August 13, 1948-- A month and a half into its effort to sustain West Berlin from the Soviet Union’s attempt to cut off its access to the outside world, the U.S. and its Western allies encountered such stormy conditions that daily runs were threatened in their ongoing Berlin Airlift. The day, nicknamed “Black Friday” by pilots, became one of the pivotal moments in the Cold War, requiring unparalleled logistical coordination and reassuring the people of West Berlin that they would not be left to their own devices in the confrontation with the U.S.S.R.
In the three years since the end of WWII, the Allies divided over administering the nations of Eastern and Central Europe, with Germany as a particular flash point. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin balked at proposals by the U.S., Great Britain and France concerning currency and free elections. The U.S.S.R. quickly sought to install a puppet regime in its occupation zone in the eastern half of Germany. That would normally have included Berlin, except that each of the Allies had been given its own occupation zone in the Third Reich’s capital. When the Soviets escalated its campaign of isolation against free West Berlin from harassment to outright blocking of ground travel arteries, U.S. President Harry Truman insisted that the city would not be allowed to fall.
I wrote about the airlift in a prior post, but these particular 24 hours deserve an intensive treatment all their own. Had the problems highlighted in this period turned out to be insoluble, the outcome of this early standoff might have been far different. In fact, so might the entire Cold War.
When he arrived on July 28 in Berlin, at the behest of Germany’s military governor, General Lucius Clay, to head up the American component of the airlift, Major General William Tunner (pictured) might well have questioned whether he really could make this herculean effort operate in "rhythm, on a beat as constant as a jungle drum." Three days before, a C-47 had crashed into an apartment in Berlin, killing two peoples—and conditions were about to become more harrowing.
For one thing, the Soviets began to apply their harassment techniques from the ground to the air as well. Soviet planes couldn’t outright fire on planes—that would have been an act of war—but they did the next best thing, including buzzing planes; close flying; shooting near (but not at) airlift planes; releasing balloons in the air corridor; and using radio interference and searchlights in the pilots' eyes.
But in another sense, the West’s efforts were becoming complicated by their success. On August 12, the U.S. Air Force and Britain’s Royal Air Force managed to deliver 4,742 tons of supplies, the first time the airlift had surpassed the 4,500 daily threshold deemed necessary to keep Berlin alive. But that required more than 700 flights, and planes were inevitably stacking up.
Matters came to a head on August 13, and it involved no less than General Tunner himself. Flying into Berlin that day to grant an award to Lt. Paul O. Lykins, who had made the most flights into Berlin up until that time, Tunner discovered the following conditions:
· *Clouds had descended to building tops;
· *Radar disrupted by heavy rain;
· *In one sequence: one C-54 had crashed and burned on a runway; a second blew its tires, trying to avoid it; a third ground looped on the auxiliary runway;
· * Planes stacking up over the recently built runway at Tempelhof airport;
· *More planes stacking up because of no-visibility conditions.
Watching this, Tunner phoned the tower, instructing the personnel to tell the pilots to return to their bases and “let me know when it’s safe to come down.”
From that point forward, he instituted a new policy: any aircraft missing its approach had to circle back on the outgoing center corridor; loaded aircraft would get a fresh crew; and all pilots would fly by instrument rules in order to keep a uniform speed, interval and altitude.
"The actual operation of a successful airlift is about as glamorous as drops of water on stone,” Tunner once said, memorably. “There's no frenzy, no flap, just the inexorable process of getting the job done." So it proved here. The general (nicknamed “Willy the Whip” behind his back) managed to eliminate the problem with stacking, helped in no small part by the new procedures mentioned above, as well as the civilian air traffic controllers he requested and received.
By the time it was all over in September 1949, American and British pilots had combined to deliver 2.3 million tons from 277, 569 total flights to Berlin. It was an extraordinary feat of logistics planning and sheer heroism.