Tribute to the Berlin Candy Bomber
Candy Bomber Tribute
On February 16, 2022 we lost a great American when Gail Seymour Halvorsen passed away at the age of 101. Gail became world famous as the "Candy Bomber" when, as a young Air Force pilot, he dropped candy to the children of West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. His simple act of kindness blossomed into a worldwide movement that gave the children and citizens of Berlin hope during the Russian blockade of that city, when hope was in very short supply. This article tells the story of Gail’s involvement with the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation (BAHF) and the May 2022 events held in his home state of Utah to celebrate his life.
-- The "Halvorsen Airlift 2022" is Born --
The Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation (BAHF) has performed annual December flyovers of the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina to commemorate man’s first powered flight. In conjunction with this event, the foundation's C-54 Spirit of Freedom was flown to nearby Dare County Airport for a multi-day event where it was opened up to visitors and a candy drop reenactment held. The sight of candy bar laden parachutes being released from the C-54 was a highlight of the event and thrilled both the children and adults in attendance.
Gail was a loyal BAHF member for 27 years and obviously its most famous member. In addition to the annual North Carolina candy drops reenactments and countless airshow events, he had traveled to Europe with the group during their 69-day tour in 1998 commemorating the airlift’s 50th anniversary. Having participated in 20+ candy drop reenactments, Gail was disappointed when the 2020 event was canceled due to COVID and was looking forward to the December 2021 event when he would be 101 years old. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend that event due to his declining health.
After the 2021 reenactment, BAHF President Tim Chopp and supporter Russ Matthews were discussing their mutual disappointed that Gail had been unable to attend the event. It would have been an opportunity for BAHF to introduce their "new" C-54D Spirit of Freedom to its most famous member and have Gail dedicate the aircraft. After mulling it over, Russ called Tim back with an audacious idea…"If Colonel Halvorsen can’t come to the plane, then the plane will have to go to him!" The proposed 3,400 mile round trip to Spanish Fork, Utah posed a number of serious challenges that needed to be addressed. Not the least was raising the estimated $60,000 required for fuel, oil and other trip related expenses. After hearing the numbers and considering the importance of the trip, Russ generously offered to cover half the costs thus jump starting the project, which was named the "Halvorsen Airlift 2022". Another challenge was the question of whether the "new" C-54D Spirit of Freedom was up to the challenge of making the long cross country trip. The aircraft replaced the group’s original C-54E, which was severely damaged by a tornado in April 2020 in Walterboro, South Carolina.
The restoration of the "new" C-54D was completed in April 2021 after many years of inactivity following its retirement as a firebomber in 2004. Its recent history included being parked at New Smyrna Beach Airport for six years prior to being acquired by BAHF in August 2020. While the aircraft underwent BAHFs "heavy" inspection prior to its first post restoration flight on April 24, 2021, it had only flown a limited number of hours and the normal teething problems associated with "reawakening" a complex vintage aircraft were being encountered and addressed. After carefully evaluating the situation and understanding the importance of the undertaking, Tim and the BAHF board decided to go ahead with the mission. It was an incredibly gutsy decision and ultimately the group’s faith in their new airplane was justified.
-- A Celebration of Life is Planned --
As fate would have it, Gail passed away suddenly on February 16, 2022 but, rather than abandoning the mission, the "Halvorsen Airlift 2022" was folded into a much larger event celebrating the life of this great American. A "Remember the Candy Bomber" celebration was planned for Provo Airport on May 20th and a candy drop reenactment the next day at nearby Spanish Fork Airport. The Air Force was full in on the event, including the promise of a Charleston AFB based C-17. The Civil Air Patrol would be involved sending cadets and officers from around the state to help with event, including crowd control. Last, but not least, the City of Provo would provide their brand new, but unopened, passenger terminal for Friday’s events.
-- The Flight West --
I became involved in the project in mid January 2022 when BAHF President Tim Chopp called and asked if I would be interested in writing an article about the flight west and the Utah events. This obviously would involve making a trip of a lifetime on Spirit of Freedom and the opportunity to document this fitting tribute to a great man. I immediately accepted!
Spirit of Freedom was scheduled to appear the Good Neighbor Day Air Show at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Atlanta on Saturday May 14, 2022. It departed Walterboro, South Carolina for Atlanta on Thursday May 12th for what would be a two-week plus round-trip journey across the United States ending in Reading, Pennsylvania for the annual Mid Atlantic Air Museum WWII event. Stops were planned in Jonesboro, Arkansas; Wichita, Kansas; Guymon, Oklahoma; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Moab, Utah; Spanish Fork, Utah; Provo, Utah; and Dayton, Ohio before finally arriving in Reading on May 29th.
-- Sunday May 15, 2022 – Atlanta, Georgia/Jonesboro, Arkansas --
I caught a flight to Atlanta on Saturday afternoon and met up with the crew on Sunday morning at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. There would be seven of us on the trip including Tim Chopp; first officer Scott Hinton; flight mechanic Matt Chopp; Berlin Airlift Veterans Association (BAVA) representative Eddie Ide; Russ Matthews; Idee Montijo and myself. Engines were fired up at noon and we departed for Jonesboro, Arkansas a few minutes before 12:30pm. After a 2 hour 5 minute flight at 5,500 feet, we landed in Jonesboro at 1:35pm central time. Tim said that the airplane performed very well but there was a bit of oil leakage around the #3 engine, which would later be corrected by simply tightening of a connector. A reporter from the local TV station showed up to interview Tim with the interview being broadcast later that evening and the next morning.
The plan was to continue on to Wichita, Kansas that afternoon but an imposing line of thunderstorms blocked our route and Tim decided that we would spend the night in Jonesboro and get an early start for Wichita the next morning.
-- Monday 5/16/2022 – Wichita, Kansas --
Engine start the next morning was at 8:30am and we departed Jonesboro 15 minutes later for the two hour flight to Stearman Field Airport in Wichita. The airport is a residential airpark and we were greeted by a large and enthusiast crowd including airpark residents, veterans from American Legion Post #4 and a group from McConnell AFB. After opening the aircraft for tours, we had lunch at the airport restaurant followed by a visit to a veterans memorial park where a memorial honoring Berlin Airlift veterans had been built. Colonel Phil Heseltine, Commander of the 931st Air Refueling Wing at McConnell AFB, was at the airport for our arrival and invited us to tour a KC-46A at the base after our stop at the memorial park. Colonel Heseltine had lined up two officers from the base Public Affairs Office and a number of KC-46A crew members for our tour. It was a great tour with our hosts patiently answered the many questions we had about this amazing aircraft.
-- Tuesday 5/17/2022 – Guyman, Oklahoma/Albuquerque, New Mexico --
It was another early morning wakeup for Tuesday’s flight to Guyman, Oklahoma and then hopefully on to Albuquerque, New Mexico. A line of thunderstorms had passed through Wichita overnight but by our 9:40am departure they had passed to the east and it was clear sailing to Guyman where we arrived at 11:20am. We were again met by a small contingent of enthusiast fans including a seven year old WWII buff whose father had taken him out of school to see the airplane. After adding fuel and having lunch, we departed at 2:05pm for the two hour flight to Double Eagle II Airport in Albuquerque.
There was a large wildfire south of our route and for about 30 minutes flight conditions were near IMC. Double Eagle II Airport sees a lot of civilian and military helicopter operations and, to our delight, a contingent of MD-6 "Little Bird" special ops helicopters arrived shortly after us. They had just completed a two day cross country training flight from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Traveling that distance in a small helicopter at low altitude and 80 knots had to be an interesting, but tiring experience.
-- Wednesday May 18, 2022 – Moab, Utah/Spanish Fork, Utah --
After doing some minor maintenance, including tightening a loose fitting on the #2 exhaust and adding nitrogen to the right main strut, we departed Double Eagle II at 9:30am heading north to Canyonlands Airport in Moab, Utah. It was by far the bumpiest and most scenic leg of the trip. There’s a reason they call this area Canyonlands!
It was a one hour forty minute flight to Canyonlands Airport and, as usual, an enthusiastic welcoming committee was awaiting our arrival. A nice lady who worked at the airport office was giving out Hersey bars in kind of a reverse candy drop. I was surprised to see two women dressed in TSA uniforms visiting our airplane and was told that the airport sees two airline flights a day…a Delta flight from Salt Lake City and a United Flight from Denver! The area is a mecca for outdoor sports with skydiving at the airport and four wheeling and hiking on the many trails that can be found in the area. In addition to the skydiving operators, there are a number of aerial sightseeing companies based at the field making this a very busy airport. After taking on some fuel, we departed for the one hour flight to Spanish Fork shortly before 1:15pm. Our departure was delayed a few minutes while we waited at the runway threshold for the Delta flight from Salt Lake City to land!
The flight to Spanish Fork was much smoother and, after flying over high desert for the past day, an imposing mountain range appeared as we neared our destination. Mountains on both side rose to over 10,000 feet but we safely transited the pass at 9,500 feet and following a highway slowly descending until we arrived at Spanish Fork Airport. We were greeted by a news helicopter, reporters and most importantly, the Halvorsen family.
-- Thursday May 19, 2022 – Spanish Fork, Utah --
Thursday was a relatively slow day where we gave tours of the airplane and worked on getting it ready for Friday’s event at Provo Airport. There was a planning meeting for the air-to-air photo mission, which was attended by the C-17 flightcrew, BAHF flightcrew, Kodiak camera airplane flightcrew and photographer Jim Raeder. Jim would be taking the air-to-air photos of the C-54/C-17 formation flight the next morning. The airplane was opened for afternoon tours and the first group coming through consisted of a group of airmen that had flown from Charleston on the C-17 followed by a group of ROTC cadets from Brigham Young University. The day was capped off by a presentation to CAP cadets on the Berlin Airlift given by Eddie Ide of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association.
-- Friday May 20, 2022 – Provo, Utah --
A strong cold front blew through during the night and the temperature was 40 degrees with a 30 mph wind when we arrived at the airplane at 5:30am to prep it for the air-to-air photography flight with the C-17. BAHF Vice President Kevin Kearney had arrived early Friday morning via a red-eye flight from the east coast and joined us at the airplane. The weather was marginal for the mission so it was decided to push back our takeoff from 6:15am to 7:15am. We departed Spanish Fork Airport at 7:20am and formed up with the C-17 and Kodiak over the north end of Utah Lake. While the weather had improved, the sun only made a brief appearance during the hour long flight.
With the photo session complete, both aircraft landed at Provo Airport where they were staged at the new passenger terminal for public tours. The C-54 had "virgin" tarmac to mark! Tours of the airplane were planned from 11am to 4pm so we got busy getting the airplane ready.
There was a wreath laying ceremony at in the afternoon at Gail’s gravesite where German Defense Attaché Brig General Frank Gräfe gave a moving speech. After photos were taken, the contingent headed back to the airport where a ceremony naming the C-17 Spirit of The Candy Bomber was scheduled to begin at 5pm. A stage and about 150 chairs had been set up and, after speeches by Provo mayor Michelle Kaufusi and the Air Mobility Command Commander General Mike Minihan, the name was officially unveiled.
Also on hand for the event were 86 year old Ingrid Azvedo and 93 year old Ralph Dionne. Ingrid, who traveled to the event from Sacramento, California with her son was a "Berlin Kid" during the airlift and visits schools where she talks to children about the significance of the airlift and how it kept the city from falling under Soviet control. Ralph is a Berlin Airlift veteran and President of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association.
The day was capped off with a banquet at the yet to be opened terminal attended by 200+ guests. The event included a four course dinner with the USAF "Strolling Strings" providing entertainment and a multi-media presentation paying tribute to Col Halvorsen.
-- Saturday May 21, 2022 – Spanish Fork, Utah --
The flight crew hustled back to Provo early the next morning to fly the C-54D back to Spanish Fork where it was scheduled to be on display at the airport prior to the mid-day candy drop flight. The event had been well advertised with a large crowd of children and their parents queued up to tour the airplane prior to the drop. There was still a lengthy queue when it had to be cut off so the airplane could depart for the flight.
Not long after taking off, the C-54D accompanied by the C-17 passed over the airport. During the second pass, candy bearing parachutes were released from Spirit of Freedom with excited children making a beeline to retrieve the candy bars and parachutes. A third pass was required to release the remaining parachutes and I don’t know which was more important to the children…retrieving a candy bar or the miniature parachutes.
After completion of the candy drop, the C-17 headed east for its return flight to Charleston while Spirit of Freedom returned to the airport and was reopened for tours. The aircraft and crew would spend another two days in Spanish Fork before heading east on Monday for their next engagement in Reading, Pennsylvania for the Mid Atlantic Air Museum’s "WWII Weekend" event.
-- Sunday May 22, 2022 --
Tim Chopp had been very close to Gail and wanted to visit the assisted living facility where Gail lived during his final years. He was able to get around the facility and even took walks on a wooded trail behind the facility. As he got older, he used a scooter and continued to be very active before passing away very suddenly in February 2022. He wasn’t feeling well in the morning and by the end of the day he was gone.
Since the plan was to depart back east on Monday, Matt and Kevin completed some minor maintenance issues that needed attention. The afternoon light was very nice and I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot a photo of Spirit of Freedom with the gorgeous mountains in the background. Unfortunately the only camera I had available was my iPhone but the photo turned out great and is one of my favorites from the trip. Go figure!
-- Monday May 23, 2022 --
Departure for the flight back to the east coast was planned for 3pm. Tim invited some guests to accompany the crew on the first leg to Moab and at 2:30pm Denise and David Williams; her brother Bob Halvorsen; and two visitors from Germany arrived at the airport. In addition, Tim had invited two young men who work at the airport. Before departing, a group photo was taken of Denise, David, Bob and Tim with Gail's "C-54" crewmember hat, which the family had donated to BAHF. Since I was returning to Orlando via JetBlue, I was able to witness the 3:15pm takeoff with Denise, who had driven the group to the airport. On the walk back to our cars I asked her if she would recount the candy bomber story to me as she knew it. She did so and suggested I read the book her dad had written titled The Berlin Candy Bomber. I lost no time ordering the book, which I thoroughly enjoyed and would highly recommend to anyone who is interested in the Berlin Airlift.
The Halvorsen family was a large part of the celebration with all five of Col. Halvorsen’s children taking part, along with many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Being part of the C-54D crew, I was invited to a number of private events hosted by the family and I’d like to extend my thanks to them for including me. I’d also like to thank Tim Chopp for including me on the once-in-a-lifetime cross country journey in Spirit of Freedom.
Local Spanish Fork pilot Mike Patey produced a very nice 14 minute YouTube video of the event, which I think your will enjoy. For the full story on how Gail Halvorsen became known as the Candy Bomber, check out the A Simple Act of Kindness – The Candy Bomber Story article on this website. For additional information about the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation and how you can support its mission, check out the group's website at http://www.spiritoffreedom.org/.
Ralph M. Pettersen
July 1, 2022
Photo Credits: Idee Montijo, Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, Ralph M. Pettersen
----Created 1 July 2022---Updated 15 September 2022----