A piece of history: Berlin Airlift C-54 flies historic Malmstrom route

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Chad Thompson
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
I have participated in quite a few unforgettable missions in my career but nothing comes close to the 40-minute flight I was a part of last week.

It started by a chance visit of a historic aircraft, the C-54 Skymaster. The aircraft played a huge role in the Berlin Airlift, which was a mission that saved nearly 2.4 million Germans from the Soviet-controlled East Berlin in the late 1940s.

Berlin Airlift

After World War II, Germany was divided into four zones—the leaders of Great Britain, the United States and Soviet Union all took part in the decision—creating what post-war Germany looked like. As months passed, tensions rose between western Allies and the Soviet Union, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin sought to keep control over Berlin.

According to the Office of the Historian website, http://history.state.gov, the crisis started on June 24, 1948, when Soviet forces blockaded rail, road and water access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. America and Britain responded by airlifting food and coal into Berlin from Allied airbases in western Germany.

The C-54 was used in many of the missions into Berlin and at the height of the campaign, one aircraft landed every 45 seconds delivering vital supplies to Tempelhof Airport.

Spirit of Freedom

This aircraft, named “Spirit of Freedom,” is one of the few flight-worthy C-54s remaining in the world today. It is now a flying museum being flown all over the country by members of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation. The foundation’s mission according to their website, is dedicated to preserving the memory and the legacy of the greatest humanitarian and aviation event in history.

It was absolutely awe-inspiring being able to walk through this museum and delve into the rich history of what missions this aircraft has flown—from being one of the first aircraft used by the president as Air Force One to one of the famous flyers the “Candy Bomber” used to drop chocolate bars over Germany throughout the Berlin Airlift—I was literally standing inside a piece of Air Force history.

Great Falls AFB

Another interesting fact I learned during this visit was Malmstrom, then referred to as Great Falls Air Force Base, also played a critical role in assuring the success of the Berlin Airlift.

Officials selected the base as the only replacement aircrew training site for Berlin Airlift-bound C-54s, activating the 517th Air Transport Wing. Using radio beacons, Great Falls AFB was transformed to resemble Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Germany. Hundreds of pilots and flight engineers, many of whom were recalled to active duty, were qualified on the C-54 aircraft and flight procedures to and from Berlin by practicing ground mock-ups and flying simulated airlift missions.

Historic flight

During the visit I also found out that the Spirit of Freedom crew was going to make a historic pass over Malmstrom and take the exact route used as the training run for the airlift.

The rumble of the engines as this old prop plane started was like stepping back in time. The call sign, Candy Bomber, was heard throughout the fuselage as pilot and founder of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, Timothy Chopp, finished pre-flight checks and prepared to get underway.

As I peered out the window, I saw one of the aircraft crewchiefs salute as we rolled down the tarmac. We lined up and were given clearance to take off. The historic flight began.

I couldn’t help but flashback and get lost in the first few moments, having spent time in Germany prior to getting here I knew much about the history of World War II but until that moment I never really felt like I was a part of it.

Having a background in aircraft maintenance, I know the work that goes into maintaining F-16s and A-10s but I’m sure something as old as this has its own challenges. Seeing an aircraft that I worked on takeoff was a thrilling experience and after a few years of being away from a base with an active flightline you kind of miss that sound and that feeling.

Nevertheless, the flight was flawless and the bird’s-eye view of the base was spectacular. Being a part of this historic flight and having the chance to take a glimpse back in time is something I will remember for the rest of my life.