By Chris Umscheid
IOWA CITY– Things were tough in West Berlin in the summer of 1948. The Soviets blocked all roads and railroads leading to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin. To provide food and other necessities of life to the stranded people, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) began an aerial supply operation, which became known as the Berlin Airlift. For 462 days, planes flew to Tempelhof Airport in Berlin loaded with food, clothing, even coal. Local children flocked to the fence surrounding the airport to watch the planes land and take off again.
One pilot, Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, walked out to the fence one day while his plane was being unloaded and met some of the children, who asked him for candy. He only had a few pieces of gum on him, which he gave with the promise he would drop them some from his plane on his next trip. He told them they would know it was him because he would “wiggle” his wings.
On his next flight, the pilot wiggled his wings as he approached the runway, and had the flight engineer push three bundles of candy out of the plane. The bundles were attached to homemade parachutes crafted out of handkerchiefs. Halvorsen had no way of knowing if the bundles reached their target or drifted off to parts unknown, until he took off and saw the children waving three handkerchiefs. Lt. Halvorsen continued to drop candy and became known as “Uncle Wiggly Wings” to the children.
Among the growing crowds of children was a young girl named Gerda. Eventually she moved to the United States and had a son named Marc.
Marc Niehus, a resident of Coralville, grew up to become a professional pilot and a member of the Iowa City Aerohawks, a radio-controlled (RC) model airplane club. Each year the club puts on an airshow for the public, with a candy drop for the children in attendance. However, strong winds scrubbed that flight during their show on Sunday, Sept. 8. The club was also going to pay tribute to the original candy drop, flown by Lt. Halvorsen so many years ago.
Niehus spent a year or so building a 1/6th-scale RC replica of a USAF Military Air Transport Service (MATS) C-47 cargo plane, one of several types of aircraft utilized in the famous airlift. He gave it a custom paint job honoring Halvorsen with teal, red and black striping to coincide with the ribbon airmen were awarded for the humanitarian mission. A special tail decal commemorates the Berlin Airlift with German and American flags, and the name “Rosinenbomber” is spelled-out along the fuselage. Translated, it means “Raisin Bomber,” or “sweets (candy) bomber.”
With the wind creating a dangerous crosswind-landing situation for the fragile aircraft, Niehus wasn’t able to fly the beast, which features a fully detailed cockpit with pilot and co-pilot and pallets stacked in the cargo area. Instead, the plane was wheeled to the center of the main runway and Gerda was brought out from the crowd to stand with Marc and the plane, while Richard VeDepo read the story of the candy bomber. As a round of applause echoed across the wind-swept field, mother and son embraced.
The Aerohawks, not wanting their younger guests denied a sweet treat, hand-tossed the candy that would’ve been dropped by RC plane around the south end of the field before turning the youngsters loose to scoop up the goodies.
The bottom line; pilots have a sweet spot for kids.