Berlin Airlift 70th Anniversary Celebrations in Schleswig-Jagel

The blockade imposed by Stalin on the jointly administrated city of Berlin in the spring of 1948 dissipated any doubts on the post-WWII attitude of the Soviet Union towards their former allies in the west. The ensuing joint effort to support the trapped population of Berlin resulted in one of the major airlift operations in history – the Berlin Airlift, or Luftbrücke in German language. In June 2019, 70 years after the end of the blockade, Germany hosted a great celebration for the anniversary of this vital operation.

History – in Brief

The blockade started slowly, with trains crossing the Soviet occupied territory – soon to become administrated as a new state, the communist German Democratic Republic – between Berlin and western Germany forced to stop and go back, truck routes closed, increased controls at border checkpoints. In early summer, the city was completely isolated from the west.

The Soviets tried to motivate the move with treaty violations by the western forces, but this did not receive much credit by the administration of President Truman in the US, nor in Britain, France, or the occupied territories of western Germany. To mitigate the lack of coal, food, drugs and other goods of primary use for the local population, the joint forces of the United States, Britain, France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand set up a massive airlift under the coordination of the US military.

Over roughly a year more than 275’000 flights were carried out, mainly between three airfields in the territory of western Germany – Jagel, Fassberg and Wiesbaden – occupied by the western Allies, to Berlin Tempelhof downtown airport (see this post), as well as other land and water bases in the cut-off urban area. These were operated with a variety of transport aircraft, including Douglas C-47 and C-54 twin and four-propeller cargo planes manufactured in the US, as well as several British models, including some Shorts seaplanes.

Stalin opted to avoid an escalation. The blockade was finally lifted by the Soviets on May 12, 1949. The situation was stabilized with the birth of the Federal Republic of Germany in the west, and of the opposing German Democratic Republic in the east, later the same year. The western sectors of Berlin were to remain an enclave of the free world deep in the communist bloc for slightly more than another 40 years, when the GDR – aka DDR in German language – finally ceased to exist, and the re-unification started.

A great museum tracing the history of the presence of the western Allies in Berlin, telling the history of the Airlift in great detail, is the Allied Museum (website here) in the former US sector of Berlin-Zehlendorf.

70th Anniversary Celebrations in Germany

In 2019 the 70th year since the end of the blockade, lifted as a result of the airlift effectively sustaining the population of Berlin for an entire year, was celebrated with the patronage of the German government with a series of unique aircraft-related events. The most prominent were a few formation flights of an incredible group of historical aircraft, between the airfields formerly used as supply bases for the airlift.

One of these, the still-active military airfield of Jagel, in Schleswig-Holstein some 60 miles north of Hamburg, hosted a ‘spotter day’ on June 13th, 2019, when a few hundreds photographers were admitted for the whole day on the premises of the airbase, to assist to the landing, departure and flypast of a fleet of nine Douglas C-47, a major workhorse in the days of the airlift.

This marked possibly the largest grouping of such historic aircraft in Europe since many years. But what made the event even more unique – besides the weather, incredibly mild for the region… – was the origin of the aircraft, which except for one are all based in the US. They crossed the Atlantic once more to parade in the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day in Normandy, attended also by President Trump and Charles, Prince of Wales. A few days after, they toured Germany for the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

Besides the commemoration flight, normal flying activity was carried out during the spotter day around the airbase, so this was a good chance to assist to flight operations by Tornados and Typhoons of the German Air Force, as well as other military aircraft.

Historical Flight – Fly-in

A single C-47 arrived earlier than all others, anticipating the massive fly-in of the full wing of Douglas C-47 twin-prop liners. Later on, a flypast all Skytrains to take part in the event started from the east of the field. The aircraft then landed one by one, taxied ahead of the photographers and after a stop of a few hours, took off in a row for another location in Germany.

US Air Force C-47A/DC-3C ‘Miss Virginia’

The first aircraft to come was ex-USAAF 43-30655, built in 1943 as a military C-47A. The aircraft fell in private hands in the 1970s, after yeast stored in Arizona, when it was converted into an DC-3C, an energized version of the original 1930s design. It spent the 1980s in Colombia, then returned to the US as a utility aircraft. It was finally acquired for restoration and given the nice US Air Mobility Command colors it bears today. It flies with the civilian registration N47E.

Golden Age Tours C-41A

This incredible aircraft, now in civilian hands since long, is a unique example of an executive version of the original 1935 DC-3. Built in 1938, it entered military service soon after as a private flight for Maj. General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold – an instrumental figure in the reorganization of the US military forces upon the early 1940s. It went on keeping its original executive configuration, and today it is lent out for special flights and for filming purposes from its base near San Francisco, CA. It bears the civilian registration N341A.

USAAF C-47A 43-30647 ‘Virginia Ann’

This aircraft was in service with the USAAF since 1943. It took part to the D-Day operations with the name ‘Virginia Ann’, but was put on storage soon after WWII. It later went to private owners and was based in many domestic locations, including being part of the famous Planes of Fame collection in Chino, CA (see this post). Today it is still based on the West Coast, with the registration N62CC.

Chalair C-47B

This C-47B was built among the latest in May 1945. It was surplus for the USAAF soon after WWII, so it joined the Royal Air Force inventory, and from there it left for Canada, where it enjoyed many years of service as a VIP transport in the Royal Canadian Air Force until the 1970s. It reportedly served as a Royal Flight for the Queen of England during a visit to Canada. After withdrawal from active service and changing hands several times in Canada, it was finally acquired in France and totally restored in the late 2000s. It flies with the registration F-AZOX.

Johnson Flying Service, Inc. C-47 ‘Miss Montana’

This incredible aircraft was built soon after the WWII, and as many other surplus C-47, it moved to the civilian market. This aircraft was used in firefighting operations over the Northern Rockies, and was even involved in a tragic accident, crashing in the water causing fatalities. It was drawn back to a second life through the effort of the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula, Montana, where it is based now, with the registration N24320.

Legend Airways C-47D/DC-3C ‘Liberty’

A true combat veteran of WWII, this aircraft was pressed into service with the USAAF in mid-1943, and took part in operations in Algeria and the Mediterranean, as well as the D-Day in Normandy, where it sustained direct hits from German anti-aircraft guns. Soon after the turbulent war years, after returning to the US it fell into private hands in the south as a corporate transport. It kept the role, undergoing several upgrades, until it was finally acquired for a lavish restoration and cabin refurbishment, which gave it its current appearance. It is based in Colorado, where it is being operated for pleasure flights and filming, with the registration N25641.

Pan American Airways System C-47B/DC-3

This aircraft had an adventurous history between its entry into service in 1944 and the early 1950s. It was originally allocated to the Chinese National Aviation Corporation, which in the war years carried out covert flights over a route known as the ‘hump’. These allowed resupply of Chinese forces from the British Empire in India, through resupply flights over the high peaks of western Tibet. This aircraft flew on that very dangerous route, until the breakdown of the Japanese forces and the end of WWII. As the Chinese National Aviation Corporation reverted back to normal operations, this aircraft was turned into a commuter between Hong-Kong and Canton. In the meanwhile, Mao Tse-Tung communist revolution subjugated China overturning the government. The new dictatorship tried to grab as many aircraft as possible, which in the meanwhile tried to escape from the country, assisted by western powers. This very aircraft, after some years on ground in China, was finally allowed to leave for the US, where it arrived in 1953. Since then it was refurbished as a corporate aircraft, and enjoyed a long career, being finally restored with a VIP internal layout and carefully reconstructed 1953 on-board systems. It is registered as N877MG.

USAAF C-47DL 43-15087

The aircraft you see flying is indeed a WWII veteran, but not with the colors you see today. The number 43-15087 on the tail refers to a C-47 which actually took part to the operations over Normandy on June 6th, 1944. But the airframe you actually see entered service with the USAAF as a personnel transport in North Africa and the Middle East in 1943. It then went to the Armee de l’Air in France, then to civilian operators in France and back in the US after the 1960s. There it was later restored and changed livery several times for special occasions, like the 75th anniversary of the D-Day – the ‘9X-P’ designation you see now. It is based in Texas, with the US registration N150D.

USAAF C-47 42-26044 ‘Placid Lassie’

Pressed into service in the summer of 1943, this aircraft is a true combat veteran, having flown on June 6th, 1944 over Normandy, and in September 1944 for several times over Flanders during the ill-fated operation ‘Market Garden’. It then went on as a civilian transport in the continental US. After years spent in disrepair, it was drawn back to life in the 2000s, and is now flown by a foundation dedicated to the crew of ‘1D-N’ during WWII.

German Air Force Aircraft

As the historical flight performed basically a fly-in and fly-out, in the few hours between them the aircraft of the German Air Force – the Luftwaffe – and of the Navy – the Marine – based at Jagel flew for the public. There were also German aircraft taken there in preparation for the day of the Armed Forces – Tag des Bundeswehr – to be celebrated the following week-end with an open day of the base.

Jagel is the home base for the Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 51 ‘Immelmann’, which currently operates the Panavia Tornado. These massive swing-wing aircraft flew in several time slots during the spotter day.

Small formations demonstrated refueling abilities.

Some passages were performed at high speed, with maximum sweep.

One of the aircraft has been painted in a flamboyant celebration livery, with the portrait of Max Immelman, a German WWI ace, on the vertical tail.

Another impressive performance was given by a Eurofighter Typhoon, a massive delta-winged twin-jet with a tail-less, all-moving canard configuration. This compares well in size with the Super Hornet – a pretty massive attack aircraft.

This very aircraft is from the Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31 ‘Boelcke’, based in Nörvenich.

At some point in the day, there was a flypast of a single Lockheed P-3 Orion, on strength to the German Navy – Marine. On its double passage it was possible to see the large racks for sonobuoys under the belly of this four-propeller aircraft.

There were also exhibitions by some rotorcrafts, including a huge Sikorsky CH-53G, an Airbus H145 and a larger NH-90, the most modern of the three. The very dark camo livery made them pretty difficult to photograph, despite a rather wide zoom lens I was using for the task.

Finally, a pretty rare aircraft, albeit possibly not so eye-catching, a single Dornier Do-28 military light transport landed in the evening.

Visiting Aircraft from Other Countries

Other aircraft landed and departed from the base, some possibly in preparation for the Tag des Bundeswehr to be held a couple of days later. These aircraft were not from Germany.

First, two more Tornadoes of the Italian Air Force landed at some point, and posed for photographers. They belong to the 6° Stormo ‘Diavoli Rossi’, based at Ghedi. A small devil’s face is painted on the vertical tail of these aircraft.

A SAAB JAS-39 Gripen of the Hungarian Air Force, in a twin-seat configuration, landed soon after.

A single Aero L-159 Alca of the Czech Air Force appeared at some point.

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian Air Force landed and later departed. An iconic Soviet-made transport, this sturdy workhorse is still flying in many Countries, both for the Armed Forces and for civilian operators as well.

A single Pilatus PC-9 of the private company Qinetiq made an appearance.

Finally, two pretty rare Douglas A4 belonging to the Canadian private training company Jet Aces landed and taxied for the photographers, one of them in a rather eye-catching NATO anniversary commemoration livery.

Final Note

The Marine base of Schleswig-Jagel where this event took place was originally a Luftwaffe airfield, operated by the British military during the Berlin Airlift and until the early Sixties, and later handed over to the Federal Republic of Germany. It is still today an active airbase. There is no public access except on special occasions.

The Aerospace Valley

Among the most intriguing places for aviation enthusiasts, the ‘Aerospace Valley’ is the name attributed to the flat desert area extending North of the town of Palmdale, which can be reached with an about 70 miles drive north of central LA along N.14.

This large desert basin, which extends further north to Mojave, some 35 miles from Palmdale on N.14, encompasses two installations of major relevance for the history of aeronautics and for todays air power research, namely Edwards AFB and the close-related Plant 42.

The former has been developed for decades basically with aircraft testing in mind, and is located on the dry Rogers Lake. Today it is still an active AFB, home of the 412th Test Wing and other units. It is also operating a NASA research center named after the first ever moon-walker Niels Armstrong. The installation has more than ten runways, some of them paved in sand. Visiting is obviously prohibited – there used to be planned visits, but this appears to be not any more the case today. This site is really huge, and would offer many interesting sights to the enthusiast, including some relics from the past abandoned in the desert far from the main buildings of the base – some buildings and runway have moved over time for convenience and trying to cope with the natural movements of the desert sand, altering the slope and shape of the dry lake basin.

Obviously, the base is constantly guarded, so you may come close to it but you cannot really get close to what is in it without an authorization. In any case, I found exciting just being around where the sound barrier was passed by Chuck Yeager in 1947, and if you like deserts of the westernmost part of the country, touring this area would be interesting just for the natural setting – and even more if you are an aeronautic-minded person.

Plant 42 is actually not a totally separated entity from Edwards AFB. It is a unique installation, where some of the most iconic aircraft factories in the history of US military airpower – Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’ division and Northrop-Grumman – have some of their production and assembly hangars. These are all around the same airport, which is not an airbase – in the sense it’s not home to any units of the USAF – but is nonetheless owned by the Government and leased to the companies operating on it. Today Plant 42 is configured to supply and support test aircraft operated at Edwards AFB.

There is also the NASA Dryden research center installed on the premises of this airport, which is physically located on Plant 42 but is nonetheless administrated by Edwards AFB.

Even though Lockheed moved its Skunk Works division here only after the assembly of all exemplars of the SR-71 well in the Eighties, it was here that during the last decade of the Cold War the Blackbird fleet underwent maintenance. Also the reactivation of the U-2 production line with the TR-1 in the years of the Reagan administration implied production of new aircraft was carried out here.

Other most notable items produced here include the Space Shuttle orbiters – the hangar for their assembly is still standing and can be clearly spotted. Northrop produced here the world-famous F-5, before merging with Grumman. Today Northrop-Grumman, Lockheed and Boeing have active support lines here.

As you see, the area has been a focal point for aeronautics since long, fully justifying the name of ‘Aerospace Valley’.

But it’s not over. There are more sights of the kind around. Mojave has been for long a place for storing aircraft of all sorts and size – a properly sized airport, capable of operating a Boeing 747, obviously being a promptly answered necessity for companies in that business – taking advantage of the dry climate of the Californian desert. Literally tens of large liners of all sorts can be found parked waiting for reactivation, resale or scrap on the apron of Mojave airport. In more recent years, the place has grown to higher fame for being used as a base for space tourism operations. Consequently, the airport has been proudly renamed ‘Mojave Space Port’.

The following photographs from these and other sites in the Aerospace Valley have been taken during a visit in summer 2014.

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Aerospace Valley – View and Hangars

There is a panorama point with a placard approaching Palmdale from N.14. From there you can see Palmdale and reach beyond to Plant 42.

Among the hangars scattered around the area of the airport in Plant 42, it is possible to see the Boeing facilities, with new Boeing liners around. One of Boeing’s hangars has an asymmetric roof. This is where all Space Shuttles were built, the higher part of the roof made to fit the tall tail of the orbiter. The name ‘Northrop-Grumman’ can be seen standing above the airside door of probably the largest hangar of all. Both Boeing and Northrop-Grumman occupy the northern part of the airport.

The emblem of the ‘Skunk Works’ can be spotted on the Lockheed-Martin hangar to the south-west of the complex. Further East the NASA Dryden facilities occupy the south-eastern part of Plant 42.

Skunk Works

In front of the gate of Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’ on Plant 42, at the end of 15th St. E in Palmdale, it’s possible to reach a small park with an F-16A and an F-104N, both Lockheed designs. These exemplars were used for testing by NASA Dryden research center, and are actually on loan from NASA Dryden. The F-16A is the only civil registered aircraft of the type, where the F-104N, one out of three specifically designed for NASA for pilot’s proficiency and for use as chase aircraft, logged more than 4000 hours flying for NASA.

Note: I involuntarily triggered a security inspection having ventured by car on the road running along the Lockheed hangar nearby the gate – the road is called Lockheed way. This is probably because the road is private property of Lockheed – even though it runs along the outer side of the fence. I was spotted and reached by pickups of Lockheed security – nothing bad, but better avoiding this if you can. The hangar with the Skunk Works emblem can be photographed from a little further, near the railway track to the west of the airport.

NASA Dryden

Two sights attracted my attention on the apron of Plant 42. Both could be clearly spotted from 40th St. E in Palmdale, running along the eastern side of the plant. Placidly parked on the apron where NASA Douglas DC-8 – as far as I know the only one still operated by NASA, which is using it for satellite testing, new sensor testing, space vehicle telemetry and atmospheric studies – and the massive Space Shuttle Carrier N911NA. Today the latter is on permanent display in Palmdale, the photos were taken before it was prepared for display. This is one of only two Boeing 747 converted for transporting the orbiter, the other (N905NA) being in Houston.

The DC-8 is being operated by NASA Armstrong research center, from the ‘neighbor’ airbase of Edwards, but I found it at NASA Dryden.

Note: photographs of what is on the apron of Plant 42 from the distance are virtually impossible during the day due to excessive thermal turbulence close to the ground. Consider going near sunset for avoiding such annoying effect.

Blackbird Airpark

This spectacular exhibition can be easily reached driving on E Ave. P, to the South of Plant 42, Palmdale (website here). It can be clearly spotted from the road. The most peculiar display is to the front of the small museum building, and is composed of three Lockheed ‘black’ aircraft, namely an A-12, an SR-71 and a U-2. Also there are a D-21, a ramjet propelled drone mounted on a modified A-12, the engines of both the A-12 and SR-71 and of the U-2, and two different spooling mechanisms for starting up the engines of the A-12 and SR-71.