Unsung Heroes of the Berlin Airlift - Air Traffic Controllers

 Arguably, Air Traffic Control was even more important to the success of the Airlift than either flying or maintenance. At a minimum it can be said that given the confined airspace over Berlin and the fact that three airfields in close proximity had to handle continuous streams of incoming traffic, the absence of centralized, precise and professional Air Traffic Control would have doomed many individuals - if not the Airlift itself. Not only was the Air Traffic Control required on the Airlift unlike anything that had been done before, the innovations made during the Airlift laid the groundwork for all modern Air Traffic Control.

Fundamentally, aircraft had to be guided in over long distances and then threaded through one another to different airfields, all without space for “holding patterns” since aircraft that strayed into Soviet airspace were at risk of being shot down.  Berlin, consequently, had centralized area control at the “Berlin Air Safety Centre” housed in the Allied Control Council building in Schoeneberg. All in-coming and out-going traffic from Berlin’s two (later three) airfields was tracked from this centre and directed to one or the other of Berlin’s airfields.

The latter controlled the air traffic directed to them from control towers manned 24/7. The challenge was to sort out all the aircraft pouring into Berlin and space it out to ensure safe landings at regular intervals. Since aircraft often appeared on the screens at the same time and often very nearly abreast of one another, controllers had to rapidly identify which “blip” on the screen belonged to which aircraft and to then give different instructions to each. Incredible as it seems, “the only method available for positive identification was to ask [an aircraft] to make a turn and to observe which blip on the radar scope changed course as prescribed.”[i]

Inevitably, errors happened. One Airlift veteran remembers a dark night at Tegel:

 …as we munched our hot dogs and rolls from the PX van…a Hastings aircraft taxied in and parked. The crew came over to join us. I said to them: ‘I didn’t know you were operating into Tegel.” Five flying figures froze. “This isn’t Gatow?” Acting on landing instructions from Gatow they had slotted into the ninety second gap between movements. Our Controller hadn’t even time to fire his big red Very pistol.[ii]

Furthermore, since even the most precise flying could not ensure the 90 second interval needed for landing, it was the Controller’s job to slow down some aircraft and speed up others. A Royal Navy controller describes the problem:

[Dakotas] were so slow that the [controllers] were always worried that the following wave of speedy Skymasters might overtake them. … One had to be careful too, when bringing in other types behind them. It was quite possible, in a moment of forgetfulness, while bringing in a Dakota, to ask a York which was following it to reduce revs until it was dangerously near stalling speed.[iii]

Almost from the start of the Airlift, the final approach to Gatow was conducted using “Ground Controlled Approach (GCA)” rather than Visual Flight Rules — even in good weather. This meant that, working from radar screens that showed the height, bearing and distance of all aircraft within 40 miles, pilots were directed to adjust their course, speed or altitude to ensure separation and regular arrival at the airfield. This proved so effective that Gatow remained open on many occasions when Templehof closed down due to weather. After General Tunner took command of the Airlift, however, he drafted civilian air traffic controllers into the USAF to assist in bringing Tempelhof up to the same standards.

In poor weather, the GCA controllers talked the pilots right down to the ground. “GCA was more than equipment; it was a process that required steady nerves and mutual confidence both on the ground and in the air.”[iv] As one RAF flight engineer put it,

Those [GCA] chaps did an excellent job talking us down in bad visibility right to the end of the runway. They were calm and most accurate with their instructions and gave us a lot of confidence.[v]

Most USAF pilots also had positive experiences, as one put it:

The calm, soothing, deliberate voice of that final controller was the best high-blood-pressure antidote ever devised for such an occasion…. What a feeling – on a stormy night when you’re worn to a frazzle – to have a crew like that put you at ease and guide you to the end of the runway.[vi]


[i] Robert Jackson, The Berlin Airlift, Patrick Stevens, 1988, p. 81.

[ii] Lt. Col. R.J. Royle, MA, RASC, undated essay provided to Frank Stillwell

[iii] Robert Rodrigo, Berlin Airlift, Cassel, 1960, p. 159.

[iv] Roger Miller, To Save a City, University Press of Hawaii, 2002, p. 65.

[v] Ft/Sgt Neville Parker, letter to the author, Jan. 2006.

[vi] Gail Halvorsen, The Berlin Candy Bomber, Horizon, p. 141.

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. 

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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: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles



"Where Eagles Never Flew" was the the winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

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