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Celebrating 70 years of Air Supremacy

Unloading planes at Tempelhof airport during the Berlin Airlift

Unloading planes at Tempelhof airport during the Berlin Airlift

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- The Air Force celebrates its “Platinum Anniversary” this year after 70 years of independent service.

Nearly three quarters of a century may seem like a long time, but in comparison to other American service branches, the Air force is still the younger brother; however, it has grown significantly over the last 70 years, which is evident in a then-and-now comparison.

During WWII, before the branch’s inception, The U.S. Army Air Corps showcased the awesome impact airpower could have on the overall theater of war, and how important it was for the nation to maintain air supremacy.

George Schofield, a 97-year-old Air Mobility Command Museum volunteer, flew as a navigator on several bombers and cargo aircraft in the Army Air Corps.

After college, he tried to become a pilot, but after several hours of flying he wasn’t able to complete all the maneuvers required in the training curriculum, so they sent him to navigator training. He said this shift made him angry at the time, but probably saved his life.

“I was very fortunate to wash out of the pilot class,” Schofield said. “I would have graduated December of 1942 and went right off to fight. I was very unhappy at the time. Maybe 20 to 30 years later, I saw the statistics of the class I would have graduated from and a third of them died during the war.”

As a navigator, he plotted courses by any point of reference available to him, often stars. One time, he even diverted his aircraft, against orders, to circumvent a storm. The decision saved the pilot and his life and claimed the crew whose orders he broke.

At that time, aircraft and pilots were greatly needed, so training was rushed to meet the demands of the war.

“I don’t think the [Army] Air Corps was prepared for the war they were called for,” Schofield said. “When I first got in, there was a lot of confusion. It really wasn’t very organized, but, I think it was very instrumental in ending the war.”

Historians would agree.

The war officially ended Sept. 2, 1945, with a victory over Japan.

On Sept. 18, 1947, two years later, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act, which recognized the U.S. Air Force as an entirely new defense organization.

Since that day, the Air Force has proven time and again it’s capability for meeting the dynamic requirements of combat and humanitarian events.

“After the war, the Air Force really became its own unit,” Schofield said. “It wasn’t the Army anymore. There were so many changes: getting jet engines and new technology. It’s such a big outfit now, compared to what it was in the beginning.”

Still in its infancy, while the Air Force was still becoming organized, it faced a daunting task in March, 1948, when Soviet forces attempted to force Allied powers to abandon the German people. In what is now known as the Berlin blockade, a population of about two million was completely isolated. Soviets, remembering the problems of sustained cargo flights during WWII, believed sustained air transportation impossible and failed to see the value of air mobility.

Led by Maj. Gen. Curtis E. Lemay, U.S. Air Forces in Europe began the most exhaustive airlift operation to date, the Berlin Airlift. The first day of what the Americans called Operation “Vittles,” June 26, 32 C-47s flew in 80 tons of cargo, primarily powdered milk, flower and medicine. The airlift operation was the only alternative to war or withdrawal.

From Germany, Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, took command of the Berlin Airlift in late July. His experience with maintaining an aerial supply line across the Himalayas, from India to China, during World War II helped him capitalize on every available fair-weather moment, landing planes as frequently as one every three minutes.

Nearly overnight, the world became aware of the impact of strategic airlift, and over the next 15 months, the nation learned the skills needed for sustained airlift operations.

On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1949, during the peak of airlift, 13,000 tons of cargo, including 600 railroad cars worth of coal, were delivered. The Easter Parade, as it’s known today, set the record for a single-day tonnage during the operation.

From June 26, 1948, to September 30, 1949, aircraft delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, machinery and other supplies, and 227,655 passengers, with American aircraft accounting for about 75 percent. American aircrews flew 108 C-47s, 225 C-54s, five C-82s, one C-74 and one YC-97 on more than 189,000 flights totaling 600,000 flying hours. The aircraft and aircrews performed excellently, with only 126 accidents and 28 Airmen’s lives lost.

To this day, the Berlin Airlift is the largest humanitarian airlift operation in history. It proved that airlift sustain a large population surrounded by hostile forces. Operation Vittles shaped the way the Air Force scheduled flights, loaded aircraft, performed air traffic control duties and created flight patterns, and it brought about the development of a new generation of cargo aircraft.

Now, 68 years later, Dover is home to 18 C-17 Globemaster IIIs and 13 C-5M Super Galaxies, the country’s largest military cargo aircraft. Both planes are capable of transporting much more cargo farther and faster than could have been imagined during the Berlin Airlift Day.

The C-47s and C-54s were capable of transporting a maximum of 3 and 10 tons, respectively. Today, C-17s can carry more than 85 tons, and C-5s can carry 135 tons, more than 13 times that of a C-54.

Advancements weren’t limited to aircraft, mobility technology improved drastically as well, including fork-trucks, loaders, winches and computer programs that track freight and optimize pallet construction.

“The sophistication we have today gives us a great advantage strategically moving our joint transportation fleets to deliver cargo where it’s needed very quickly,” said Col. Robert Nance, 436th Operations Group commander. “Our technology and joint partnerships give us a distinct advantage over any adversary we could face.

“It’s amazing to hear how we used to do things like navigating,” Nance continued. “We’ve come a long way from navigating by the stars. Now we have a vast array of different sensors on our aircraft to help us know where we are. Our technology is unmatched.”

With a heritage that extends beyond the organization’s official start, the Air Force has been a family for generations of Americans.

“Birthdays are important milestones that help us to remember where we’ve been and think about where we’re going. We need to take time to pause and reflect on what it means to be an Airman – whether you’re a brand new Airman looking forward to your career, or an old guy who’s been around for a long time. The real beauty happens when these two perspectives meet and share experiences.

“The Air Force is filled with phenomenal, incredible Airmen who do incredible things for us every day. It makes me really proud to be around them and part of this great Air Force.”