Douglas C-54/R5DVR-8

27 October 1948.  Four months earlier, the Soviets began their blockade of Berlin in earnest.  All surface transportation into the part of the city occupied by the Western Allies (US, UK and France) was cut off and all supplies, food, fuel and the like was prevented from entering the city.  But the air approaches into the city were left open and that same day, a temporary re-supply by air was begun.  President Truman extended that effort by putting it on a regular basis and directing European Command to press all available airlift in theater into service.  Thus began a steady stream of C-47s and C-54s streaming in through the three corridors over Soviet-occupied Germany into the former capital city of the Third Reich.

Berlin Blockade Airlift CorridorsAir corridors into Berlin

Berlin, shattered, ruined and occupied, must not fall to this latest assault, and in so doing, would put a stake in the ground in this next war – the Cold War.

C-54 landing at TemplehofTemplehof

By September it was apparent that more needed to be done insofar as increased transportation of food and fuel for the coming winter.  To be successful, the daily tonnage would need to be upped to an average of 4500 tons, so an additional 66 C-54′s would be needed.  And where would they come from?  Well, 24 would be provided by the Navy.

R5D

On 27 October 1948, the Commander, Military Air Transport Service, (MATS) with the concurrence of Chief of Naval Operations Louis Denfeld, ordered Navy MATS units Transport Squadrons (VRs) 6 and 8 to 180 days temporary additional duty (TAD) with the Airlift Task Force for participation in Operation Vittles. At the time, both squadrons were assigned to MATS routes in the Pacific, VR-6 stationed at Guam and VR-8 based in Honolulu. Transport Squadron 8 got the word that same day, and on 29 October its first group of six R5D (C-54) aircraft took off for California. Transport Squadron 6 on Guam received its orders on 30 October, and on 1 November its first contingent of four aircraft left for the West Coast.

Berlin winter

The impact of the Navy contribution would soon be felt following their arrival. By the end of December 1948, VR-8 was leading all squadrons in the airlift in every measurable phase of air transport operation, including aircraft utilization, total cargo carried, payload efficiency, and tons per plane. VR-6 was not far behind, though, being engaged for several weeks in a battle for second place with the two top Air Force squadrons. By the end of February 1949, VR-6 was equalling and frequently exceeding VR-8 in operational achievements. During April 1949, the two squadrons flew a combined total of 8,234 hours (an aircraft utilization rate of 13.1 hours per plane per day) and delivered 23,550 tons of food and coal to Berlin.

airlift end

By May 1949, it was apparent to the Soviets that their ploy had failed and the blockade was lifted on 12 May 1949.  Still, the airlift continued until the final flight on 31 Oct 1949, when VR-6 and VR-8 were released from duty.  During their time in theater, the 24 aircraft of the two VR squadrons flew 45,990 hours, carrying 129,989 tons of cargo into Berlin and averaging 10.1 flight hours per plane per day for the entire period.  Those same 24 aircraft and their accompanying flight and ground crews were responsible for over 7% of total supply tonnage delivered to Berlin, despite having arrived five months after the airlift began.

So, what was it like to fly the Airlift?  Thought you’d never ask:

See also the Naval History Center account.

5 Comments

  1. sid

    Shot of a VR-8 aircraft at Midway circa late 1947(note the flat approach)…

    A couple of stories of the airlift related to me at an early age:

    Dark night (of course), the GCA controller is having plenty of problems so the aircraft continues on the last vector and presently sights runway lights. Aircraft lands, but there is a problem. Templehof is metal mat and this runway is concrete.

    Consternation in the cockpit.

    Presently a jeep loaded with Brits shows up wondering why a USN R5D was there as this runway (Gatow I think now) isn’t open yet and they are just testing the lights.

    Explanations fall on impatient ears.

    Then as now stats matter, so the Brits offloaded the coal to claim as their own and shooed the R5D away into the return stream.

    Next day the CO called in the Ensign aircraft commander (most junior in the squadron).

    CO: “How come you were at that Brit field”

    ENS. “Not sure what you mean sir”

    CO: “Well the Brits said one of my planes piloted by an ENS with gold teeth showed up last night”

    ENS [who had two gold front teeth]: :roll:

    CO: “Don’t do that anymore. Get out of my office.”

    _______

    An icy approach into Templehof. Often the front window would ice up and the heat couldn’t keep up, but all these guys had learned to fly in open cockpits , so sticking their head out the side window was not an outlandish thing.

    This day though the ice melted on short final and the whole sheet slid off the window smack dab into the face of the unlucky pilot. Made for sporty rollout on that slick mat….

    ———–

    Yaks would occasionally dive the aircraft in the corridors. Well, so happens an empty R5D with fresh engines could hold its own in a climb with one of those prop driven Yaks. Imagine the surprise that Yak driver had when he spied that four engined beast crawling up his six before breaking it off and returning to the return stream…

  2. Steeljawscribe

    sid!

    Thanks – great stories all. Was hoping (or should that be Hope!(tm)-ing?) this topic would bring you out of lurkerdom. Drop me a note offline re. one of your comments over at ‘Phibs blog today…
    - SJS

  3. sid

    Some more VR-8 pics taken a couple of months before they went to the Airlift.

    After the squadron got the word, they were flying missions into Berlin 10 days later…

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3120/2680767038_278134a89c_b.jpg

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3291/2679931105_5490550527_b.jpg

  4. K.N. "Jack" David

    I work at Falcon Field Mesa, Arizona. There is a near derelict R5D (C-54) BuAer 50865 sitting next to my building. Anyway to find out the operational history of this BuAer # and whether it was involved in the airlift?

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