Before The Colors Fade: Berlin Airlift Commander

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We were not alone in the sky. As the pilot followed the prescribed flight path to Tempelhof, radioing the exact second he passed over the Fulda beacon and swinging the nose of the plane to the exact heading of 057 degrees, we knew that there were C-54’s behind and ahead of us, each precisely three minutes apart, each proceeding at 180 miles per hour. The airlift was now seven weeks old. I had been its commander just fifteen days and felt it was beginning to shape up.

The General was in for a rude shock. In Berlin at that very moment a full-blown crisis was in the making. At Tempelhof a cloudburst reduced visibility practically to zero, and the rain hampered the efficiency of the radar. When two incoming C-54’s were wrecked on landing, the air traffic controllers were forced to stack up the other planes, which were following at three-minute intervals. Tunnel’s was among the stacked-up planes: he was flying to Berlin for a public ceremony honoring Lieutenant Paul O. Lykins, the airlift pilot who had flown the most missions. “And here I was” the General recalled in his memoirs , Over the Hump, “ flying around in circles over their heads. It was damned embarrassing. The commander of the Berlin Airlift couldn’t even get himself into Berlin .”

I grabbed the mike and called the Tempelhof tower. “This is 5549,” I said. “Tunner talking, and you listen. Send every plane in the stack back to its base.”

The tower was silent for a moment. Then a disbelieving voice said, “Please repeat.”

“I said: Send everybody in the stack below and above me home. Then tell me when it’s O.K. to come down.”

He got the message that time.

“Roger, sir.”

In my opinion the real success of the Berlin Airlift stems from that day—Friday, the thirteenth of August, 1948. It was that day that the rule book for instrument flying was rewritten.

“All flights in good weather or bad, day or night, will be by instrument flight rules,” I announced. “And any pilot who misses an approach at Berlin will bring his load back home. He will not be given another chance to try an approach and foul up the traffic!”

Once this basic operational rule was in effect, the number of planes that could be injected into the system increased. A pilot would be assigned a precise take-off time. When the second hand on his watch crept to that moment, he would push the throttles forward and climb out on a prescribed course to the Darmstadt radio beacon, level off at his assigned altitude, and when his radio compass needle reversed to show that he was over that beacon, he would tune in another and then others until he arrived at the radio range station located a few miles south of Tempelhof. At that point he would be placed under control of a G.C.A. [Ground Controlled Approach] crew who would guide him by radar to touchdown.

The interval between aircraft, three minutes, was extremely important. Since there are 1,440 minutes in a day, it meant that the maximum number of landings at Tempelhof would be 480 each twenty-four hours. This also meant a maximum of 480 departures per day, so that it was theoretically possible to have an airplane either landing or taking off every ninety seconds. To maintain that rhythm requires discipline and regimentation from everyone concerned—and this precise cadence determines the success of an airlift.

Once all this was hammered out, my staff and I took on the all-important “people” problems. I invited a group of pilots for some beer and snacks at my hotel and asked them for their gripes. After things loosened up a bit, I got them. They all boiled down to food and living conditions.

Solving these problems was tough. Housing was short, but eventually tents were provided and some old quonsets were unboarded and furnished with the bare essentials. I got after the mess officers to extend the serving hours and improve the food.

Most of the men assigned to the lift were on temporary duty, and when their orders were extended and it seemed certain the Russians were not going to lift the blockade all winter, morale began to sag. Little things began to take on huge proportions—things like poor mail service, no curtains on the windows to keep the sun out when crews slept in the daytime, and dirty sheets. There had to be developed a spirit of competition and a sense of accomplishment in each unit and in each man. And thus was born the Task Force Times , with its daily tonnage column for all to see, compare, and try to beat.

The competition for tonnage spawned the kind of motivation that I wanted. The rivalry spread to the ground crews, and even the German civilians loading and unloading the planes caught the fever. The loading record was twenty thousand pounds of coal stowed aboard two C-54’s by one twelve-man crew in five minutes and forty-five seconds.

The Germans were good workers, but there were regulations forbidding fraternization, and we could give them only the most menial of jobs. But we needed mechanics badly.