June 1, 2008
By Alton K. Marsh
Gail “Hal” Halvorsen, 87, proved during the Berlin Airlift that you can catch more flies with honey (or in his case, refined sugar) than vinegar. Now he drops candy to American kids from a German-built, light-sport Remos G-3 600 to demonstrate how 20 tons of candy were dropped to German kids from American-built Douglas DC-4s in 1948 and 1949. West German kids called him the Candy Bomber, the Chocolate Pilot, or—because he rocked his wings to alert them to a candy drop—Uncle Wiggly Wings.
West Berlin was administered by Britain, France, and the United States, but was surrounded by Soviet-controlled sectors. American and British pilots delivered food, coal, and candy to West Berliners after Josef Stalin closed all land routes. Following World War II, the United States had agreed to the Soviet Union’s request that Germany be kept weak so it could never again pose a threat. When the United States saw the effect of a broken economy on the people, it reversed the Soviet-supported policy, contributing to an economic recovery that could make West Berlin an island of resurgence contrary to Stalin’s wishes; Stalin wanted the United States, Britain, and France out of West Berlin.
“I experienced what I believed to be a decoy beacon going into Berlin on one night flight in bad weather,” Gail Halvorsen said. “It was before we had long-range [70 miles] radar. I was almost into Poland before I got turned around. The weather was so bad that I didn’t worry about the [Soviet] Yak-3s being up. That was only the one case I experienced. I did not hear first-hand of others with the problem that night. I discovered where I was by our Adcock low frequency radio range. When the static cleared up enough, I could pick up the A and the N signals that the Soviets couldn’t replicate. Their beacon was a non- directional one on the same frequency as our radio range. I turned off the bird dog and did a range orientation procedure to get back to Tempelhof.”
Sadly, at the time of this writing, Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport is slated to close. A referendum to keep the airport open failed to yield enough votes—even before the referendum, the Berlin government had secured court approval to go ahead with the closure. Regardless of the referendum’s outcome, Mayor Klaus Wowereit—not unlike Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley on a similar issue—had already expressed his determination to close the airport and turn the airfield into a space for apartment and commercial buildings, a lake, or a park. The mile-long building complex housing the terminal will remain intact because of its historical significance. Berliners had hoped that in case of a vote in favor of Tempelhof, the federal government would intervene. Several investors willing to save the airport offered to create a hospital and spa center in the protected buildings, provided the airport stays open for smaller airlines and general aviation.— Sylvia Horne
Here’s a combination you won’t see too often: Adolf Hitler’s chief test pilot Richard Perlia reminiscing with Gail “Hal” Halvorsen, the pilot dubbed the Candy Bomber of the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. The two met years ago and have been friends since. They met during a trip Halvorsen made to Berlin in February, shortly before Perlia turned 103 years old. Perlia was nearly arrested after flying a helicopter over Hitler’s head during a demonstration, but was deemed too important to jail. He flew nearly all the new aircraft developed by Germany during World War II. The two videotaped an interview for a documentary by Karl Ringena .
The Soviet Union announced all roads were closed for repair, the trains were delayed for “technical” reasons, and the canals were not an option. So C-47s (Douglas DC-3s) and later C-54s (Douglas DC-4s) flew to Tempelhof Air Base in Berlin along previously negotiated corridors every three minutes day and night in good weather and especially in bad.
There was no candy until Halvorsen talked to the youngsters at the airport fence one day. He reached in his pocket and found he had only two sticks of chewing gum, so he tore them in half to make enough pieces for four of the children. The four youngsters closest to the fence shared the wrappings with those behind them, carefully tearing them into strips which other children then licked for the taste. They were so grateful for the food and coal that they didn’t feel they could ask for candy, so not a one of them begged for more gum. Seeing that, Halvorsen promised to drop enough gum the next day for the other children.
“How will we know which airplane it is?” they asked.
“I’ll wiggle the wings,” Halvorsen promised. When he did, a huge pack of children began jumping and waving. With each unauthorized drop the crew grew more certain they would get into trouble.
Then one of the candy bars nearly hit a Berlin reporter who then wrote a story. And mail from kids was already flooding the base. That tipped off the brass at last. Halvorsen was summoned to his commander and lectured on failing to inform his superiors of the operation, but was advised to keep dropping the candy. Soon fellow pilots and the British were doing it, stuffing candy into tubes meant to launch flares or heaving candy out the emergency exits in the cabin.
Halvorsen’s still delivering candy 60 years later with the aid of a leased Remos that he saw at Oshkosh last year. From the minute he closed the door and locked it securely with a quarter-turn of the circular door handle, he knew he was in a well-engineered aircraft, he said.
He cited these additional features that attracted him: There is not only a fuel gauge, but also a sight gauge. The seat can be inserted in one of three slots to adjust for pilot and passenger leg length. The seat itself is comfortable. The wings fold so that the aircraft can easily be stored or moved in a trailer. Pushing the aircraft is a one-person operation. The fit and finish is well engineered, with tight tolerances. Remos representatives and service centers are readily available. He found a repair center near his winter home near Tucson, Arizona, where he ties the airplane down at Ryan Field. That’s also where many of the photos with this story were taken.
Halvorsen also likes the way the Remos flies and the way the cockpit is laid out. He said he was surprised at the high rate of climb, even at higher altitudes, and how it easily trims for hands-off, level flight. And it has one of the best payloads of the six light-sport aircraft he examined.
Test flying the aircraft proved Halvorsen to be correct on all counts. There are other features to appreciate. Unlike many light-sport aircraft, this one has a steerable nosewheel. And although both Halvorsen and I are six-footers, we never bumped arms during our two flights, and the door never interfered with my movement of the stick. I flew once from the left seat and once for photos with this article from the right seat. Stalls were non-events. In a stalled condition, the Remos just sits there doing nothing spectacular until you notice the vertical speed indicator is showing a 700-foot-per-minute descent.
Months prior to the February visit with Halvorsen, Remos National Service Manager Chris Ferguson demonstrated folding both of the Remos wings during a visit to AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland. It required two people and a bit of technique that included starting over at one point, but was accomplished in about 10 minutes.
Remos National Sales Manager Marty FitzPatrick said he plans 105 KTAS for cross-country flights in the Remos, but the airplane often does better. Normal cruise is set at 4,800 rpm to 5,000 rpm. The photo flight served to prove the excellent visibility from the Remos cockpit.
The epoxy resin and fiberglass landing gear can take the pounding expected at flight schools. Ryan Field was experiencing typical desert crosswinds, yet the Remos didn’t seem to mind. I lifted the nose wheel at 40 knots indicated and waited, doing nothing, but drawing praise from Halvorsen for the resulting smooth liftoff. Crosswind landings were equally smooth, although it takes time to get the correct sight picture needed to align the aircraft with the centerline. If you rely on the pointed nose for alignment information you’ll land with the gear cocked slightly to the right or left, as I did.
The best part of owning a Rotax-powered airplane is the low fuel burn. I flew two flights, the first for 40 minutes to do stalls, steep turns, and slow flight, and the second for an hour and 40 minutes for photos, bringing total flight time to 2.4 hours. The fuel burn was 2.95 gallons per hour, or slightly more than seven gallons total. We could have flown nearly four additional hours and still had a 45-minute fuel reserve.
Halvorsen leased the Remos because his passion for flight has never cooled since he worked on a farm thinning beets in Utah—looking up at every passing airplane. He never imagined he would become a player on the world stage and win the hearts of millions in many nations, all because he decided to follow his dreams.
E-mail the author at [email protected].
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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