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Tag Archives: William Tunner

A TUN FOR BERLIN

TUNNER #5

 

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.

 

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY I

September 18 marked a landmark date for both military aviation and the aviation community at large, for it was the sixty-seventh anniversary of the United States Air Force.  While much has changed during those years, the mission of the USAF remains that of preserving peace.  During this blog, we will review the decisive missions of the USAF since its inception in 1947.

The United States Air Force became an independent armed service on September 18, 1947, as a result of the National Security Act Of 1947.  Previously, military aviation functions were divided between the United States Army Air Forces (land based) and the United States Navy (sea based).  While the Army Air Forces operated as a de facto separate military branch during World War ll, they remained organizationally a part of the U.S. Army.  The success of large scale ground support and strategic bombing efforts during the war gained momentum for a separate air force, co-equal to the army and navy.  By the end of the war, a number of military leaders, such as Douglas MacArthur, favored the creation of an independent air force.

Less than a scant year after its creation, the newly formed United States Air Force faced its first major test in the Berlin Airlift.  After World War II, the German capital was divided into four occupation zones, as was the German nation as a whole.  The Soviets believed if they could deny the Western Allies rail, canal and road access to the city, West Berliners would be forced to accept food, fuel and other material aid from the Soviet Zone, forcing the western powers out of the city.  In June 1948, all land access to Berlin from the western zones was blockaded.  While there was no formal agreement establishing land routes to Berlin, there was a written agreement in 1945 which guaranteed three 20 mile wide air corridors providing free access to Berlin.  Supplying the city’s food and fuel needs was a daunting task, with approximately 1,500 tons of food and 3,500 tons of fuel required daily.  However, the USAF and the RAF pooled their resources and were able to dedicate a force of 1,000 planes to the effort.  In command of the airlift was Maj. Gen. William Tunner, who had reorganized the airlift between India and China during World War ll, doubling the tonnage and hours flown.  Although the lift only provided 90 tons a day the first week, it had reached a 1,000 tons the second week.  By January 1949 over 5,000 tons of cargo were delivered each day – exceeding pre-blockade levels.  In May 1949, the Soviets reopened land routes to Berlin from the west.

BERLIN#2

When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Fifth Air Force fighters were first responders to provide ground support to the beleaguered South Korean forces.  These missions were initially flown from bases in Japan, but once the ground situation stabilized a number of bases were established in South Korea for both ground support and offensive air patrols.  The USAF began the war with the piston engine P-51 Mustang of World War ll.  The P-51 was ideally suited for the close air support role in Korea, as it was an agile aircraft and could operate from the short, temporary airfields near the frontlines, unlike the jets of the era.  Speaking of jets, Korea was the first war in which air to air combat was conducted by jets.  The early jets, such as the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and the Republic F-84 Thunderjet were adequate in the ground support role, as well as dogfighting the Yak piston engine fighters flown by the North Koreans.  However, this changed in late 1950 with the introduction of the Soviet built Mig-15.  The Mig-15 was a swept wing jet interceptor (unlike the straight winged F-80 and F-84) and a generation ahead of both planes in design and performance.  In order to address the imbalance, North American F-86 Sabres were sent to Korea.  The F-86 had a 35 degree swept wing and was developed from captured German designs at the end of World War ll.  Although the MIg was slightly faster and had a higher service ceiling, the Sabre was an overall better aircraft, equipped with innovations such as a radar gun sight.  F-86 pilots were also better trained than their Chinese and North Korean counterparts, ending the war with an eight to one kill ratio.  Transport aircraft, such as the twin-boomed Fairchild C-119 Boxcar were used extensively not only to supply ground forces, but also to evacuate civilians from the frontal areas.

F-86#1