (Douglas DC-4s). Because of the steeply angled floor of the tail-wheeled C-47, however, it took up to 30 minutes to unload a C-47, while a C-54 could be unloaded in as little as ten minutes. Several airports were limited to C-54 aircraft, which further accelerated the flow of supplies. Many other aircraft were also used, including Sunderland flying boats landing

spiritoffreedom1
The Spirit of Freedom, A C-54 operated by the Berlin Airlift Museum

The high volume of aircraft arriving in Berlin created significant traffic flow challenges, but by the end of the first year, aircraft were landing somewhere at Berlin airports every thirty seconds.

The high volume of aircraft operations and limited air traffic control created a hazardous operating environment. There were accidents, especially when poor weather caused landing accidents and the danger of midair collisions.

The Soviet blockade of Berlin ended in May of 1949, but airlift flights continued to allow the city to build up a reserve of supplies. Finally, the Berlin Airlift was officially ended on September 30, 1949.

The last Berlin Airlift flight showing the total tonnage delivered to Berlin during the airlift.

The Berlin Airlift officially ended on 30 September 1949, after fifteen months. In total the USA and United Kingdom delivered 17,835,727 tons, nearly two-thirds of which was coal, on 278,228 flights to Berlin. The Berlin Airlift aircraft flew more than 92 million miles in the process, almost the distance to the sun. At the height of the Airlift, one plane reached West Berlin every thirty seconds.

Note there is a documentary video at:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Berlin_airlift.ogv (British production)

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