DC-6 Pan Am

Flying in Berlin in the early days was an exercise in weather management that never seemed to come out exactly right, particularly when the summer days flowed into the crispness of autumn and then the dank grey of early winter.

Fog, low ceilings, and ticklish approaches became the norm during the winter months. It was a rare day that at least one of the airports in the system did not have weather at or close to minimums. The captains took great pride in always getting the aircraft to its dispatched destination. There were a few that carried the practice to extremes and bored the airplane into the undercast and through the white cottony fog toward the runway, breaking out just seconds before the wheels touched. They were superb airmen, most of whom had been flying the DC-6 for so long that they wore the old airplane like a comfortable pair of shoes.

Berlin fog

Fog in Berlin was often thick and long-lasting.

As the bleak winter twilight approached, the late afternoon flights always faced the possibility of a diversion. Atmospheric conditions were often just right for the formation of the pea-soup fog that was so prevalent in northern Europe. Brown coal was the fuel of choice in the cities, and as winter approached the pall of thick acrid smoke hung like a blanket over the city. You could smell it in the descent; as soon as the airplane dropped below 3,000 feet the pungent odor assailed the nostrils and made the eyes sting.

When the moisture content was right, and the winds wafted from the east, fog would form, thick and impenetrable, and the Berlin airports would close down for the night. Eastbound airplanes already in the corridor continued into the Control Zone and attempt a “look-see” approach, a maneuver that was permitted even though the weather was reported below minimums. A look-see was just what the name implied: a quirk in the regulations that permitted the flight to make an approach to minimums and “take a look.” If you could see enough to land you did; if not a missed approach was mandatory.

Sometimes you made it, groping through the murk, seeing the approach lights gleaming at the very last possible instant, then the runway flashed by beneath and the edge lights whipped by, barely noticed in your anxiety to actually see the concrete; then the wheels suddenly touched, you knew they would, but it was always a startling, grateful surprise, and by God, you were home.

On other occasions you would begin an approach and know the odds were against you; the previous airplane had probably already missed and the reports weren’t very good, in fact the visibility was getting worse, but you were going to try anyway. The state of the art of weather forecasting and reporting was still pretty much a guessing game, particularly where Berlin fog was concerned.

Your airplane descends into the gloom, the tops of the undercast slinging past the windscreen. Nowhere is the sensation of pure speed more evident than when flying just above the tops of a flat undercast. Now suddenly we are enfolded by the thick grey cocoon. Lower and lower we go; there is absolutely no sign of life beneath. We are immersed in a bottle of gray milk; the only indication that we are fast closing on the earth is the steady unwinding of the altimeter.

The tension in the cockpit rises imperceptibly as we enter the final stages of the approach. The air is silky smooth, benign, deceptively innocent in its blanketing of our world, our sanctuary. The outer marker passed, punctuated by the flashing blue light on the panel and the swing of the ADF needle. The landing gear drops with a satisfying thump and the three greens are almost an afterthought; when have they ever failed to appear?

The captain hand-flies the approach, eyes glued to the Zero Reader, a primitive forerunner of today’s flight director. It is mounted in the center of the glareshield, an awkward angle for either pilot, and the parallax must be solved by eye and experience. It is a strange irony that the only person in the cockpit with a straight-on, unfettered visual on the Zero Reader is the one who is powerless to do anything about it: the flight engineer sitting between the pilots.

Now there is a tingling in the groin, in the very seat of the pants, as the ground creeps up. Closer and closer we come to the decision height; that point in space hanging a few hundred feet above the ground where we must abandon the approach if there is still nothing to be seen. There is no radio altimeter here, no flight director, no Category Two. The baro needle stutters its way down the dial, and the copilot intones the altitudes as we descend, and then finally those definitive words spoken sharply, like a command: “Minimums! No contact!”

DC-6 Pan Am

Landing one of these in Berlin was not easy.

Almost instinctively you raise your feet off the floor of the cockpit—you can almost feel the runway rushing by unseen beneath. Things are happening fast now: the captain calls rapidly for rated power and commands the raising of the landing gear. The airplane almost groans in its response; it is almost human in its reluctance to keep flying. So close to home, and yet so far away! This 60-ton mass must be arrested in its descent and pointed once again for the sky.

Hands fly about the darkened cockpit as the airplane, just a moment ago so close to returning to earth, must now gird itself and fly a while longer. For just a fleeting instant, no longer than a second, the pilots catch a tantalizing glimpse of runway lights glowing dimly through the fog below; they race by almost faster than the eye can see.

Now a new plan must be made. It is useless to dally here in the Zone. Precious fuel is being burned and it is clear that this flight is not going to be landing at Tempelhof. The nearest alternates are on the other side of the Iron Curtain, 180 miles away. While the airplane is being cleaned up and the gear and flaps tucked safely away, the captain is on the radio to the dispatch center. The fuel status and the weather in the west are the primary topics, and then a discussion on where best to put the airplane and passengers for the night.

A decision is made, and while the first officer negotiates a clearance to go back out through the corridor, the captain gets on the PA and gives the passengers the good news. He speaks in cool, measured tones, as though flying a dicey approach into one of the most difficult airports in the world was something that he did every day.

We climb back to a westbound cruising altitude and point the nose westward. We still have another hour before our day is done.

John Marshall
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21 replies
  1. David Ward Sandidge
    David Ward Sandidge says:

    I enjoyed this account of history very much, John. The action was indeed palpable. I remember heading to elementary school in Houston, TX. as a youngster in 1966 on one particularly bright and clear fall morning. Walking towards the north along our residential street, I looked up and spotted a Pan Am 707 in a left bank as it was descending to land at Houston’s Hobby Field. I can close my eyes right now and still see that beautiful white fuselage reflecting the morning sun with the blue stripe and the matching blue globe on the tail. I wonder if that was you up there?

    Reply
  2. Terry Spath
    Terry Spath says:

    Hi John:

    A very gripping account. I could feel my body tensing up as it does when I’m flying to mins in my corporate gig.

    I was interested to read about your Aerojet General job. Years ago I did maintenance on a Twin Bonanza, N245AG. It had nacelles modified to accept JATO bottles. Over the years I checked on it. It flew for a missionary group in the Philippines where I think it was scrapped. I heard that it was used at Aerojet for certification of the JATO system that was used on Swearingen Metro II’s. We’re you involved in that work?

    Reply
    • John Marshall
      John Marshall says:

      Yes, Terry, I was at Aerojet when the had the Twin Beech with the JATO bottles. It was flown by only one pilot; I think I got a ride in it once. We had a coulee of Martin 404s and two Lockheed Lodestars, all equipped with JATO, as an advertising tool. Once a year we had to actually fire them, to they would time out, and that was a real eye-opener. Like being shot from a cannon!

      Reply
      • Terry Spath
        Terry Spath says:

        Very cool! I haven’t thought about that old T-Bone for years so it brings back many memories for me as I’m sure it does for you. I’ve heard interesting stories about AG’s work with JATO. I love the photo of the Ercoupe blasting off with JATO blazing.

        Reply
  3. Capt.JPMooney TWA Retired
    Capt.JPMooney TWA Retired says:

    Your story brings back memories when I was based in Berlin in Dec.1989 flying the B727-100 out of Tegel A/P. Almost every night when we returned the wx was cat2, 100&1/4 in fog and blowing snow but somehow we always made it in on our first shot; tough way to make a living some times!

    Reply
  4. Bill Mims
    Bill Mims says:

    I was also a Pan Am Pilot until the end. I still am one in my heart, though i retired from Delta.

    The Captains I flew with at Pan Am were a colorful and eccentric lot. I learned a great dal from them— which made me a better Captain at Delta.

    Reply
  5. MICHAEL A CROGNALE
    MICHAEL A CROGNALE says:

    My Uncle George Crognale flew the Berlin Airlift. I used to sit with him as he told me the same sort of stories. Thanks for this. It brought back those memories of him.

    Reply
  6. Bill
    Bill says:

    Thank you for writing this great story. When Sparrows Point steel mill was operating at full capacity in the summers, the air over the Chesapeake Bay east of Baltimore would get so hazy that the horizon would blend with the water, forcing pilots to use instruments to fly VFR until a shoreline was again visible. Please share more stories!

    Reply
  7. Hank Kamerman
    Hank Kamerman says:

    Many of the best years of my life were spent flying the 727 out of Tegel airport in Berlin. Unknow to many the Ops Specs (operational specifications) of Pan Am unlike all other carriers allowed their pilots to hand fly an ILS to 100 feet, which was below the approved 200 feet published on the Jeppesen charts. Berlin was unique even in the late eighties when pollution got so high only cars with either even or odd license plate numbers would be allowed on the road. Planes would taxi down the runway hoping to change the temperature enough to raise the visibility to one quarter of a mile so we could depart. Berlin was unique and Pan Am Berlin seemed like a different airline within an airline. The Blue Ball was recognized around the world. PAN AM GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

    Reply
  8. Lee Dalton
    Lee Dalton says:

    Great story and great writing.
    It was almost as if I was sitting behind you in the jumpseat.
    I hope you’ll write some more for all of us.

    Reply
  9. Gary Hagan
    Gary Hagan says:

    John,

    Enjoyed the story. I’m a retired A/C mechanic who worked avionics in the Air Guard C-130 world. Now I “fly” on my simulator at home, while taking care of my dear wife who has Parkinson’s.. It’s the closest that I can come to repeating your trip into Berlin. I”ve studied the routes of the Airlift and can almost duplicate the approach into Templehof. Wish me luck as I hand fly the bars and have the weather cranked down to minimums..
    v

    Reply
  10. Gerald Heuer
    Gerald Heuer says:

    John,

    Beat you to Berlin. In 1954 my father took my mother and I (was 11 then) to West Germany to my aunt and uncle’s place in Kassel to meet his family–most came out of East Germany (Dresden area–travel outside East Germany was permissible then if for good reason). Flew PAA DC-6 from Hamburg to Berlin to visit one of my dad’s cousins–very bumpy ride. My mother said I was a lovely shade of green but made it thru by sleeping on her shoulder. Trip out was a lot smoother. Eventually became a Air Force navigator (20/50 on the vision)–understand the clutches of SAC but good crew training. I was in the “water wagon” tankers. After a sabbatical where I bummed around Europe on $5/day, returned to MAC, Vietnam gunships/OV-10, and EC/NKC-135s chasing space shots then desk jobs in acquisition and arms control. Enjoyed our trip back and forth on a PAA DC-7 and the time up front talking to the crew.

    Thanks again for the memories.

    Reply
  11. joseph f craven
    joseph f craven says:

    What a great description of flying an approach to foggy minimums. I’ve done it many times but I had the luxury of a go around switch and a very capable autopilot. Even then it was a busy, challenging maneuver. Loved reading this story. Thanks!

    Reply
  12. William R Pinney
    William R Pinney says:

    Great story, still can’t believe Pan Am and TWA are gone!
    I was fortunate enough to fly to Tempelhof twice just before it closed, flying the approach down between the apartment buildings, just like in the movie The Big Lift. What a thrill!
    BTW, I’m very proud to be a citizen of and a small part of the Air Force of a country who helped save West Berlin!

    Reply
  13. Chris Glaeser
    Chris Glaeser says:

    John; I wish I could write half as good as you do– it was just like being along for the approach, and I could smell the coal-fog! Great story, many thanks.

    Reply
  14. fXXc
    fXXc says:

    391716 398859 An fascinating discussion is worth comment. I believe which you need to write a lot more on this subject, it may well not be a taboo topic but typically folks are not enough to speak on such topics. Towards the next. Cheers 468465

    Reply

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