Flying the Airlift

 Wherever they came from or whatever national or corporate symbol decorated the fuselage of their aircraft, the pilots of the Airlift were thrown into a situation that was unprecedented. They might be first-rate combat or airline pilots, their courage tested, their experience extensive and the number of hours flown impressive, but none of them had ever flown in quite the same circumstances as they now found themselves. No where else in the world did aircraft have to fly in very narrow corridors over distances of a 100 miles or more and in effect have to follow along behind one another like cars on a motorway – maintaining a safe distance and to the extent possible the same speeds. 

Initially aircraft flying to and from Berlin had to share the same narrow corridors just 20 miles wide and 10,000 feet high. To reduce the risk of collisions, however, it was soon decided to pour aircraft into Berlin on the northern (Hamburg) and southern (Frankfurt) corridors but fly them out again on the central (Hanover) corridor. This helped somewhat, but could not solve the problem posed by different aircraft types having different optimal cruising speeds. To reduce the risks associated with faster aircraft overtaking slower aircraft in the corridors, it was decided that the various types of aircraft had to fly at different altitudes. On the northern corridor the vertical separation between aircraft of different types was 500 feet and on the southern corridor the separation was 1000 feet.

Nevertheless, in bad weather and visibility it was surprisingly easy to stray – or get blown – out of these corridors and sometimes aircraft did not discover their error until they were confronted with evidence in the form of Soviet MIGs or the like. An RAF Flight Engineer remembers:

Going in [to Gatow] we must have been well off the glide path as when we broke cloud we were just above a Russian camp and facing us was a water tower with a large painting of Stalin on the top. We returned to Wunstorf as there was no way we could go around again and have another try, as we would have interfered with the rest of the wave trying to get in.[i]

And that was the next problem, regardless of which of the two corridors they came from or what height and speed they flew in those corridors all these various aircraft had to take off and land at the same airfields in Berlin. General Tunner, soon to be appointed the Combined Airlift Taskforce Commander and earlier commander of the airlift over the Himalayas during WWII, made the following comparison:

Back on the Hump we had thirteen bases in India feeding planes into six bases in China, practically all of Southeast Asia to manoeuvre in, and little interference from the enemy. But here in Berlin all planes had to land at two airfields…They were only four minutes apart by air, and they lay in the midst of a checkerboard of Soviet fields.[ii]

Another means of reducing the dangers resulting from so many aircraft with different speeds flying in such close proximity was to concentrate the aircraft at the departure airfields by type and to fly them in “blocks” or batches to Berlin. That is, a squadron of Dakotas (C-47s) would take off, one behind the other at three minute intervals, and set out for Berlin. Then a squadron of Skymasters (C-54s) from another airfield would take off and feed into the corridor at a different altitude. Then a squadron of Yorks etc. etc. (Below Yorks assembled at Gatow)

But these precautions could only prevent collisions if the pilots flew at very precise heights and speeds. The precautions also presumed that there would be no mechanical or other emergency that would inhibit the ability of an aircraft to fly at the proscribed speed and altitude. One American Airlift veteran remembers the following “bad moment:” when making an approach into Gatow on three engines he was advised by the tower that a civil Lancastrian without radio communication was “hedge-hopping” in directly beneath them. The USAF C-54 aborted its landing and headed back for base – only to promptly lose a second engine. Tech Sergeant William Michaels, the Flight Engineer, felt it was little short of a miracle that they landed back at Celle with a full load of coal.

It must be noted that British aircraft flew with highly trained navigators (capable still of celestial navigation, for example) and very sophisticated on-board navigation systems (e.g. Rebecca Eureka, Gee, and BABS). This enabled them to maintain their position in the stream and vis-à-vis the ground even without ground navigation aids. The USAF, on the other hand, had no navigators and their aircraft had been designed and their crews trained to receive frequent position fixes from a ground-based navigation infrastructure; it had not been anticipated that cargo aircraft would be flying over “enemy” territory. But flying to Berlin meant flying over a stretch roughly 95 miles long on the northern (Hamburg) corridor, 177 miles long on the central (Hanover) and 216 miles long on the southern (Frankfurt) corridors in which there was neither radio nor other navigational aids. This meant that USAF aircraft had to fly on these stretches by “dead reckoning” alone. It was easy for USAF aircraft to get blown off course (i.e. get blown just a mile or two outside of the corridor) or to start rushing the aircraft ahead in tailwinds or lagging behind in headwinds. In consequence, the Americans were never as punctual or precise as the British when flying, and this meant that more space was needed between the blocks of U.S. aircraft than between British aircraft. 

Yet for all these precautions, the risk of collision particularly at night or in bad visibility was high. It is little short of a miracle that there was only one mid-air collision during the Airlift. On August 24, 1948 two C-47s of the USAF both returning empty from Berlin and en route to Rhein-Main airfield were involved in a crash just shortly before reaching their destination.  Apparently, one of the aircraft rammed the other in poor visibility, but since all aircrew were lost in the crash the details were never ascertained.

There were, however, many near misses. One pilot remembers flying on one “nasty night” and suddenly seeing a red navigation light flash past his window so close that he could clearly read the aircraft number – no more than 8 inches high – on the tail. It was 411. We will never know how many other pilots experienced similar near misses which were never reported. 

Another source of worry and risk was the extent to which the aircraft were flying “over-loaded.” As S/L Robinson remembers it:

We were authorised to fly the aircraft 4,000 lbs overweight for the Airlift operation, so the occasional engine failure became a major problem, particularly during or shortly after take-off. One good friend, F/Lt. Thomson and his crew were killed taking off from Wunstorf with a heavy load of coal, as they were unable to control the aircraft during the subsequent engine failure.[iii]

Nor did the problems end when the aircraft landed. Different aircraft had different cargo capacities and so different loading and off-loading times. Initially it took just 45 minutes to turn-around a Dakota at its home base while Yorks took fully two and a half hours to refuel and reload. Thus the timing of the blocks of aircraft had to take into account turn-around times as well as different rates of flying. And in Berlin too, turn-around times for each type of aircraft were different thereby complicating schedules. 

At least the aircraft could be in continuous use – as long as they were serviceable, but crews could not be used in the same manner. Aircrews worked in shifts, and these varied depending on the organisation for which they worked and the number of pilots in their unit/company with the instrument qualifications necessary for night or bad-weather flying. One RAF pilot remembers:

The first few days were rather hectic as we were doing three trips a day into Gatow which took about 14 hours overall, and whilst alternative days we did morning shifts then late afternoons it did not leave time for other pastimes. I recall at first I did not get much sleep and never managed to get my socks off for a few nights.[iv]

 Another remembers simply:

I personally flew four sorties on that first day and into the night, catnapping between flights until, after twenty-two hours on duty, I was released with my crew to go to bed…We continued like this for a few more days: flying, eating between flights and catnapping until, when reporting as ready, there was not an aeroplane immediately available which was both serviceable and loaded; we were then sent off to bed.[v]

Another account of the work is slightly different:

Crews were working six 12-hour shifts (with inevitable fluctuations). First, three day shifts, then 24 hours off. Then three night shifts followed by 48 hours off. This went on for three weeks, when the crew went back to the UK for about a week’s leave. Men could, but preferred not to, spend their ‘breaks’ in former German luxury hotels converted into ‘rest homes.’ [vi]

One RAF pilot even reported:

For relief from Airlift routine, pilots of the RAF were sometimes given a short spell flying regular passenger service between Bückeberg, Germany and Northold in England…This was pleasant because it was always daylight and the food was provided by BEA instead of RAF.[vii]

The civil aviation companies each had their own routine based to a certain extent on how many aircrew and aircraft they had – and their own inclination to fly. In the beginning, some of the smaller civilian companies didn’t even have ground crews or managers in Germany. Others had only one crew per aircraft. By preference, or due to inadequate training and experience, many civilian aircrews could not or did not want to operate at night, so the RAF had to adjust its own schedules to give the civilians the coveted day-time slots in the stream of aircraft and take the night slots themselves.  

Under the circumstance, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the civilians taking part in the early days of the airlift found the life-style eminently civilized.  The only two pilots flying for one charter company decided between them, for example, that it was “pleasant” to make two trips a day to Berlin. Admittedly, it was sometimes difficult persuading someone to load their aircraft, but eventually it would get done and then a morning flight could be made to Gatow, lunch taken there, and then back to West Germany for a second flight in the afternoon. One of these pilots reports that, during these early days, he “thoroughly enjoyed himself” because “it was all carefree flying” and as far as he could see “there was no organisation at all.”[viii]

But most pilots did not find things quite so relaxing. Captain Roy Day, who flew 143 sorties on the Airlift with BSAA, remembers being on duty 12 hours and off 24, alternating the day with the night shift. Airlift veteran Ft/Lt Rusty Waughman reports:

To give you an idea of the pressures, on the 26th of August 1948 I flew some ten hours and twenty minutes, six hours and five minutes by day and four hours and fifteen minutes by night. That was an exceptionally long day. I had sandwiches brought out to the aircraft for my lunch and tea.[ix]

J.O. Bennett reports that his pilots were flying many more hours than the FAA officially allowed; his own log-book recorded an average of 128 hours per month compared to the regulation 85 hours. He reports: “Arriving in Berlin, I would go to our operations office while my airplane was being unloaded and sleep on the floor for a few minutes, under a desk. To sleep on top of the desk was to be annoyed by the bustle in the office.”[x] He continues:

Now that the airlift is history, it can be revealed: there was considerable sleeping done in flight. It was the only way to stay rested. After take-off the captain and co-pilot would take turns snoozing on the cockpit floor. Some crews played a game of seeing whether the pilot flying could land so smoothly that the sleeping colleague would not be wakened.[xi]

Nor did a pilot’s work end on the ground. In these early days both USAF and RAF aircrew remember helping service their own aircraft, particularly in Berlin. This was necessary because as an USAF pilot remembers: “we naturally flew with mechanical conditions that under normal flight operations would have caused a delay or cancellation of the flight.”[xii] The RAF was no different. Air Marshal Sir John Curtiss stresses that:

To keep the aircraft flying we were prepared to fly with a number of items unserviceable; in fact we flew provided we had four engines, a compass and a radio. Aircraft that had engine trouble in Berlin were brought back empty on only three engines.[xiii]

It was clearly in the interests of aircrew to do what they could to maintain their aircraft as best they could! (Below a maintenance crew at Gatow.)

Working outside in all weathers, Airlift veteran pilot S/L Robinson reports that many pilots “flew trip after trip soaked to the skin, many suffering from humiliating complaints such as haemorrhoids and fibrositis through sitting in wet clothes on wet aircraft seats.”[xiv] Another remembers flying the Airlift as:

…cold aircraft, with dust from the cargo blowing into the cockpit, dodging German lorry drivers on the tarmac who seemed bent on running you down, flying through bad weather in the winter with the flight path just in the rain cloud height, waiting for the unloading without a crew room, plus the perils of aircraft in the wrong pattern or the wrong height – I wasn’t excited, only pleased when the pay cheque went in the bank![xv]

The cargoes the Airlift pilots were expected to fly contributed to their adversity. If the load was flour the aircrew “returned looking like the conventional Dusty Miller” but if it was coal they debarked looking like coal miners. Coal dust was particularly insidious. It covered not only the occupants with its soot but also worked its way into the instruments and corroded electrical wiring. Both coal and flour dust swirled around the inside of an aircraft during flight and both could be explosive under the right conditions. Various methods for cleaning out the aircraft were experimented with – including trying to blow/suck the dust out while in flight – but nothing ever proved satisfactory.

Aircrews flying liquid fuels faced yet other difficulties. Whether petrol, diesel or paraffin, it was too dangerous to use the cabin heating on Tudor tankers and so the aircrews of Flight Refuelling had to fly without any heating regardless of outside air temperature. As one veteran reported, despite RAF flying suits and sheepskin flying boots, “the cold could at times be unbearable.”[xvi]

Sunderland crews had to carry liquid fuel and only rarely had to carry coal or flour, but they faced a plethora of other problems unique to flying boats. The problems started with not having proper rubber moorings and so having to tie up to cast-iron battle-ship moorings; these were themselves a serious hazard to the thin-skinned flying boats and collisions with their own moorings in bad weather, darkness or heavy seas could damage the flying boats severely. Next refuelling had to be carried out by hand-pumping from fifty-five gallon drums brought out to the flying boats on barges. The Sunderlands had to fly without on-board radar and had to land without a flare path or ground controlled approach on the waters of the Havel. The only thing they had by way of a “tower” or “control” were a couple of RAF Flight Lieutenants with two-way radios watching from the British side of the Havel. Once on the water of the Havel, unloading took an inordinate amount of time as there was no jetty, and so off-loading was done by a rag-tag collection of barges, tugs, converted luxury cruisers and army pontoons. Then, since turn-around times were so terrible anyway, it was decided that the Sunderlands would carry a larger share of return cargoes than other aircraft types. This meant the Sunderlands had to wait for industrial products produced in Berlin or passengers before setting out on their return journey. By that time it was likely to be getting dark or the weather might have turned bad somewhere along the route. Most dangerous of all, however, were the uncharted wrecks of ships that littered the bottom of the Elbe and the floating surface debris on both Elbe and Havel. This debris – that no one had time to clear at such moment in history – could be deadly during landing or take-off and so the Sunderlands were permitted no night flying at all. Nevertheless, by the time the Sunderland aircraft were taken off the Airlift because of the risk of icing on the rivers, the Sunderland pilots were completely exhausted.


[i] Neville Parker, letter to the author, Jan. 2006.

[ii] Tunner, p. 168.

[iii] S/L Eric Robinson, letter to the author, Sept. 2005.

[iv] Neville Parker, letter to the author, Jan. 2006.

[v] W/C J.F. Manning, p. 195.

[vi] Picture Post, Sept. 18, 1948.

[vii] Letter to the author, Sept. 7, 2005.

[viii] Rodrigo, p. 47.

[ix] Rusty Waughman, letter to the author, Sept. 21, 2005.

[x] J.O. Bennett, p. 63/64.

[xi] J.O. Bennett, p. 64/65.

[xii] Halvorsen, p. 86.

[xiii] Sir John Curtiss, The Victory Britain Forgot, provided to the author in Sept. 2005.

[xiv] Eric Robinson, letter to the author, Sept. 2005.

[xv] Victor Bingham, letter to the author Sept. 7, 2005.

[xvi] Roy Day, email to the author, Sept. 13, 2005.

NOTE: The content of this blog post is based on Helena P. Schrader. The Blockade Breakers. Pen & Sword, 2008 

The Berlin Airlift is the subject of Bridge to Tomorrow, a trilogy of novels starting with Cold Peace, winner of Silver in the 2023 Readers' Favorites Book Awards.

Berlin 1948

In the ruins of Hitler’s capital, former RAF officers, a              woman pilot, and the victim of Russian brutality form an air ambulance company. But the West is on a collision course with Stalin’s aggression and Berlin is about to become a flashpoint. World War Three is only a misstep away.

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