The Berlin Airlift.

A 124,420,813 mile round trip!

By Keith Bradshaw. All photos by the author and Steve Jeal unless noted.


Photo US Navy Museum
Dakotas unloading on the famous curved ramp at Templehof airport in Berlin.

That was the total distance flown by allied aircraft 70 years ago during the 15 months of operations known as the Berlin Airlift between July 1948 and September 1949. What had brought this about? The circumstances surrounding the airlift are quite well known so here is just a quick resume of the political situation at the time that led to this extraordinary logistical challenge followed by a deeper look at the civil airlines’ contribution to the operation.

After the Second World War, the occupying powers of Germany split the country in two, East and West Germany. The allies (Britain, USA and France controlled the west and the USSR controlled the east. With the country’s capitol, Berlin, being firmly in the eastern half it was also agreed this would be split into four sectors, one for each occupying power.
To allow the western powers access to Berlin a written agreement was made regarding air corridors linking the city to West Germany, however only an informal arrangement covered the roads, railways and canals over which most of West Berlin’s supplies travelled. When the Western Allies announced they would be introducing new financial arrangements, including the creation of the Deutschmark, to Western Germany as a step towards self-rule, the USSR demanded a greater say in these arrangements. When it was refused,  the Soviets blocked all road, rail and canal routes into Berlin. After 24 June 1948, the only way into Berlin for the Western Allies was along the three air corridors.


  Photo : Leerlaufprozess
The three air routes from Western Germany into West Berlin.

President Truman ordered that the city be supplied by air and just two days later the first USAF C-47 Dakotas took off from England and Germany; destination Berlin. A further two days went by and the RAF joined the Airlift also using Dakotas. The two main players were later assisted by the French, Australian, New Zealand, South African and Canadian Air Forces. The French joined in for a short while using German built Junkers Ju52 aircraft. However most of the other aircraft in use at the beginning of the Airlift were Douglas C-47 Dakotas.


Initially, Douglas C-47 Dakotas were the mainstay of the airlift.

The small Dakotas were soon joined by larger USAF aircraft such as the C-54 (military version of the  DC-4 transport) , C-82 Packets, the prototype C-74 Globemaster ,which could carry 21 tonnes, and  towards the end of the operation even a Lockheed Constellation and the prototype YC-97 Stratolifter. The RAF had also upped its game and introduced Avro Yorks, Short Sunderland flying boats and their new Handley Page Hastings aircraft onto the freight runs.


 Photo : John King
The RAF utilised its newest and largest transport aircraft the Handley Page Hastings.

One of the major items needing to be flown into the city was petrol and fuel oil. This had to be shipped in large oil drums which were very heavy containers and reduced the weight of the fuel that could be loaded onto the aircraft. The drums were also difficult to manhandle on and off the aircraft leading to long delays.
However help came from an unlikely source: civil aviation. Alan Cobham had set up his company Flight Refuelling Ltd to look into the possibility of in-flight refuelling to allow aircraft of the day to cross the Atlantic non-stop. Commonplace with the military today, this was a completely new concept. Cobham owned the only air tankers in the world. These were civil conversions of the Lancaster and known as Lancastrians with the stripped out interiors replaced with large fuel tanks. These were ideal for carrying petrol or fuel oil and it was a Flight Refuelling Ltd Lancastrian tanker that operated the first civilian charter airline flight into Berlin on 27 July 1948.


  Photo : San Diego Airspace museum
Many of the Lancastrians used by the charter airlines were converted into tankers.

The Airlift officials were so impressed with this feat by Flight Refuelling Ltd they decided to support the military operation by offering charters to civil airlines to fly supplies into the beleaguered city. It is not generally known that 25 British charter airlines were involved in the airlift with all civilian operations being controlled by British European Airways. Several of these companies, including BOAC and Skyways with Lancastrians and British South American Airways with Tudors, converted their freighters to tanker aircraft following the success of Flight Refuelling’s original flights. The BSAA Tudors could carry 2500 gallons of fuel in their tanks.
Strangely, prior to the Airlift all the Tudors had been grounded for safety reasons by the authorities, however come the airlift they were deemed safe enough to carry 2500 gallons of fuel on up to nine round trips a day into Berlin! There were 27 tankers operated between BSAA and Flight Refuelling Ltd.  This part of the operation became so successful that the controlling body decided all liquid fuels would be carried by civilian operators allowing the military to stop struggling with the 45 gallon oil drums of fuel and concentrate on other essential supplies. 


 Photo : RuthAs
An Avro Tudor operated by BSAA, British South American Airways.

Refuelling facilities were built or upgraded by the British Army at Wunsdorf so that a Halton tanker could now be filled in around fifteen minutes with fuel being pumped directly to the aeroplanes from railway tank wagons. When the tanker aircraft arrived at Gatow in Berlin, a facility had been built by March 1949 that could defuel fourteen tanker aircraft at the same time.
There was big money to be made by the civil airlines and every effort was made to fly their sectors regardless of the weather or any other problems. This was not without risk as initially only the military aircraft had the latest navigation equipment and many of the civil flights were made under somewhat marginal weather conditions. Also the civilian operators did not have the ground crew back-up of the military and many of the airliners were flying with faults that had yet to be fixed due to the lack of engineers.
There was also the constant threat of being shot down or harassed by the Soviets and indeed a BEA Viking, carrying passengers along one of the air lanes, was brought down with the loss of all souls on board when it collided with a Soviet Yak-3 fighter. In all 70 airmen, 21 of them civilian pilots, lost their lives operating the Airlift. Several memorials to these brave men can be found around the city with perhaps the most poignant being at Templehof where so many of the flights landed.

ingrid strauch

Photo :Ingrid Strauch
The memorial to lost airmen of the Airlift at the old Tempelhof airport.


Photo : Imperial War Museum  
A Handley Page Halton, showing clearly its Halifax bomber origins.

Other operators included Eagle Aviation with Halton freighters, these were converted from the wartime Halifax bomber. Also operating stripped-out Halifax bombers was the Lancashire Aircraft Corporation. Formed just after the war by Pathfinder Chief, AVM Don Bennett, Airflight. entered the fray with an Avro Tudor freighter. As well as their Lancastrian tankers, Skyways used Avro York freighters as did Scottish Airways along with their converted Liberator bomber transports.  That well-known charter company Airwork chipped in with their Vikings and smaller aircraft like the C-47 Dakota came from Ciro’s Aviation who normally specialised in VIP luxury air tours. Silver City used three of their Bristol B170 Freighters that later went on to ply their trade carrying cars across the channel to France.


 Photo : Imperial War Museum 
A Skyways Avro York at Wunstorf with a Tudor behind preparing for another trip into Berlin.

One of the more unusual civilian operators was Aquila Airways who operated a fleet of 12 Sunderlands alongside those of the RAF carrying mainly salt which was used not just for cooking but for food preservation as 1948 Berlin did not have much freezer capacity. The Sunderlands were used for this as although salt is very corrosive to aluminium flying boats were built with very good anti-corrosion properties as they were designed to be operated off the sea. Aquila made 265 flights into Berlin with their flying boats landing, despite Soviet objections, directly in the city on Lake Havel.


Photo : RuthAs
An Aquila Airways Short Solent ( Civil Sunderland) used to carry salt and other goods.

In total the civil charter airlines contribution to the airlift was 6% of the 92,282 tonnes carried. However most of the petrol used in Berlin came in on the civilian tankers and by the end of the Airlift in 1949 every car, lorry or taxi in Berlin was using fuel flown in by these aircraft. Not only did the British contingent carry in essential supplies they also carried cargo and passengers out of the city back to Western Germany. One of the items regularly carried were light bulbs manufactured by the Siemens company in their Berlin factory.


Douglas C-54 Liftmasters formed the bulk of the USAF fleet. It was one of these aircraft that started the tradition of dropping sweets for the kids during the final approach to land in Berlin.  This C-54 has ended its days at the South Dakota Air Museum, USA. 

At the height of the Airlift there was an aircraft over Berlin every thirty seconds and one landing every minute (Heathrow today manages one every two minutes and that’s busy !). The success of the Airlift forced the USSR into lifting the blockade of the roads, railways and canals on 12 May 1949. The Western Allies continued flying in supplies until September to ensure there was a good stockpile should the Soviets change their mind.


A Fairchild C-82 Packet of the type used during the airlift. This example is at the McChord AFB museum near Tacoma Washington.

Today there are sadly no Lancastrians , Tudors or Haltons remaining in the UK and to see a USAF Packet or C-97 Stratolifter you will have to travel to the USA. There is however a C-54 Skymaster being restored at North Weald airfield along with a Bristol Freighter down at Filton.


Photo : Ad Meskens
One of only two airworthy C-97 Stratolifters.  The Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation has restored this one in the USA to the colours of the prototype that participated in the Airlift.

But all is not lost, as here at Duxford you can view, thanks to the IWM, a Dakota and a Hastings. But the jewel in the crown is the British Airliner Collection’s Avro York one of only three complete examples left in the world. This York is of great significance as prior to being sold to civil operator,  Dan Air, it was flown by the RAF and actually took part in the airlift. To recognise this achievement DAS are arranging a Berlin Airlift exhibit based around the York, so please come and visit to learn the whole story about this remarkable aeroplane and its part in the Berlin Airlift. 


A true Berlin Airlift veteran the British Airliner Collection’s York proudly shows off its No.1 Merlin engine.


The British Airliner Collection’s York, which can be found in the IWM’s AirSpace Hanger.

I hope you enjoyed this celebration of seventy years since the Berlin Airlift and now have a greater appreciation of the part Civil aviation played in the operation.
Till the next time !
Keith Bradshaw