Friday, May 3, 2019

The Operation Which Caused Air Freight and Logistics to Come of Age

Remembering the Berlin Airlift - a Guest Article by Ed Nash
Shipping News Feature
GERMANY –THE COLD WAR – 12 May marks the 70-year anniversary of the end of the Berlin Blockade, when the Soviet Union attempted to cut off Allied-controlled West Berlin, a lonely bastion for the Western powers behind the Iron Curtain, by preventing all overland logistic routes from supplying the city. The crisis, which saw communist forces attempting to starve the beleaguered city into submission, was alleviated by what was the most concentrated air freight operation that had been engaged in at that time. The event showed just how capable air transportation had become and the techniques developed laid the groundwork for the approach to modern logistics in use today.

The blockade began on 24 June 1948. In response to the introduction of the new Deutsche Mark by the Western Allies the Soviet Union severed all land communications between West Germany and West Berlin, forcing all freight to be carried by air. As over two million people in the city were reliant on supplies from outside, the task facing the Allied forces was huge.

The American military government in Germany estimated that the requirements to maintain Berlin were 1,534 tonnes of food and 3,475 tonnes of coal, diesel and petrol per day, making for a total daily shipping requirement of 5000 tonnes just for maintenance of minimum standards. This would rise to 7,500 tonnes in the winter. The primary transport aircraft available to the Americans were 96 C47’s, each capable of carrying just 3.5 tonnes of cargo. This allowed an initial lift capacity of at most three hundred tonnes per day, supplemented by an additional 400 tonnes carried by the British Royal Air Force (RAF), which had started its own supply efforts.

Although these figures would increase as additional aircraft were thrown into the effort, notably the C-54 with its 10 tonne cargo capacity, the Allies struggled to approach the necessary quantities to keep West Berlin running. Air traffic control at Berlin were almost overcome trying to manage the number of flights and there was too much effort being wasted in managing the cargo levels. The time taken unloading, partially due to the need to physically handle cargoes which arrived in what we would now consider primitive conditions.

This system, such as it was, decimated aircraft turn-around times and expert leadership was needed to take the matter in hand if the effort was to be successful and Berlin saved from starvation and complete social collapse.

Help arrived in the shape of Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner of the USAF. Tunner had directed the air supply efforts for China during the Second World War - the famous ‘Over the Hump’ air lift operation, the Hump in question being the Himalayas, an extremely dangerous crossing and, where in just over a year, he radically improved the safety record of the operation and increased tonnages delivered to support the war effort of Chiang Kai-shek and associated US forces.

Arguably the foremost expert in air transportation in the world at the time, Tunner understood that it was necessary for a leader to personally witness and understand the whole operation under his or her authority and make hard calls. This was amply demonstrated two weeks after his taking of control on 13 August 1948 - ‘Black Friday’ - when two crashed aircraft and snarl ups in air traffic control caused huge delays. Tunner, who was actually flying into Berlin for an inspection, ordered all flights cancelled on that day so that the situation could be properly brought under control and a full assessment made on precisely what happened.

Tunner’s analysis of the situation led to him instituting multiple processes to maximise the efficiency of the airlift, and which we can now see formed a blueprint for logistical support by air in a tremendously difficult field of operations. Instrument flying became mandatory, regardless of weather conditions; pilots were not allowed to leave their aircraft while in Berlin, with refreshments being bought to them in mobile canteens; aircraft maintenance standards were set and rigorously applied and the ‘stacking’ of aircraft in the airspace was abandoned.

He also instituted a central air traffic control authority for West Berlin, as the USAF efforts were supplemented by aircraft not just from the RAF but from the French Air Force and Australian Air Forces, and with aircrews from the South Africa, New Zealand and Canadian Air Forces, as well aircraft from civilian operators.

Additionally, aircraft loads of differing densities were mixed to maximize tonnages; the exact speeds of flights were calculated, along with the offload and load times for all aircraft, to ensure maximum efficiency and minimum wasted time on the ground; and more marker beacons were added to the flight routes to aid safety and efficiency. A cutting edge Ground Control Approach radar was installed to allow all-weather operations.

Perhaps most impressively was the building of Tegel airfield by the French authorities. Using the crushed brick of bombed buildings and thousands of German labourers, the airport featured a mile of runway, a mile of taxiways and over one million square feet of airfield apron. This was largely achieved in 90 days! Tegel airfield is now Berlin Tegel airport, the fourth busiest airport in Germany.

The results of all these efforts and the application of technology was a radical improvement in tonnages handled. By the end of August 1948, 1,500 aircraft flights were being made every day, more than one a minute, 24-hours a day, and 4,500 tonnes were being delivered, enough for Berlin to survive.

Even this would rapidly improve as Tunner’s air and ground crews got into their stride, despite awful winter weather that saw entire days written off due to snow and fog. The record for unloading was a ten tonne shipment of coal by hand by a 12-man team in an incredible 5 minutes and 45 seconds.

By 21 April, 1949, the daily cargo flown into the city exceeded that which had previously been bought in by rail, with almost 9,000 tonnes per day being delivered, a testament to the efforts of the allied flyers, the German ground crews and to the planning and management team. Gen. Tunner is now justly recognised by TIACA in its Hall of Fame for his achievements.

On 12 May, 1949, the Soviets raised the blockade and ground transportation was able to resume. The airlift continued until 30 September by which point the USAF had delivered 1,783,573 tonnes of freight, the RAF 541,937 tonnes and the Royal Australian Air Force 7,968 tonnes, a total of 2,333,478 tonnes of airfreight.

There had of course been costs for such a sustained effort in sometimes tremendously difficult conditions. 25 aircraft crashed during the operation and 101 lives were lost, with the estimated financial cost translating to perhaps as much as $6 billion in today’s currency. But the cost of failure may have been much higher.

Recognising that being forced out of Berlin would be a signal to both the Soviet Union and the world that they could not defend their allies, the United States alternative was to resort to military measures to assert their commitment. As the conventional military had been cut to the bone following World War 2, the only option was nuclear. To this end the USAF deployed nuclear bombers to Britain and plans were considered for the atomic bombing of the Soviet bloc.

Hence the Berlin Airlift therefore didn’t just represent the coming of age of air freight. It also may have saved the world from a nuclear conflict.

Ed Nash has spent years travelling around the world and, on occasion, interfering as he sees fit. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria. His book Desert Sniper: How One Ordinary Brit Went to War Against ISIS was published in September 2018 and was released in paperback this month.

Photo: A queue of C54’s unloading their cargoes.