The Greatest Threat to the Airlift: The Weather

 The greatest threat to the success of the Berlin Airlift was the weather, and it was the weather that very nearly succeeded in closing the Airlift down. In November 1948, there were so many days of fog that only a fraction of the needed supplies could be flown in, and December wasn’t much better. This came as no surprise to the Allied leadership that had long believed they must “solve” the crisis before winter did it for them. As for the Russians, they counted on the partisanship of “General Winter” who had saved them from Napoleon and Hitler both. The Soviets saw absolutely no reason to negotiate with the West when “General Winter” was going to defeat the Airlift as soon as he arrived. Yet the problems with the weather did not start — or end — in winter.

 

One major issue right from the start was that European weather is extremely localised and changeable. On the positive side, this meant that by having a variety of departure fields, it was often possible to keep the Airlift going, albeit at reduced levels, even if weather closed down one or more of the departure fields. On the other hand, the localised nature of European weather meant that not only could the weather conditions be very different at the departure and landing fields – despite the relatively short distances involved, but that conditions could actually be good at both ends of the corridor and still deplorable in the middle.

The conditions that could be encountered within a very short space of time on a single flight could be anything from sunshine to thunderstorms, and could quickly include fog, freezing rain, low cloud and high, gusting winds. Many U.S. Military Air Transport Service pilots used to weather conditions in the U.S., where there are usually ample warning of changes in weather and freedom to fly around bad weather, found it extremely difficult to cope with flying through weather that was far below military minimums. On the whole, the British pilots, both military and civilian, were better prepared for the weather conditions simply from having so much experience with British weather.

The kind of weather encountered included one snowstorm with wind-speeds of 140 km/h in which the heavy transport aircraft had to be tethered with heavy cables to keep them from being blown across the tarmac and wrecking. Visibility was zero – which was often the case – but icing on the runway made it necessary to completely close down Berlin’s airfields for a day.

In the first three weeks of the Airlift, severe thunderstorms, driving rain, low cloud and even snow at altitude were recorded -- although it was summer. Some American pilots reported icing conditions so bad that they had to maintain full power just to stay in the air. Templehof was unusable for hours at a stretch due to low cloud and violent winds. RAF plans calling for 160 trips to Berlin in each 24 hour period had to be discarded because Gatow had to be closed repeatedly while sheets of water were swept (by hand, of course) off the runway. 

The problems with this weather went beyond the conditions encountered on any one day. Persistent rain meant that damp started to penetrate to the electrical systems of the aircraft. On July 2, 26 Dakotas at Wunstorf were unserviceable due to electrical problems. The rain also created vast fields of mud because there were insufficient hard-standings and taxi-ways. One RAF York pilot reported that in order to taxi out of the mud, he found he had to rev all four engines at half power. But on hitting the paved perimeter track, he had to throttle back sharply and stamp on the breaks – otherwise he would overshoot and land in the mud on the other side of the taxiway. The tale of woe continued:

When the mud dried, it was in huge valleys and ridges which, the airfield staff soon discovered had to be levelled by bulldozers. These, however, turned the mud to dust so that “every time an engine started – and someone was always starting an engine – the whole flight line disappeared in a gigantic cloud of dust. The dust settled on the windscreen of the aircraft and when they flew into rain it turned back to mud…[when] pilots turned on the windshield wipers…the gritty particles scratched the plastic screens. At night the runway flare paths turned the scratches into parabolas of blinding light.[i]

Meanwhile, flying boat captains reported being marooned in their aircraft after a dangerous and nerve-wracking sortie because the boat crew sent to collect them from their mooring could not locate them in the fog. Furthermore, the Sunderland crews had to worry about tides and the wrong combination of tide and wind could result in unpleasant, unexpected obstacles. One Sunderland pilot reported:

I remember the morning we arrived on the jetty in Hamburg and found all our aircraft sitting on the mud…During the night there had been a unique coincidence of a very strong east wind and a very low tide, which had practically emptied the Elbe River. This same low water also revealed in our mooring area the remains of an American Flying Fortress and its crew….[ii]

This was disagreeable but on the whole manageable, yet sometimes the weather could get so bad that it was extremely dangerous – and it threatened to wreck the entire effort. Things came to a climax on “Black Friday,” August 13, 1948.

Weather conditions were not too bad at Wiesbaden as we took off for Berlin, but as we gained altitude to clear the Harz Mountains we soon ran into those heavy, thick German clouds… We were not alone in the sky…we knew that some twenty other C-54s were flying the same route ahead of us, each three minutes apart on the nose, each proceeding at 180 miles per hour. Ahead they stretched out like figures on a conveyor belt; behind we could hear each addition to the club as he passed over Fulda and gave us his time, loud and clear. …[But] at that very moment everything was going completely to hell in Berlin. The ceiling suddenly dropped to the tops of the apartment buildings surrounding the field, and then they gave way in a cloudburst that obscured the runway from the tower. The radar could not penetrate the sheets of rain. Apparently both tower operators and ground-control approach operators lost control of the situation. One C-54 overshot the runway, crashed into a ditch at the end of the field, and caught fire; the crew got out alive. Another big Skymaster, coming in with a maximum load of coal, landed too far down the runway. To avoid piling into the fire ahead, the pilot had to brake with all he had; both tires blew. Another pilot, coming in over the housetops, saw what seemed to be a runway and let down. Too late he discovered that he’d picked an auxiliary runway that was still under construction, and he slithered and slipped in the rubber base for several precarious moments, then ground-looped.

With all that confusion on the ground, the traffic-control people began stacking up the planes coming in – and they were coming in at three-minute intervals. By the time we came in, the stack was packed from three thousand to twelve thousand feet…As their planes bucked around like gray monsters in the murk, the pilots filled the air with chatter, calling in constantly in near-panic to find out what was going on.

On the ground, a traffic jam was building up as planes came off the unloading line to climb on the homeward-bound three-minute conveyor belt, but were refused permission to take off for fear of collision with the planes milling around overhead….

Usually, when it’s necessary to stack up planes, the tower sends them to a prearranged area fifty to one hundred miles away from the field to fly their monotonous circles in the great open spaces. Here we had no such spaces, just the twenty-mile circle over the island of Berlin, a city surrounded by Soviet-Controlled East Germany. If we got out of the small circle over the city proper we could well attract Russian fighters or anti-aircraft fire. So we were stuck.[iii]

Not only were these aircraft confined to the airspace over Berlin, but they shared that airspace with the aircraft being funnelled into Gatow – and the RAF was continuing to land aircraft there - at reduced rates but without accidents. It was simple: the RAF aircraft had navigators on board and these were trained to use BABS (Blind Approach Beacon System). But it was impossible to train up navigators fast enough to man U.S. aircraft for the Airlift and so it is fortunate the pilot reporting the above chaos was none other than General Tunner, the U.S. Airlift Commander and soon to be appointed Combined Airlift Taskforce Commander. As a result of the above described incident, Tunner made a number of significant changes to the flying patterns in Berlin. 

Yet Tunner couldn't change the weather itself. After the fogs of November, visibility cleared to make way for a bitterly cold snap that started to kill people in their inadequately warm dwellings. A humanitarian crisis was building and the Berlin City government asked for the evacuation of 17,000 vulnerable civilians. The Airlift stood on the brink of failure -- but then the cold eased. "General Winter" defected to the West and unseasonably mild January, February and March created conditions that enabled the Airlift to succeed. By April, the worst was over. People were planting the their kitchen gardens and the daily tonnages of good delivered were going steadily up and up.



[i] Robert Rodrigo, Berlin Airlift, Cassell, 1960, p. 35.

[ii] Jack Holt, speaking at the Royal Air Force Historical Society Proceedings, Sept. 1989.

[iii] William Tunner, Over the Hump, Office of Air Force History, 1964, p. 152-154.

 

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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