The Unsung Heroes of the Berlin Airlift - Ground Crews

 Aircraft maintenance is the forgotten step-child of all great aviation achievements. The huge amount of labour, time and dedication that goes into keeping aircraft serviceable so that they can fullfil whatever role is assigned to them is largely forgotten, overlooked or ignored in most accounts of great aviation deeds. The Berlin Airlift is no exception and far too little attention has been paid to the astonishing achievements of ground crews in the most important airlift in aviation history.


RAF groundcrew servicing an aircraft. Note the mechanic on the right is a woman.

At the start of the Berlin Airlift, in an incomprehensible example of neglect and under-appreciation, the USAF made no provision for ground crews when it deployed squadrons from around the world. The ground crews were expected to “follow” – by sea. This meant that at the start of the Airlift, the USAF’s cargo fleet had to be serviced by the mechanics already in Europe and they had been trained on combat rather than transport aircraft.

As if that weren’t bad enough, these inexperienced ground crews were expected to work under extremely adverse conditions. The airfields lacked the necessary hangers and hardstandings, scaffolding and lighting.  Thus, although work had to be performed 24 hours a day, there was no adequate lighting for night work, and night work was done by flashlight! (Below a photo from much later in the Airlift.)


The problems for groundcrews were myriad and multiplying by the day. Because the aircraft were flying so continuously, they used up roughly a normal year’s worth of flying hours in just one month on the Airlift. Worse, however, the aircraft were being used in ways for which they had never been designed. They were taking off and landing more frequently than their specifications called for and carrying heavier freights than legally allowed. Engines and airframes were being taxed to the limit - and wearing out their tires and their brakes at incredible rates. Meanwhile, coal cargoes (the majority of all cargoes) were taking a toll too, corroding wiring and controls, forcing these items to be replaced more frequently.

Rather than try to ship all the spare-parts into Germany, both the Americans and the British chose to fly the aircraft back to centralised maintenance depots for major checks. These checks were time consuming. The 50-hour checks took at least five hours, the 200-hour checks took days, and the 1000-hour checks weeks. The result was that at the peak of the Airlift, when the USAF had committed no less than 354 C-54s to the effort, only 128 of them were ever operational on any one day. The rest were in maintenance or awaiting spare parts, or flying across the Channel or Atlantic on their way to or from 200 or 1000 hour checks. (USAF aircraft undergoing 200-hour checks at Oberpfaffenhofen.)

The RAF benefited greatly by proximity to its home bases and depots. It also benefitted from the overall quality of groundcrew training. Thus whereas American personnel tended to be trained in only one craft, RAF aircraft mechanics had much broader and more comprehensive training. All in all, RAF groundcrew were some of the best trained and best motivated aircraft mechanics in the world at this time — and they included a number of women.


Yet the RAF was disadvantaged on two counts. First, the RAF and the civilian companies it indirectly supported were flying a wide variety of different aircraft on the Airlift, all with unique characteristics, requirements, quirks and spare parts. Second, while the USAF was both culturally inclined to and financially capable of “throwing away” damaged or malfunctioning parts, the RAF preferred to repair parts because this was more cost effective. The drawback of this approach was that repair generally took more time than replacement.

Furthermore, to catch problems before they became irreparable, the RAF called for more frequent inspections. RAF aircraft were required to undergo daily inspections, while USAF aircraft were only inspected after 50 hours flying – which might be only ever fifth or sixth day. The next major RAF inspection was after 150 hours flying; the USAF waited until 200 hours had been clocked. Even more dramatic: Yorks had to undergo “airframe” inspections after just 1,200 hours flying; the C-54 did not have to submit to a similar comprehensive maintenance check until it had flown 4,500 hours. In addition to these high standards for routine checks, the RAF grounded aircraft more rapidly than did the USAF. While the USAF tolerated as many as 350 minor problems before grounding an aircraft, the RAF allowed only 36.

The heroic efforts of the ground crews of both nations deserve far more attention — and respect — than has been the case to date.

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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 My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory against fascism in Europe possible. 

Riding the icy, moonlit sky,

they took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. 

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

It is intended as a tribute to them all.  

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Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at:



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