The Greatest Humanitarian Airlift in History

The Great Berlin Airlift would make a superb name for a 1980s synth-pop band; however, it actually happens to be one of the most incredible achievements of modern aviation.

Chances are though, even if you were born pre-1980, you might not have ever heard of it. In the aftermath of World War II Berlin, a city of 2 million people, was kept alive by thousands of airplanes. This is how it went down…

In order for this to make sense, let’s spend a moment with some History 101. After World War Two, Germany was split into two separate countries: East Germany – under the control of the USSR, and West Germany – under the control of the Western powers – namely USA, England and France. Berlin, the capital city of Germany, was divided in half also, even though the city itself was located in East Germany.

Map of East & West Germany with Berlin in Yellow.
Map of East & West Germany.

All food and other supplies were transported into the city over ground, giving control of the supply lines to the USSR. This meant that the USSR could shut down all transportation into West Berlin, any time they wanted to. Nobody ever thought they would be crazy enough to do that, but…

In one of the first international incidents of the Cold War (or the worst construction season in the history of the world), the USSR blocked rail, highway, and water traffic into West Berlin in June of 1948, cutting the supply lines and leaving West Berlin hungry.

The Allied powers didn’t want another war, but they were unable to cross to Berlin by ground without starting one. Faced with the choice of conceding defeat or doing something completely irrational, the Western forces chose the latter.

They decided to supply West Berlin from the air. The name for this effort was Operation Vittles, and although it sounds like an epic pet food commercial, it was truly an awe-inspiring achievement.

C-47 Skytrains unloading at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.

Have you ever tried to pack an entire week’s vacation into a carry-on to escape the checked-bag fee? Well, this is a Douglas C-54E Skymaster that was used to help transport supplies during the Berlin airlift. It could carry up to 50 passengers. Compare this with a modern Boeing 777, which can carry up to 451 passengers, and you can see what Operation Vittles was dealing with. Feel free to multiply how impressed you are by seven.

Families watch a plan landing at Berlin Tempelhof Airport During the Berlin Airlift of 1947-48
Families watch a plane landing at Berlin Tempelhof Airport During the Berlin Airlift of 1947-48

The air forces of the USA, Great Britain, France, and other Western countries joined together to fly nearly 300,000 supply flights to ensure that the people of West Berlin had sufficient food, fuel, and other supplies during the duration of the blockade (and until September 1949 to create a stockpile for good measure after that).

At peak times, this meant that planes were either landing or taking off in West Berlin every 30 seconds (or about as frequently as your favorite TV show takes commercial breaks during the season finale).

Berliners watch a Douglas C-54 Skymaster land at Tempelhof Airport, 1946

The USSR knew that shooting down these planes would be considered an act of war. They didn’t want a war either, so there was a stalemate as long as the city could be supplied by air.

During the start of the blockade, the planes were flying in about 5,000 tons of supplies each day. By the end, they had managed to increase the amount to 8,000 tons of supplies per day. In total, the Western powers carried in about 2.3 million tons of cargo over the course of the airlift.

That is a mind-boggling amount of cargo, so let’s put this into perspective:

  • There are 21,346 Twinkies in a ton.
  • An African Bush Elephant can weigh 5.5 tons.
  • An adult blue whale can weigh upwards of 200 tons.
  • The Eiffel Tower weighs 7,300 tons.

Considering how long it takes to board a plane in the best of times, imagine how much effort was required to ship the equivalent of an Eiffel Tower, three blue whales, a herd of elephants, and a few hundred thousand Twinkies, all in one day.

The last flight of the Berlin Airlift showing the final tally of 17,835,727 tons flown into Berlin.

Then imagine doing it with the technology of nearly 70 years ago.

The effectiveness of the great Berlin Airlift was a major factor in the abandonment of the blockade when the Soviets realized their efforts were not only proving ineffective, but also damaging their reputation on the international stage. The success of Operation Vittles proves that sometimes stubbornness can win out over common sense, and even the craziest of ideas can pay off.

Interesting fact

The Berlin Tempelhof Airport continues to write humanitarian history: Since October 2015 its disused hangars are sheltering more than 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers.

The former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin is now home to more than 2,000 refugees.
The former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin is now home to more than 2,000 refugees.