65 years later, recalling the air rescue of West Berlin (pictures)
On June 24, 1948, the Soviets blocked Allied access to the western half of Berlin. Two days later, the United States and Britain responded with a dramatic workaround.
Royal Air Force C-47s
In planning the Berlin Airlift, Air Force planners believed rapid expansion of the capacity of Berlin airports was critical to success. The potential capacity expansion offered by the existing Tempelhof and Gatow airports was limited and difficult. It was decided that a third airport was needed, and a site was selected at Tegel in the divided city's so-called French Sector, where construction on began August 5, 1948.
Finished just three months later on November 5, 1948, the new airport had a 5,500-foot runway, 6,020 feet of taxiway, 4,400 feet of access road, 2,750 feet of access railroad and more than 1 million square feet of apron area used for unloading operations and aircraft parking.
Here, Royal Air Force C-47s are seen being unloaded in the beginning days of flight operations at the Berlin Tegel airport in the Berlin French zone.
The siege of West Berlin became a symbol of the post-1945 Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the U.S., France, and England solidified their zones into a single unit in 1948, the Soviets withdrew from the Allied Control Council and began a blockade of all rail, road, and water communications between Berlin and the West.
On June 24, 1948, the Soviets declared the Western administration in Berlin to be defunct and said Allied rights had been revoked. But two days later, on June 26, the United States and Britain used their aviation edge to to supply the city with food and other vital supplies from the air.
Built in just four months, the Tegel airport pictured here was, at that time, the largest airport of the world.
This model SCR-658 Radio Receiver was one of the pieces of communications equipment at Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin that was used by U.S. occupation forces to support the airlift operations. American personnel used the devices to track weather balloons that measured the wind's direction and speed, the temperature, humidity, and air pressure by using radio signals transmitted from the balloons.
The highest balloon altitude measurement this unit recorded at Tempelhof was approximately 140,000 feet. This SCR-658 served as backup receiver when more advanced equipment became available, but it remained in use at Tempelhof until 1975.
An equal challenge to supplying the city of Berlin was the need for the airlift forces to supply and maintain themselves. During the peak months of the operation, the U.S. Air Force provided maintenance support not only for the 324 assigned aircraft but also for 1,600 motor vehicles and 500 ground power equipment items. Operations in support of the airlift continued at stateside air depots and bases, as well as those in England and Germany 24 hours a day.
During the Berlin Airlift, Allied forces dropped a total of 2,325,510 tons of cargo to waiting civilians living under the blockade. Coal represented approximately 1,500,000 tons of the goods delivered, followed by more than 500,000 tons of food. Miscellaneous cargo such as dismantled steam rollers and electrical power plant machinery, as well as all the daily needs -- from soap to medical supplies to newspapers -- made up the rest of the aid delivered over the city under siege.
The Allied advantage in air power proved decisive, more than compensating for the greater number of Soviet ground troops surrounding the city. The so-called "Airbridge to Berlin," as it became known, concluded in September 1949, even though although the Soviets lifted their blockade on May 12 of that year.
As the first direct, albeit non-violent, confrontation of the Cold War played out in Central Europe, the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians depended on the ability of allied pilots to fly over hostile terrain to make their drops.