Die Vergessene Luftbrüke (The Forgotten Air Bridge)

  • Published
  • By Maj. Todd Copley
  • 700th Airlift Squadron
May marks the 60th anniversary of the end of an extraordinary and massive effort to save the city of Berlin from a Soviet blockade, which was designed to bring the people of the western sector of town to their knees.

The U.S. Air Force, along with the U.S. Navy and allies from around the world, embarked on a task to create an air bridge (Luftbrüke) to keep this city, with a population of 2.5 million people, alive. The Berlin Airlift is well documented. Even Hollywood got into the act in 1950 with the film, The Big Lift.

I salute the veterans who turned the wrench to fix the planes, as well as those who arduously toiled loading flour, wood and coal on the C-47 and C-54 aircraft. And I give a big, hearty salute to those who flew the mission in all kinds of inclement weather. Overall, 78 aircrew perished in an effort to keep the mighty fist of Stalin from devouring the entire city.

My first flying assignment was with the 37th Airlift Squadron, Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, flying as navigator in the mighty C-130 Hercules. I was reminded of the history of the Berlin Airlift everyday while stationed there. My son attended Halvorsen-Tunner Elementary School, named after Gen. William Tunner, commander of the Berlin Airlift, and Col. Gail Halvorsen, who was better known as "The Berlin Candy Bomber."

As I made my way from base housing to the squadron, I drove by the Berlin Airlift Memorial. It has three arching "prongs" representing the three air corridors (Luftkorridore) used by aircraft passing over East German territory on flights between West Berlin and West Germany. A matching monument stands at the other end of the "Luftbrüke," at Templehof Air Base in the American sector, completing the airlift arch.

Little did I know as I drove by the Berlin Airlift Memorial that civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina would trigger the United States to begin Operation Provide Promise, involving hazardous airlift and supply missions into Sarajevo and airdrops to the surrounding enclaves.

Three months before the first airlift in July 1992, the European community turned her head as the better-armed Bosnia Serb forces quickly took control of more than 60 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina and encircled Sarajevo. In response, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions against Serbia and sent peacekeepers into Bosnia to aid the delivery of humanitarian relief.

With the roads to Sarajevo controlled by the Bosnia Serbs, airlifts became the only way humanitarian supplies could reach the 380,000 inhabitants of the besieged city. U.N. troops reopened the Sarajevo airport after three months of fighting. For the next three and a half years, until January 4, 1996, the airlift helped sustain the citizens of Sarajevo.

Running three times longer than the Berlin Airlift, Operation Provide Promise became the longest humanitarian airlift in history. Air Force airlifters, primarily C-130's, provided much of the airlift capacity, though aircraft from 20 other nations also participated. Flying 12,895 sorties, these planes delivered almost 180,000 tons of food, medicine and other supplies. Compare that to the 2.3 million tons delivered for the Berlin Airlift.

My first mission into Bosnia-Herzegovina was memorable because I was dressed for combat, even though this mission was for humanitarian purposes. The cargo compartment of our C-130 was loaded with four pallets, each pallet stacked with 20 pallets on top of the base pallet. The aircraft was loaded beyond maximum peacetime gross take-off weight, which meant a longer takeoff roll. But that is no problem when you have an 11,000-foot runway.

Arriving in Zagreb, Croatia, our aircrew found the airfield buzzing with U.N. relief workers already in action. Since we arrived before any of our USAF ground forces, our aircrew had to offload the plane. We then placed five of the empty pallets on the ground and began the process of loading them with 12 tons of baby food. We then placed those pallets aboard the aircraft with a U.N. forklift.

While we were figuring out the pallet situation, our other problem was obtaining aviation fuel. Normally, we pay for our gas with a credit card, and the U.S. government is billed accordingly. But this situation dictated that we bring a purser from our accounting and finance office on the mission. He was carrying a briefcase with $47,000 so we could buy our fuel. We also had to negotiate the price of fuel, so haggling was in order. The final price was $1,600 for 8,000 pounds of fuel. Not a bad deal if I say so myself.

Landing at Sarajevo, with 4,000-foot mountains surrounding the airport was like landing in the bottom of a soup bowl. The Bosnian Serbs held the high ground and took many shots with their anti-aircraft artillery, as our aircraft made their high-angled approach into the city. Once on the ground, we would quickly make a bid to exit the first taxiway abeam the parking apron.

Many aircraft paid the price of taking small-arms fire if they rolled the aircraft to the other end of the runway after landing. For some phases of the airlift, we were able to shut down all four engines to ease the offload in the back. But many times, we kept all the engines running in order to expedite ground time and minimize exposure to the fighting factions.

My personal record for landing, offloading five pallets and taking off was seven minutes!

On one mission, we had to shut down three engines, leaving one engine running for tactical purposes during the offload of 29,000 pounds of Meals Ready to Eat. It was then I noticed a mortar land 300 to 400 yards from the plane. Two more came in at about the same distance. I couldn't hear them go off because I had my helmet on and one engine was running. But the loadmaster said he felt the vibration from the explosion. We've had enough, "Let's crank engines and get out of here!"

A German C-160 parked beside our Herk had enough also. From there on, it was a race to see who could start engines the fastest and leave. (The German's had to start two engines). We beat the C-160 out of the chocks and took off first. The rest was uneventful (or so we thought) until we landed in Zagreb, Croatia.

The C-160 that took off behind us at Sarajevo, limped back to Zagreb with a 20-millimeter round penetrating the bottom of the fuselage and exiting through the gas turbine compressor! That could just as easily have been our airplane taking the hit if we didn't get our engines cranked before the C-160.

The Bosnia Serbs remained belligerent and fired on aircraft flying humanitarian Operation Provide Promise flights. A missile brought down an Italian transport in September 1992. When it became too dangerous to land at Sarajevo Airport, the American, German and French airlifters airdropped food and medicine to the enclaves, including Tuzla, Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde.

During the first two nights, millions of leaflets were dropped explaining the mission's humanitarian nature and warning people to beware of descending bundles. The usual airdrop package was six USAF C-130's flying in formation, with one German and one French C-160 flying to the same drop zone five minutes in trail of the six-ship formation.

Each C-130 carried 12 container delivery system bundles, with an average weight of 1,500 pounds each. Over time with this airdrop operation, the USAF had expended more than 21,000 high velocity parachutes. Operation Provide Promise had used up all HV parachutes in the U.S. Army's inventory, so the Army parachute riggers had to resort to reducing the area of low velocity parachutes (reefing) to keep up with the demand until the manufacture could make more HV chutes.

The airdrops proved to be successful, although there was much criticism initially from the media regarding drop accuracy. USAF rules of engagement dictated the release of the airdrop loads between 10,000 to 14,000 feet altitudes due to terrain and avoiding AAA.

One special airdrop mission required the C-130's to drop 4,200 glass vials of penicillin to a besieged hospital that had hundreds of wounded and sick people. The Army riggers successfully rigged these fragile supplies for the HV parachutes that slow descent to about 60 mph. If all goes as planned, the airdrop load would drift more than a mile in the 50-plus knot winds from a navigator-calculated release point in the Bosnian skies.

The DZ below measured 1,000 yards by 1,800 yards. The last time the plane's computerized radar got such a workout was dropping supplies to encircled Marines at Khe Sanh in 1968. The U.N. Military Observers reported the drop of penicillin was a complete success, with the viles landing only 100 yards from the target! All medical supplies were recovered and not one vile was broken. In all, USAF airlifters flew more than 2,200 airdrop sorties across Bosnia.

Humanitarian airlift is a tradition as old as the Air Force. From Berlin to Bosnia, former Chief of Staff of the USAF Gen. Ronald Fogleman summed it up best, "In the end, we effectively employed non-lethal air power to relieve human suffering, save countless lives and keep a flame of hope burning bright."

Editor's Note: Maj. Todd Copley flew 110 sorties in direct support of Operation Provide Promise.