Berlin’s “Candy Bomber” encourages women to get behind the controls

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Lean Into Aviation (3)NEW YORK: For the rare few that might have leftover Halloween candy on hand consider this – one man’s conviction to lift the spirits of children in war-torn Berlin resulted in pilots conducting operations during the Berlin airlift and dropping more than 23 tons of candy across the city.

Now famously known as the “Candy Bomber,” the “Chocolate Flyer” and “Uncle Wiggly Wings” for shaking his wings over Berlin Tempelhof as a signal for kids to look for the candy attached to parachutes fashioned from handkerchiefs, Gail Halvorsen is an aviation legend whose passion for both piloting and the Air Force’s core value of “service before self” still burns bright at 94 years old.

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Aviation legend Gail Halvorsen receives Lifetime Achievement In Excellence Award from Lufthansa

But Halvorsen also has a strong belief that women should have the same opportunities in piloting and the aviation business as men. “It is an exciting field, it doesn’t matter what gender you are…just get a hold of those controls,” he tells Runway Girl Network. “There is no reason why young women can’t get out there and get a pilot’s license and see how you like it.”

Halvorsen also recalls that he studied with a number of women at the University of Florida when he was obtaining a masters in aeronautical engineering in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “Women can do it just as well as anyone. Guys don’t have it cornered on how to do it,” says Halvorsen.

He also stresses that women were ferry pilots during World War II and Ameila Earhart “was my hero”.

After concluding the sometimes harrowing missions during the Berlin airlift, Halvorsen and his wife Alta built family that included five children, 24 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. One of his sons is a captain for Delta Air Lines and he also has a grandson in the aviation business.

But Uncle Wiggly Wings also says he has “several granddaughters who are interested in becoming pilots”.

In an interesting twist of fate, Halvorsen married his high school sweetheart Lorraine Mitchell after Alta passed away, and she tells Runway Girl Network the two recently took a flight where both pilots were women. “It was a very good landing, they [women] know how to do it,” Lorraine says.

Halvorsen’s latest honor is receiving the Lifetime Achievement In Excellence Award from Lufthansa for his compassion that eased the suffering of many Berliners during a time when “not only their country was divided, but their city was divided,” said Lufthansa VP of the Americas Juergen Siebenrock during an event to celebrate Halvorsen in New York. “You were basically helping your former enemy recover and survive.”

The Candy Bomber also broke with Air Force protocol during his initial flights that dropped candy to Berlin’s children. While Halvorsen is not an advocate for rule-breaking he does believe that “at some point the occasion might be so important..I did take a chance…when you saw the look in the kids eyes, just when they got the smell of the wrapper, you knew you had to do something and it was not going to hurt anybody.”

Halvorsen’s commanding General William Tunner saw coverage in the press of the candy drops during the Berlin airlift before his Colonel in charge at the time. As his Colonel called him to discuss the drops, Halvorsen recounts, “I thought I was going to get court martialed.” But the General advised the Colonel, “Don’t chew him out. Let him keep doing it. The General saved my career.”

17 Comments

  1. I am the subject of the article. At 94 I may forget somethings. After the interview I remembered.. A number of years ago the Air Force sent me to Iraq in a C-141 to speak with the Airmen there. The aircraft commander was a woman with a male co-pilot. The loading crew got a little carless with the truck. It was in the middle of the night and raining.. She told the men, “Be more careful with my aircraft gentlemen!” They shaped up!!

    It was a rough trip. She was super!

    Gail S. Halvorsen
    Col. USAF (Ret)
    Berlin Candy Bomber

  2. Doug Ferrata

    The link to this article said it was during WWII. It was actually during the Berlin Airlift from June24, 1948 to May 12, 1949. GREAT STORY !!!

    • Mary Kirby
      Author

      I’m glad you like the story, Doug. WWII is referenced in Gail’s quote about how women played a role as ferry pilots during WWII.

      “He also stresses that women were ferry pilots during World War II and Ameila Earhart “was my hero”.”

  3. Jim Higginson

    As a retired airline pilot I can attest to Gail’s opinion on ladies’ ability to fly well. Some of my best memories of professional help came from my lady copilots. Thanks again for your service, Captain Gail Halvorsen!

  4. Bob Paszczyk

    When I first heard the story of the candy drop tears came from my eyes as they did again reading this story. As I recall the flights into Berlin were called Operation Vittles bringing food into the blockaded section of Berlin. Then when Captain Halvorsen realized the children of East Berlin were just as precious and started dropping the candy in what was known as Operation Little Vittles.
    Congratulations and thank you for a job well done in service to your country and humanity.

    Bob Paszczyk

  5. jim berryman

    I’m a retired professional pilot/instructor, and recently acquired my helicopter ratings through a flight school in Torrance CA, JJHelicopters, with a female instructor/pilot, both private and commercial, and she is one of the best I have flown with.

  6. Rich Largent

    I have had the great honor and privilege to fly with Colonel Halverson on several occasions in the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation’s C-54 “Spirit of Freedom”. It is the only remaining C-54 from that era that actually took part in the Berlin Airlift. Colonel Halverson is the epitome of a gentlemen. A finer man you will not find.

    Rich Largent
    Loadmaster Trainee “Spirit of Freedom”

  7. Gerard Randolph

    That was a uplifting story. It is especially nice to read it as I sit here in my Berlin hotel room on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I learned to fly with a female instructor and she is one great pilot and teacher. You bet the women can do it just as good as the men… maybe even better!

  8. Ken Couñts

    Sometimes it is better bend the rules, let the chips fall where they may than ask for permission.

    Nothing ventured, nothing gain!

  9. Jeff Cardinal

    If you didn’t already know, one of the best aerobatic pilots in the world is Patty Wagstaf. My wife Rhonda is also a pilot.

  10. Ron Streicher

    Col. Halvorsen is one of the great men from WWII that did a wonderful humanitarian deed for these kids. He needs to be honored as many vets are today. Speaking of honored, my friend Mr.Tim Chopp flys his C-54 around the country in honor of Col. Halvorsen, to bring this great tribute to the people today that would like to see the plane and the museum on board. It would be a very good thing if we had a few more sponsors to help with the costs to fly this aircraft and keep this memory alive. God Bless these men and all there crew for this great endeavor.

  11. Donald

    Wonderful story. It brought tears to my eyes. All you want to be woman pilots out there all I can say is go for it. You can be as good or better as any man flying today. I ran my business for 25 years and the best and most productive happy employees I ever had was woman.

  12. Ian Corby

    My father was a flight engineer on DC-3’s.,during the Berlin Airlift,only one pilot,but I do remember him saying about an American pilot dropping candy bars! I retired from British Airways in 1999 as a 747 Capt.,we had quite a number of women Capt’s and F/O’s.The first
    British woman airline Capt I think was Yvonne Pope who flew for Dan Air and of course Barbara Harmer one of only 2 Concorde pilot’s,very sadly she passed away,she would have been 60 this year!
    Bon voyage.
    Happy landings.
    Ian Corby ( BA retd)
    PS: not sure if there still there but there was a C-54 and DC-3 at Berlin Tempelhof and a memorial outside!