While the success of an air force in wartime is based upon air superiority in the respective area of operations, the success of air operations in peacetime may yield a number of outcomes, ranging from nuclear deterrence to humanitarian missions around the globe. In 1948 the USAF was faced with just such a mission. This blog is dedicated to that mission and the man who led it.
The son of Austrian immigrants, William Henry Tunner was born in Roselle, New Jersey in 1906. Tunner entered the United States Military Academy in 1924 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in field artillery in 1928, transferring to the Air Corps later that year. In 1929 he earned his wings, graduating from Advanced Flight School at Kelly Field, Texas. Ironically, it was during Tunner’s first assignment as pilot of a bomber group in California, which sparked his interest in air transport. Between training missions, Tunner was assigned to ferry a Fokker Tri-Motor transport with passengers to Sacramento. As a result of this flight, Tunner began to develop a keen interest in the potential of air transport.
During the 1930′s Tunner served in a variety of assignments, ranging from pilot instructor to command of a recruiting unit. Though many of these duties were of a routine nature, he gained valuable experience as a staff officer – experience which would serve him well in the future. After promotion to Major in 1939, Tunner was assigned to the Military Personnel Division, Chief Of The Air Corps. His duties included assigning officers and crew to the newly formed Ferrying Command. When the Ferrying Command was later consolidated into the Air Transport Command (ATC) during World War II, Tunner was placed in command of the Ferrying Division. In a relatively short time, the division was ferrying upwards of 10,000 aircraft per month from their factories to overseas embarkation points. With a shortage of ferry pilots due to the demands of combat units, Tunner organized the first female auxiliary pilots unit, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron or WAFS. These women were civil service pilots, who ferried aircraft from their factories to various air bases around the country. The WAFS were merged with the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) in 1943, the new organization designated the Women Air Force Service Pilots or WASPS.
In March 1942, the Burma Road, by which the Chinese received a major portion of their war material, was in Japanese hands. The only means of direct supply to China was by airlift from India. This effort involved supplying the Chinese by flying through the Himalayas – a hazardous route at best. Both man and plane were stretched to the limit of endurance. Tunner was assigned to India in 1944 with the dual purposes of increasing airlift tonnage to China, as well as cutting an alarmingly high loss rate of aircraft, due to the narrow (3 mile) corridor in which they had to fly between the mountain passes. After piloting the lead aircraft on an mission to China, Tunner began to introduce the four-engine C-54 Skymaster, which had three times the capacity of the twin-engine C-46 Curtiss Commando and Douglas C-47 Skytrain, resulting in fewer missions. He also established maintenance and flight safety programs, which nearly doubled tonnage flown while decreasing the accident rate by 75 %. Tunner also redirected a number of flights through a wider (200 mile) corridor to increase efficiency.
However, Tunner’s next airlift operation would be on the other side of the globe. After World War II, Germany, as well as Berlin, was divided into four occupation zones between the Soviets and the Western Allies. By 1948 relations became strained between the former wartime allies, with the Western Allies seeking an economic and political reunification of the country while the Soviets, fearing the military implications of a unified Germany, were opposed to such efforts. In reaction to the introduction of a unified currency in both the western zones of Germany and Berlin, the Soviets imposed a blockade of the city in June 1948, attempting to force the western powers out of the city. With all rail, road and canal traffic cut off, the only choice was an airlift. Fortunately, a December 1945 agreement among the allies allowed three 20 mile wide air corridors from which Berlin could be supplied from the western zones of Germany.
Tunner, now a Major General, began to direct the airlift in July 1948 from his newly established headquarters in Wiesbaden. An airlift of such capacity had never been done before, as Berlin’s daily requirements were approximately 4,500 tons per day. Tunner had only about 54 C-54 Skymasters along with a number of older C-47 transports to begin the airlift. In a month, he was able to increase the number of C-54s by a third, along with missions flown by RAF and French transports. Within a few months, Tunner had two-thirds of all USAF C-54s flying the airlift to Berlin along with transport planes of the U.S. Navy, due to the newly formed Military Air Transport Service (MATS), a unified command of military transports from all U.S. air services. He also organized the airlift into a 24 hr. operation, utilizing the north and south corridors for incoming flights to Berlin, with the central corridor designated for return flights. All flights were on a rigid schedule, with flights both landing and taking off at three minute intervals. There were routinely in excess of 24 aircraft in flight per corridor at all times, flying at 500 ft. altitude increments. Tunner was again able to both increase tonnage flown as well as flight safety, supplying 50 % more than Berlin’s daily tonnage requirement in April 1949. A month later the Soviets ended the blockade.
Tunner went on to direct air transport operations in Korea, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Douglas MacArthur in 1951, then taking command of MATS before his retirement in 1960. While Tunner is known for a number of achievements, the Berlin Airlift was perhaps his finest effort. He not only fed a city, but formed a nation.
DEDICATED TO A FUTURE TRANSPORT PILOT
This blog is the second of a series about the heroes of aviation.