US Naval Aviation Participation


The Navy was called on for support, providing two squadrons of R5D’s ( the navy version of the C-54.   VR-8 was spread from Hawaii west to Midway, Johnston Island, Guam..VR6 extended the NATS spread west to Manila, Tokyo and Shanghai.  To complicate the situation, the planes were of a mixed cargo and passenger configuration with a few plush planes specially out fitted for carrying VIP’s.


Commander James O. Vosseller, skipper of VR-8, received orders to move his squadron to Germany on 27 October 1948.  To pick up the pilots and crews strewn across the pacific, planes flew to Johnston and Kwajalein islands and Guam.  Layover crews resting between legs of their flights were soon on their way to Germany as the first planes left for Moffet Field two days later.


You are Commander Vosseler, Commander of the US Navy’s  VR-8 Squadron, your route will be “FLT BAL 5" - PHNA Barbers Point NAS, Hawaii to KOAK Oakland Intl.; KOAK Oakland Intl. to  KSKF Kelly AFB.; KSKF Kelly AFB. to KNIP Jacksonville NAS.; KNIP Jacksonville NAS to KCEF Westover ARB.; Westover ARB to CYJY Stephenville; CYJY Stephenville to LPLA Lajes AB.; LPLA Lajes AB to GMMN Mohamed V.; GMNN Mohamed V to ETOU Wiesbaden AFB.


VR-6, under Commander C. C. Howerton, received similar orders on 30 October 1948 and commenced recalling crews and planes in the Far East.  The first flights left on 1 November.


Transferring 20 planes with their crews, pilots and maintenance personnel was no small matter.  Geographic differences between the old and new bases further complicated the picture.  In the Pacific, both squadrons operated in tropical and semi-tropical weather.  Honolulu temperatures averaged in the seventies al year round, while Guam temperatures ran higher.  Visibility problems seldom included fog, although pilots kept up their ground controlled approach (GCA) qualifications.


Germany promised to present opposite weather conditions and temperatures.  Accordingly, Navy Supply in Guam and Honolulu issued long underwear, wool socks, parkas and foul weather gear.  Deficiencies were made up at Moffett Field and Jacksonville NAS, Florida, as the squadron flew to Germany.


Each departing plane was loaded with three crews, maintenance personnel and a spare engine.   VR-8 traded it’s VIP aircraft to Hawaii-b Marines for cargo planes.  In all, 12 aircraft from VR-8 and 8 from VR-6 left for California on the first leg of their journey.  At 180 knots, Germany was a long distance away.


At NAS Moffett Field, home of transport maintenance squadron VR-44,  VR-8 swapped airplanes, getting rid of planes nearly due for overhaul, VR-6 acquired four additional aircraft from VR-44 to bring the squadron’s strength up to the authorized 12 aircraft.  Seventeen officers and 15 enlisted personnel transferred from VR-8 to VR-6 as temporary crews for the additional planes.


Twenty-four planes left Moffett Field for NAS Jacksonville via Kelly AFB, San Antonio, Texas.  During a four day layover at Jacksonville radar was installed in the big planes in anticipation of Germany’s bad weather and adverse conditions.


Radar was relatively new to transport aircraft and only one plane of either squadron was equipped with it on the Pacific run.  Unfortunately, the new radar proved useless because its transmission frequencies interfered with Tempelhof GCA receivers.   At Rhein-Main in Frankfurt, the fuses were removed and the planes flew with the dead radar.


Though new to Germany, Navy men did not let strange surroundings affect getting the job  done.  VR-6 and VR-8 performed to the everlasting credit of Navy air.  Wesley T. Christensen was a Chief Aviation Pilot flying R5D’s for Air Transport Squadron 8 from 1948 to 1949.  He commanded the only all - enlisted flight crew in the Berlin Airlift, which included copilot Chief Petty Officer First Class Joseph A. Popp and Flight engineer Chief Petty Officer Ira Fox.


Month after month, the two squadrons topped Air Force squadrons in statistics.  During the first two months in Germany, Navy Pilots flew a total of 3,036 trips.  On 16 December 1948, VR-8 flew 51 trips to Berlin, achieving an efficiency of 222 percent or 122 percent over the squadron’s officially rated capacity.  VR-6 was never far behind and, in the final summation, both squadron’s out flew any Air Force unit there.


The lion’s share of credit belongs to the mechanics; Navy planes eventually averaged 13.1 hours per day in the air.  An Air Force spokesman credited Navy maintenance for the squadrons enviable record during the eight- month period in Germany.  In fairness to the Air Force crews, the Navy Squadrons brought there own maintenance personnel and equipment, the air force units did not.


Preventive Maintenance was the watchword for flight line operations.  Changing tires and spark plugs was accomplished on the mat hard-stands while the planes were being readied for another flight.  Mechanics previously accustomed to layover periods measured in days now had to work on the planes as they landed and were loaded for a return trip.  A three shift maintenance schedule kept mechanics on duty around the clock.  To stave off the wet freezing cold, ground crews warmed by gasoline hot air heaters that had been reworked to give maximum output.  In the middle of VR-8's muddy hard stand area , a similar jerry-rigged structure served as the head.


Airlift operations resembled three pipelines running to Berlin–two flowing in, one either way.  From the Royal Air Force Base at Fassberg, in the British sector, planes flew through the northern corridor, to Gatow the British base in Berlin.  Flying west through the central corridor, British planes, once clear of the Russian zone, turned north to Fassberg .  Americans turned south to Weisbaden and Rhein-Main.


In the south, five squadrons at Weisbaden and eight at Rhein-Main, including the two Navy squadrons used a corridor through the Russian zone that was 20 miles wide and 7,000' high–the former dimension dictated by politics, the latter by operating limitations.  Planes were stacked at 500' intervals and spaced three minutes apart at successive altitudes.  Inbound loaded speed was 170 Knots, while outbound pilots maintained 180 knots.


Weisbaden controlled US operations and each squadron maintained its own operations schedule to meet commitments.  Normally, blocks of twelve planes were released to take off at a designated time.  No order was specified in the blocks, each plane taking its place in line as it warmed up.  As each block approached the corridor mouth, its planes took up their pre-designated altitudes for the 45 minute flight to Berlin.


Loaded planes flying into Berlin were designated “Big Easy”  – the B indicating Rhein-Main- based aircraft.  Those based at Weisbaden were designated “Able Easy.”  In contrast to the four engined R5D’s and C54's the twin-engined C-47's carried the name of “Little Easy.”


Rhein-Main loaded Big Easy aircraft from large flatbed and semi-trailer trucks operated by Army Transportation Corps.  From West Germany and western Europe, food and coal flowed into Frankfurt by rail.  A steady stream of trucks kept supplies moving from the marshalling yards to the endless stream of waiting planes.


             Squadron operations at Rhein-Main telephoned Betts to alert the pilot, who in turn was responsible for notifying his co-pilot and engineer.  Each crew was give an approximate time of departure and told which bus to catch for the ride to the base.  Many felt the bus run between the barracks and the airport was the most dangerous part of the trip.  An hour with the German bus  driver rivaled corridor flights for thrills.


While the crew received a weather briefing, the planes received 10 ton loads of coal, potatoes and flour in100 pound bags.  After a few flights the dust from these cargoes accumulated everywhere, and the recently vacated cockpit seats remained the only clean spots on the plane.  Each planes was given 1,500 gals of gas, predetermined to be adequate for one round trip to Berlin with enough reserve to make Weisbaden, the alternate field for Rhein-Main. 


Surviving the hour bus ride from Betts, the pilots and engineer, received their weather, block assignment and estimated time of release, a bus stood by to run the three man crew to the plane.


After pre-flighting the plane and checking the load, pilots turned up their engines and called in to the tower when ready to roll.  A block was set up so that planes ready to taxi could go any time during a 10 - 12 minute period.  Should a plane fail to report itself ready to go, it was scratched and another plane moved up in the line.  Mud oozed around the wheel hubs as 45 tons of loaded plane taxied over the perforated steel matting.


On the first leg, aircraft entered the corridor over the Russian sector.  Traffic from Weisbaden and Rhein-Main assumed assigned positions to facilitate the three-minute pattern at Tempelhof.


In the corridor, the weather increased the difficulties.  There were no beacons over the Russian Zone, and the R5d’s navigated by radi-compass tracking.  Changing altitude to avoid bad weather was im possible with other planes a bare 500' above or below.  In the Navy planes the radar set useless.  In clear conditions, an occasional Russian fighter would appear.  Yaks and PE-2s sometimes flew formation with the loaded transports.


The traffic controller brought the plane on his radar screen through two right turns for the final approach between the apartments.  During the entire time the controller maintained a steady stream of talk.  No acknowledgement came from the pilot, but in the event he heard nothing for 30 seconds, he executed   missed approach procedure and headed back for Rhein-Main or Weisbaden.


Following the “Follow Me” jeep, Big Easy aircraft taxied to the unloading apron.  The trucks that met the incoming aircraft were configured according to a loading report sent by the pilot on his way into Berlin.  Medium, Bulky or heavy loads were met by an ordinary truck, a flat bed, or a truck and fork lift respectively.  Most often, coal, flour and potatoes were unloaded a bag at a time, as it had been loaded in Frankfurt.


Besides the trucks, three other vehicles met each incoming plane.  An emergency repair crew stopped to check on minor equipment failures.  A weather jeep brought information for the return flight and a lunch wagon sold coffee, donuts and hot dogs.


This is an exceprt of an article written by Daniel W. Christensen (son of Wesley T. Christensen) published in Naval Aviation News Jan-Feb 1996


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