Berlin Airlift pilot recalls training at Great Falls

  • Published
  • By John Turner
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
It has been almost 68 years since Chuck Childs last set foot on Malmstrom Air Force Base, and very little of what he remembers from the three weeks he was here in 1948 to train for the Berlin Airlift still remains.

Back then, the base was called Great Falls Air Force Base. Concrete and glass hangars built during World War II lined the runway and Airmen lived in tarpaper-insulated wooden barracks; all of those buildings were demolished long ago. Also missing is a constant roar of gleaming silver Douglas C-54 "Skymaster" cargo planes overhead.

Now, on March 3, Childs gazes across the quiet runway and declares the Highwood Mountains on the horizon look familiar. And then his eyes, still sharp at 95 years old, lock onto a faraway landmark he recognizes. "That butte is still there," he says with a smile.

Childs is the president of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association. He flew 196 cargo missions into Templehof airport, Berlin, during eight months starting in October 1948. The association is planning a reunion in Great Falls, Montana, this September because many of the veterans trained at the C-54 transition school here. It was the only training center in the country for replacement pilots heading to Europe for the Berlin Airlift.

When World War II came to an end in 1945, the German city of Berlin was sectored into zones controlled by Russia, the United States, Britain and France, but was surrounded by Russian-controlled East Germany.  On June 18, 1948, Russia blockaded all overland routes to West Berlin in a bid to force its former allies to abandon the city. The Western Allies responded by supplying West Berlin by air.

The city needed a minimum of 4,500 tons of provisions a day including food, coal, medicine and clothing to sustain it. A four-engine C-54 could transport 10 tons, more than three times the capacity of the twin engine C-47 "Skytrains" the fledgling U.S. Air Force began the airlift with. But crews were desperately needed to operate those aircraft.

Childs was already an accomplished pilot, having flown 37 combat missions in B-17s during the war, when he was notified he was needed again in Europe. But first he had to complete the new school here designed to simulate the conditions of Templehof and teach replacement pilots to land aircraft weighing up to 70,000 pounds gross weight onto a short runway. He arrived at the end of September and was one of the first 50 pilots to go through the course.

Great Falls was chosen for the new school because it was a close match for Berlin, from the climate and topography to the length and magnetic headings of the runway. By the end of the airlift a year later, 700 crews had received training here.

"Everything here was as close as possible to landing into Templehof," Childs said. "They picked this area mainly because Great Falls and Berlin are almost exact - weather, terrain, everything, just perfect. And it's the only one we had in the United States."

Much of the training was to prepare crews to clear the five story apartment buildings at the edge of Templehof as their aircraft came in to land.

"They tried to, as much as they could, build fake buildings all around," Childs said. "As we approached on your 5,000 foot runway we had to come over the high structures. Then we'd dive down and hit the runway pretty hard. They did everything to make it as close as possible."

The pilots also had to learn to trust the voices of ground controlled approach operators tracking their glide path on instruments and as they landed. The GCAs advised corrections for altitude and drift.

"They had operators at the end of the runway in a little shack," Childs said. "We did ground approach practice all the time."

It was a skill that served Childs as he approached Berlin in foul weather and no visibility. He never once had to abort a landing and return home with a loaded C-54.

"Those guys sitting down there watching that blip, watching us on it, they had the calmest voices," Childs remembers. "If they got excited, we'd get excited and then we'd have to fly around. I had a lot of confidence in those guys."

When he wasn't training in the air, Childs was studying in the wooden barracks where he was quartered.

"For three weeks we did a lot of flying and ground school," he said. "People would say, 'did you go to Great Falls? What did you see?' I went into Great Falls when my wife came for a weekend from Portland, Oregon. That was it. The rest of the time I was on base here."

At the completion of the training he was immediately sent from Great Falls in a C-54 to Germany. There, his Berlin Airlift adventure truly began.

Russian fighters harassed crews with head-on firing passes. Anti-aircraft gunners sent up bursts of flak to unnerve them. Searchlight operators attempted to blind them. Yet the Western Allies remained steadfast and landed aircraft in Berlin every three minutes, 24 hours a day, every day in all types of weather, delivering supplies and hope even after the blockade was officially lifted on May 12, 1949. The airlift continued through September.

"I'm very proud of the fact that I was a pilot in the Berlin Airlift," Childs said. "It is something I will never forget. It was really something."