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Three years after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union instituted a blockade of West Berlin to prevent the emergence of a strong, autonomous, democratic West Germany. In response, the United States, Great Britain, and France organized an airlift of food, fuel, and other supplies—an ambitious and dangerous mission that would last 15 months. Air Force historian Roger G. Miller’s recent book, To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949, draws on thousands of U.S. Air Force files, recently declassified documents from the National Archives, and interviews with 200 airlift veterans to tell the story of the complex logistical details of the airlift, which has had few, if any, parallels in American military history.

Miller calculated that the tonnage of goods delivered to Berlin dwarfed—by a factor of 10—the tonnage of bombs dropped on the city during World War II. To carry out the risky mission, an unheralded team of statistical gurus calculated every facet of the operation with precision—from the planes’ maximum altitudes and following distances to the most efficient ways to rotate aircraft out for routine maintenance.

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Allied planners attempted to land planes, mostly C-54s, in Berlin every three minutes—hour after hour, day after day. But flying conditions were often treacherous. Berlin’s winter weather was miserable, forcing pilots to land at night—and in fog, snow, or ice—with little more than a voice over the radio to guide them to safety. Miller recalls one pilot who, having completed several harrowing nighttime landings, was shocked to discover on his first daytime approach that the runway where he had been touching down sat right between two seven-story apartment buildings.

“The planes would hit the [makeshift runway] with a thunderous roar,” Miller says. “Then, a ragtag bunch of civilians would run out to start repairing the damage. They worked for two minutes and forty-five seconds and then scattered before the next plane came in.” The allies, he adds, “built two additional runways in the middle of the airlift and built an entire base in about three months. Today, it’s the only operational air base in Berlin.” Despite the risks, the United States, Britain, and West Germany lost roughly 80 airmen, contractors, and civilians—a “very small” number, Miller says, given the scale of the operation.

Miller, 54, is one of about a dozen U.S. Air Force historians stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington. To Save a City began as a pamphlet that Miller wrote in time for the 50th anniversary of the airlift. The White House requested that 300 copies be made available for President Clinton’s visit to Germany to commemorate the event on May 14, 1998.

Today, U.S. Air Force humanitarian missions are multiplying. But the C-54’s successors—the C-141, C-5, and C-17—are much bigger, allowing not only larger hauls but also reductions in the number of pilots and the amount of fuel and maintenance needed to complete their missions, Miller says. Global positioning satellites and improved radar and weather forecasting techniques have also helped, he adds.

“Usually, the missions today are more long-distance,” he explains. “A few years ago, I gave a tour of the Air & Space Museum to crews of C-17s who had flown to Russia to help earthquake victims. It was a picture of the global reach of American air power.” And, one might add, a dramatic illustration of how much U.S.-Russian relations have changed in the half-century since the airlift. —Louis Jacobson