Gen. Tunner brought airlift expertise to operation

Tunner was regarded for his standardization and precision.

Air Force Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner was considered the outstanding authority on airlifts in the U.S. Air Force, according to an article on the Air Force’s website, He is regarded as having been one of the architects of Air Force transport agencies including the Ferrying Command, which became the Air Transport Command and then merged with the Naval Air Transport Service to form the Military Air Transport Service, the site said. Besides the Berlin Airlift, he also commanded the World War II “Hump” operation and the Korean Airlift.

Tunner received orders to go to Wiesbaden to take over the airlift operation and immediately initiated a new “straight-in approach” technique that allowed 16 aircraft to be brought in over a period of an hour and a half, instead of nine hours, which it had previously taken, according to the Air Force website.

By the time Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen began dropping candy from tiny homemade parachutes for children in Berlin, Tunner, then a major general, had taken over as airlift commander, according to “The Air Force Can Deliver Anything.”

“Tunner was a stern, no-nonsense perfectionist. He had heard what Halvorsen was doing, and German newspapers had featured the story. Tunner thought it was marvelous publicity, and Halvorsen had permission to go ‘full speed ahead.’

“One striking characteristic of the airlift was the fruitful balance of regimentation from above the initiative from below. ‘Willie the Whip’s’ insistence on standardization, precision, and an even rhythm have become legendary. In emphasizing that aspect of Tunner’s management style, writers and historians have often conveyed a static impression: he arrived, laid down the law, and that particular policy or procedure lasted until the airlift ended. That confuses two different things, standardization at any given time and unvarying techniques for the duration of the operation.

It also overlooks Tunner’s striking openness to suggestions and innovation. He believed in ‘management by walking around,’ getting out and seeing how things were going, what problems his people were having, and how policies and procedures could be improved. The gripe session that produced the idea of using the beacons to adjust aircraft timing is but one example. As the British Air Forces of Occupation after-action report commented, ‘The strong impression left with those closely connected with (the airlift’s) direction was one of continuous experiment and evolution.’ Without constant adjustment, innovation, and improvement, the airlift doubtless would have failed.”

Air Transport Command historian Oliver La Fargo described Tunner as “brilliant,” and his job “complex, incessant, vital,” according to the Air Force website. Before the end of the Berlin Airlift, La Fargo wrote “… he (General Tunner) increased tonnage beyond any quantity ever carried by air before or since, with a steady increase in safety and efficiency, and at the same time achieved the greatest air troop movements in history,” according to the site.

The site goes on to quote a book by Clayton Knight, “Lifeline in the Sky,” which makes clear how organized the airlift was under Tunner. “Spaced three minutes apart, at two hundred miles an hour, the loaded planes left Frankfurt for Berlin, and the pattern of their return was as exact. There were, most of the time, 26 planes in the corridor simultaneously. With such a multitude of ships following on one another’s heels, landing techniques had to be faultless; each point must be passed at a precise height, at an exact time, at a predetermined speed. There could be no variations, no displays of individual temperament. There were casualties, but the deliveries went on.”
Compiled by USAG Wiesbaden Public Affairs with excerpts from “The Air Force Can Deliver Anything” by Daniel F. Harrington and