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In the Newsroom

September 23, 2008
Flying over New York in a war plane

Lisa Biagiotti reported with Channtal Fleischfresser and Katie Combs from Teterboro, N.J. on the 60th anniversary celebration of the Berlin Airlift.

The tarmac at Teterboro Airport sizzled as the ground crew doused it with water in preparation for the “warbird’s” takeoff. The 63-year-old war plane had flown during World War II and hauled coal, food and medicine to 2 million Berlin citizens during the Soviet blockade of the city in 1948.

With cameras hoisted over our backs, Channtal Fleischfresser, Katie Combs and I climbed the ladder into the C-54 cargo plane. We were told to ignore the smell of burning rubber or the pings in the orange oil drum (anchored in at Katie’s knees.)

We watched 88-year-old retired Colonel Gail Halvorsen glide up the ladder to co-pilot the 30-minute flight. Colonel HalvorsenĀ  — the original “Candy Bomber” — dropped parachutes filled with chocolates, candy and sticks of gum to Berlin children during the 14-month airlift. Children on the ground would look to the sky and wait for a plane to wiggle its wings — the signal for falling treats.

The Colonel recounted a story of a little girl named Mercedes who lived next to the open field where he dropped the candy. She wrote him a letter telling him that the roar of his plane frightened her chickens, but she could forgive him if he dropped the candy closer to her home. They wrote back and forth and finally met in Berlin in 1972. Halvorsen’s family has visited Mercedes, her husband and two sons 35 times, most recently this July.

The smell of burning rubber dissipated, but the air hung still and heavy in the un-air-conditioned cabin. The plane cruised at 150 miles per hour, bobbing up and down New York Harbor. We settled into the blue patent leather seats and tipped our heads back imagining the sacks of flour, bags of coal and Colonel Halvorsen in the cockpit wiggling his wings before landing…in New Jersey.

– Lisa Biagiotti

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