Seventy-three years ago in 1949 on September 30, the Berlin Airlift officially ended with the last airplane flying out of Rhein Main Air Force base in Germany.
Meet and Remember
On September 27-October 1, 2022 Berlin Airlift organizations gathered near Dayton, Ohio Wright Patterson Air Force Base Hope Hotel to remember and celebrate the Berlin Airlift, the first victory of the Cold War.
The four veterans groups honored the 31 Americans, 39 British, and additional German civilians who lost their lives in this effort. They visited the National USAF Museum near Dayton, toured Tim Chopp’s C-54, “Spirit of Freedom” parked at Springfield airport nearby, and met the crew of the C-130 who had participated in evacuating Afghanistan refugees. The C-54 is Tim Chopp’s restored airplane and flying museum that flew over 145 missions into Berlin.
The group also stopped at the Young’s Jersey Dairy farm for a wonderful lunch and gathering, then went on to the Wright Brothers memorial, ending with a special closing banquet.
How Many Berlin Airlift groups are there in the United States? Four Berlin Airlift groups form an “Alliance”:
BAVA—The Berlin Airlift Veterans Association
In 1989 at the 40th anniversary of the Berlin airlift the early veterans gathered at Rhein Main airbase in west Germany. The decision was made to form an organization and with the help of the base commander Tom Hansen, the effort went forward. The following year they met at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and elected officers.
The membership swelled to over 450 veterans from all branches that played a part in saving the city of West Berlin–Army, navy, and Air Force. Several German survivors that lived in the blockaded city also joined. Every fifth year a reunion was held in Berlin, growing close ties with the city of Berlin and also Frankfurt and Wiesbaden, where aircraft were based and flew from during the Airlift in 1948 and 1949.
For the past 32 years, BAVA has met at a different location every year skipping Covid ‘20 and ‘21. Reunions are always held near Air Force bases in cities with easy access and lots of varied activities. Memorial ceremonies are a part of each gathering to honor the American fatalities of the 15-month airlift.
Members have been supportive in sharing the story of the airlift and helping students make displays for patriotic contests. BAVA has contributed to many educational events over the years the largest with Emery-Riddle Aeronautical University, where a scholarship is given annually. Another annual award for “Humanitarian Airlift Mission of the Year” is made to an aircrew and presented by the Air Force Association every year.
In 2011 an eight-foot replica of the Berlin Airlift memorial was dedicated to the National Museum of the United States Air Force on Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. In keeping with our designated mission to commemorate and perpetuate the Berlin Airlift’s memory, BAVA will participate in the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Berlin airlift in 2023 and 2024.
Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation
While he was a charter aircraft pilot, Tim Chopp had a dream of acquiring a Douglas C-54 and making it an educational flying exhibit museum in tribute to the Berlin Airlift. He located one in Toronto and purchased it in 1987 with help from friends and many of the BAVA members. Volunteer mechanics worked on the aircraft at Lakehurst Naval air station, NJ in its first shelter, a dirigible hangar.
It was painted as an Airlift airplane of the 48th Troop Carrier Squadron and the “Spirit of Freedom” started flying into a variety of private and public events plus air shows around the country. In 1992 the IRS granted 501 C3 non-profit recognition and as the museum inside the fuselage grew, so did the reputation of the aircraft, the pilot, and the uniform crew members.
For the 50th anniversary of the airlift in 1998, the “Spirit” visited seven countries on a 70-day European journey and met President Bill Clinton and Chancellor Angela Merkel at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport ceremonies. During this anniversary, on the last flight of the C54 to fly from Wiesbaden airbase to Berlin in the southern corridor, it carried the US Berlin airlift commemorative stamps for the first release of a US stamp in a foreign country.
On April 13, 2020, the “Spirit” was hit by a tornado in South Carolina and flown backward over 330 feet landing with the tail on top of a hanger. The repair cost would exceed $300,000 +3 years of work. A replacement C-54D was located in Florida. This Berlin Airlift veteran aircraft was purchased, restored for flight, and repainted. Diligent work by member volunteers restored this aircraft in less than 14 months. When it launched, many events and air shows (where the majority of our sustaining funds are generated), were closed due to the Covid pandemic.
With a lot of dedication, hard work, and timely contributions, the C-54D “Spirit of Freedom” is slowly returning to its former status. Continued financial support is needed to complete the mission of history, education, and remembrance of the great Berlin Airlift and to honor those who served.
The Royal Air Force Burtonwood Association
The RAF base Burtonwood was opened in 1940 and in 1942 transferred to the US. It was the largest US air base in Europe with 18,000 Americans at the end of the war when it went back to the RAF. In 1948 a large contingent of over 10,000 US airmen re-opened part of it to conduct the 200-hour inspections of Berlin Airlift C-54 aircraft. In the 10 months of inspections over 1500 aircraft were processed and returned to the Airlift.
The RAF Burtonwood Association was formed in 1986 by Aldon Ferguson as a result of feedback from his book “Burtonwood 8th Air Force Base.” The first meeting was in New Orleans, LA in 1987 when it was incorporated.
The association’s quarterly magazine, “Burtonwood Times,” began in May 1987 and continues to this day. The purpose is to uphold the memory of RAF Burtonwood and the men and women who served there, drawn from many eras including the USAAF, USAF, US ARMY, and the RAF. Reunions continue every year in the USA and in the UK on alternate years. Initially, attendance was in excess of 350 with a membership of well over 1,200.
The base closed in 1993. In our pursuit to “keep the memory alive” we have a superb Heritage Centre full of memorabilia; a C-54 fuselage classroom, a dedicated stained-glass window in the local church; commemorative benches; massive archive and regular lectures to local historical and interest groups and internationally via Zoom. Many local streets in the area of Warrington, Scotland bear names associated with the USAF or the USA. Dakota Park was opened in 2012 and Airlift Hill, named after its involvement with the Berlin Airlift opened in 2021.
317th Veterans Group
The 317th Veterans Group originated from a small group of veterans from the Radio/Radar shop of 317th Troop Carrier Wing in Evreux, France in the early 1960’s. They kept in touch and got together occasionally to reminisce. After one of these gatherings the idea for a reunion came about.
This first small reunion was held at the home of a Penna veteran in 1980. Other reunions were held periodically and as more 317th veterans joined the reunions grew in size. In 1996 it was organized as a nonprofit veterans group, elected officers, then continued to grow to over 1500 members of all ranks.
With roots in the Pacific during WWll, the Berlin Airlift and up to the present day, the 317th Airlift Wing at Dyess AFB, TX and the 317th Veterans Group have maintained close ties. They have supported most of the group’s reunions for the last 20 years by sending a C-130 aircraft with the Aircraft Commander briefing on current operations at the banquet.
The French AF at Evreux has hosted six reunions at their base and their leadership has attended many of the group’s stateside reunions. Their base history museum has a large section devoted to the 317th with a granite memorial outside of the headquarters dedicated to all the 317th airmen “who served there from 1954-1967 and gave their lives in defense of freedom for the United States of America and its allies.”
We have contributed to the preservation of the history of the 317th through our work with museums, authors, and Air Force historians. We have dedicated numerous memorials and historical plaques at various sites honoring those who served in the 317th and its squadrons.
These wonderful groups inspire us and help us remember. They celebrate past acts of kindness and hard work. The Berlin Airlift veterans and all those whose lives they touched inspire and challenge the next generations to make meaningful and lasting contributions.
*Information from “Commemorative Program for the Reunion 2022” of the Berlin Airlift Veteran’s Alliance. Edited by Denise H. Williams. Photos by Denise H. Williams