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Tinker volunteer remembers historic flights over Berlin

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- At almost 85 years old, Charlie Blackwell, former cargo flight engineer, can readily recall what his strangest payload was.

The year was 1948. As the tensions between the Allies and the Soviet Union escalated, the hammer came down on Berlin. In early summer of that year the Berlin Blockade began, as the Soviets tried to seize ownership of the pro-Western city. But June of that year saw the West answer back. The Berlin Airlift was under way as the Allies began the largest humanitarian effort conducted from the air. Mr. Blackwell was along for the ride.

He can still remember that most peculiar of payloads during "Operation Vittles" -- the American name of the airlift. In his more than 130 flights into Berlin over four months in 1948, this one easily stands apart from the pack.

"We were ordered to fly a whole load of Frenchmen from Weisbaden and we stayed there with them the whole day and rode them back just so they could go shopping in Berlin. I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I ever saw," Mr. Blackwell says, getting visibly agitated about the event that was some 62 years in the past.

It's a typical Tuesday morning at Tinker. Mr. Blackwell sits at a desk in the Retiree Activity Office in Bldg. 460 - one of several volunteer posts he frequents during the week. His is a story steeped in 24 years of military service, with an extra helping of diversity. Enlisting in the Navy in 1944, he later worked in the Army Air Corps before transitioning into the Air Force. He has a trio of military branch experience, each with its own stories to tell. And he has many stories to tell.

"General flunky" is how Mr. Blackwell describes his title in the Navy, though dock hand is more fitting. He was discharged after World War II and then later re-entered the service in 1947, this time with the hope of flying.

His early days in the Air Corps aren't ones to write home about, Mr. Blackwell explains. He was an average aircraft maintainer for the C-54 Skymaster. Still, it had its challenges.
"The hardest part was getting drunk," he says with a laugh, recalling the effects of the isopropyl alcohol fumes used in the planes' de-icer systems.

But Mr. Blackwell was born to fly. While he excelled at his maintainer post, he eventually moved into a master sergeant slot and became a flight engineer. It was just in time for Berlin in 1948.

Coal, cigarettes, caterpillar tracks, medical supplies, food, candy. Mr. Blackwell flew all kinds of goods into Berlin during his months of working 12 hours on and 12 off. He flew the one-hour trip from Rhein-Main Air Base day or night, sun or rain. There was never any packing manifest, except when flying in bottles of wine for the French, Mr. Blackwell recalls.

"They would sit there and count every bottle," he says.

Operations on the ground were simple in Berlin. Land, unload the cargo as fast as possible, take off. About 30 minutes total on the ground. Over the 10-month airlift, about 2.3 million tons of goods were flown in to Berlin. To accomplish this, planes were landing around the clock, about three minutes apart.

With rations in short supply, everything had a price in Berlin. Each month, the American GIs received a ration of a carton and a half of cigarettes -- about 18 packs. These, like almost everything else, were in prime demand.

"There was always one man on each unloading crew who'd ask you if you had any extra cigarettes," Mr. Blackwell says. A month's ration of cigarettes would sell for about $10 in 1948. Today that's close to $90.

While Mr. Blackwell finished out his Air Force career in cargo planes, the Airlift proved the most momentous of his tenure and rightfully so. He describes his military career as modest, never garnering awards or accolades. He never took incoming fire in all his thousands of flights.

"I loved it. I enjoyed every bit of my career," he says. "The only thing I miss right now is flying. I love to fly."