December 2001 Wolf stories.

 

Back in the days of the Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949, I was a German kid looking up at those great big planes you fellows flew, and I wondered how you found your way to Berlin in fog, rain, snow and all that good stuff Germany had to offer up to low level flyers.  Today I know how you did it - on a wing and a prayer.  Mark and Jim Vaughn asked me to be an occasional contributer to the BAVA site.  So what I will do is share with you some of the annecdotes about the Berlin Airlift from my two books:  German Boy, Broadway Books, Oct 2001, and I Always Wanted to Fly, University Press of Mississippi, Sept 2001.  Today I'll focus on the foibles of some of our flyers. 

There was this young lieutenant by the name of Hal Austin.  He flew 54s out of Frankfurt.  "He had met Rosemary, the stepdaughter of an army warrant officer who was stationed near Frankfurt.  Hal thought he could impress the young lady if he took her on a flight to Berlin.  Rosemary agreed to go, thinking it would be fun.  Hal told me I would have to come on short notice" Rosemary said, "and it would be at night.  Hal found a parka for me, with a hood that had a fur lining to hide my face, and a pair of men's overalls.  When he called I put that on.  'Keep your hands in your pockets,' he said to me when he picked me up.  'Your hands will give you away, not being a man.'  Well, to get into the GI truck, a weapons carrier, to take us out to the plane, I swear, the stairs into the truck were this high."  Rosemary held her left hand up to the middle of her waist.  "All the guys were yelling, 'Hurry up.'  Hal whispered to me, 'Look down and go to the end of the truck and sit in a corner.'  No way could I get on that truck on my own.  The guy in front of me finally turned around and held out his hand.  I had to take my hands out of my pockets and take his.  He had this expression on his face, like, what am I holding.  He pulled me up and kept watching me.  He didn't say a word.  But he kept watching me as I sat in the far corner of the truck.  Hal in the meantime acted like I wasn't there."  Rosemary finally got to Berlin, stayed in the bunk with the curtain drawn, and upon her arrival back in Frankfurt bragged to her girl friend about the great flight she had to Berlin.  Well, wouldn't you know it, "Two weeks later he (Hal Austin) took not only Rosemary but also her friend to Berlin.  'On the way back from Berlin the girl friend sat between and behind us, in the flight engineer's position,' Hal recalled.  'It's night, and the weather is rough.  Her eyes are as big as saucers.  I tell her not to worry, but if she should get scared, please, not to scream.  St.Elmo's fire was on the props and the wings, and number four engine suddenly began to cough, and I had to shut it down.  Rosemary's girl friend started to scream like a wounded banshee and wouldn't quit.  She thought we were going to crash.  That was the last time I took any of them along.'  Hal and Rosemary were married on July 2, 1949, in Frankfurt am Main."

But as if that wasn't enough for Hal Austin, he continued to play the game of I don't know any better, I am only a poor lieutenant:  As all of you airlift pilots agree, "The C-54 was a fantastic airplane to fly.  They only fixed the engines, things which we absolutely had to have to fly.  Other malfunctions were ignored.  I had a working autopilot on only one aircraft I flew, but that time I nearly got into big trouble.  It was night, and we were on our second run to Berlin, me and my copilot, Darrel Lamb.  We had taken off at two in the morning.  Both of us were sleepy.  We didn't call in over the Berlin beacon.  When I awoke I saw Darrel was sound asleep.  The bird dog was pointing toward the tail.  There were not many lights on the ground below us - everything was pitch black.  I really got scared.  I awoke Darrel, who was as startled as I was.  He cranked in Berlin radio.  It was weak.  We had no idea how long we had been asleep, but we promptly did a 180.  It took us thirty minutes to get back to Berlin.  We were probably near Stettin, somewhere over the Baltic Sea, when we made our turn."  Austin and Lamb made it back to Berlin without undue notice.  "We sweated blood for a couple of days, expecting the hammer to come down.  Nothing ever happened."  Well, you have to have a little luck in life.  Hal Austin certainly had his fair measure of good luck, as well as a commensurate amount of skill and plain old guts.  In May 1954 Austin flew an RB-47E over the Soviet Union and lived to tell about it.  My hat is off to Hal Austin, one of many great Berlin Airlift pilots.  (I Always Wanted to Fly, pages 32-35)  Colonel Wolf Samuel.