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No Real ‘Berlin Airlift’ for Puerto Rico

In June 1948, Soviet forces blockaded rail, road, and water access [1] to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. Within two days the U.S. and U.K. air forces had begun a supply chain from bases in West Germany, maintaining it until May the following year. In all, the Berlin Airlift delivered 2.4 million tons of supplies under hostile conditions to about 2.5 million people, including all their food, gasoline, and coal for heating and electricity generation.

Yet Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory with 3.4 million souls, two weeks after being body-slammed by the fiercest hurricane to hit the island in 90 years, is receiving little direct aid. This is apparently because of a bottleneck at the nation’s sole container port, San Juan. There is disagreement over the causes of that bottleneck, but the fact is that it can be bypassed.

Bizarrely, defenders of the administration are measuring aid to Puerto Rico not in terms of supplies distributed, but in terms of emergency personnel on the ground [2]. As if Puerto Ricans can eat administrators. (Not a pleasant thought, surely.) Meanwhile, left-wing proponents of a massive airlift (who, granted, only voiced their proposals in tweets) have been ripped as idiots for such reasons as [3] “You can’t airdrop electricity from transports.” No, but you can drop the fuel desperately needed to power their emergency generators as well as dropping the generators themselves.

There are different logistical problems in Puerto Rico, of course. Berlin was incredibly compact; Puerto Rico is vastly larger but still only about a third the size of New Jersey [4]. And naturally most people are concentrated in a small number of areas. Berlin was just a short hop from Allied air bases while Puerto Rico involves real flying time from the mainland, but does not require refueling for fixed-wing cargo planes going round-trip from closer mainland Air Force bases. Whatever the disadvantages in the Puerto Rican situation, the advantages of the U.S. military today versus what the allies had available for Berlin are huge in terms of both lifting and landing capacity.

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In 1948-49, many different aircraft were used [5] including bombers. But the largest American planes available were the Douglas C-47 Skytrain with a lift capacity of about 3.5 tons and the Douglas C-54 Skymaster with lift capability of about 10 tons. Today, the heavy lifting would be done by the turbo-prop Lockheed-Martin Hercules C-130 and the jet C-17 Boeing Globemaster III. The C-130 carry about 22 tons [6] of supplies depending on the model. Maximum payload capacity of the C-17 is 85 tons [7], or over eight times that of the C-54 Skymaster.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, aircraft were limited to the runways of Templhof Airport. Puerto Rico has a dozen public airports [8] in addition to private ones, which naturally are built close to the major population areas. Damaged airport infrastructure is irrelevant so long as the runways are cleared. But there’s no need for airports: just the runaways with forward air controllers on the ground. “The C-17 can take off and land on runways as short as 3,000 feet and as narrow as 90 feet wide,” according to globalsecurity.org [9]. “Even on such narrow runways, the C-17 can turn around by using its backing capability while performing a three-point star turn.”

Still, where to find such runways? Not hard.

In California [10], you could land either plane safely on any number of interstate highways. Okay, so this is Puerto Rico. But the C-130 can land on any reasonably hard surface including packed sand and grass [11]. It can also take off in as little as 1,800 feet [12], and land in as few as 2,550 feet.

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The vastly-heavier and larger C-17 needs at least hard-packed dirt, but that’s why you have such military units as my old one, the Army’s 20th Engineer Brigade [13]. Our primary job was to parachute behind enemy lines, secure a piece of land, and build a landing strip of packed dirt to allow conventional forces to land with troops, vehicles, and supplies. No need for a dangerous parachute drop in disaster relief; the 20th, along with other Army and Marine engineer units and the Navy Seabees, can be brought in by helicopter.

(Further, while President Trump is incorrect in saying Puerto Rico has “no roads [14],” presumably many bridges have been rendered inoperable. The 20th Engineers and other combat engineer units also deploy pre-fab Bailey bridges [15] that can be built in a few hours with a few dozen men and support the weight of container trucks.)

Runways are more efficient, but actually aren’t needed at all. Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System (LAPES) developed for Vietnam and used back in my day have been abandoned as too hazardous [16] to both cargo and planes. It involved attaching to pallets both to yank the material out the back end and soften the landing but at great risk both to the payload and the plane itself [17]. But airdrops of individual containers (Joint Precision Airdrop System or JPADS) [18] have been made vastly more accurate with the use of GPS and remains the quickest way to drop supplies to isolated areas.

Once the fixed-wing planes have quickly unloaded supplies that have been strapped onto pallets, the lack of infrastructure could be made up for with off-road military tactical vehicles or available civilian vehicles. (You’d be amazed at what resourceful people like Puerto Ricans can fit into and atop a small car.) Further, the U.S. has supply helicopters (which didn’t exist during the Berlin Crisis any more than GPS did) including the UH-60 Sikorsky Black Hawk with a lift capacity of 3.5 tons (the same as the C47 Skytrain) and the CH-47 Boeing Chinook helicopter that can carry 12 tons [19].

None of this would be cheap, but as with Berlin it can be started quickly (indeed, it should have been in FEMA’s plan). And rather than last 11 months as in Berlin, it would only be necessary long enough to get the San Juan port fully operational and repair the vital roads and bridges.

No, Puerto Rico hasn’t been “totally destroyed [14]” despite the president’s emphatic redundancy. In fact, direct deaths from so direct a strike from so powerful a hurricane appear to have been remarkably low [20]. But that can change fast—or be prevented just as quickly.

Michael Fumento is a veteran of the 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat)(Airborne), 20th Engineer Brigade and has written frequently for The American Conservative on military issues.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "No Real ‘Berlin Airlift’ for Puerto Rico"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On October 3, 2017 @ 12:02 am

Please stop making sense. Your alternate facts are clouding the White House narrative and may distract Kim-il-Trump’s concentration on the putting green.

And anyway, they don’t have any votes, so what’s in it for GOP? And their principal faith is Roman Catholic, not Christian.

#2 Comment By Johann On October 3, 2017 @ 9:59 am

The writer acknowledges that in the Berlin airlift case, the area of free Berlin was very much smaller than Puerto Rico. That is not insignificant and in fact, distribution of the delivered relief supplies was no issue at all in such a small urban area densely networked with roads. The delivery of supplies is not the issue in Puerto Rico at all. Its the distribution. In fact, supplies are piling up at delivery points.

#3 Comment By john On October 3, 2017 @ 10:17 am

The USA per Wiki has 161 C5 Galaxy cargo planes.

The payload is 200k lbs. So if each of PR citizens needs 1 lb of food a day this is about 16 flights.

The flight time is about 2.5hrs so 3 or 4 of those suckers could supply the island.

The return flights take the worst medical cases.

I think this is not a resource question. It is a give a damm question. We are two weeks into this three really from the long range forecast.

#4 Comment By Pear Conference On October 3, 2017 @ 11:59 am

It’s sad to read expert advice like this, knowing it could do a world of good under any administration that actually cared about Puerto Rico’s recovery.

#5 Comment By Don On October 3, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

Mr. Fumento writes, “This is apparently because of a bottleneck at the nation’s sole container port, San Juan.”

Let’s not forget that Puerto Rico is not an independent nation. It’s a US territory and its residents are our fellow American citizens!

#6 Comment By Lllurker On October 3, 2017 @ 12:50 pm

“As if Puerto Ricans can eat administrators.”

Best line I’ve read today! (And really you have to wonder if the only way Puerto Ricans are going to draw the urgent attention they need is to dine on a couple of ’em . . .)

As soon as the initial reports of the devastation came in, I too thought of the Berlin Airlift. So why didn’t Uncle Sam think of it?

What happened to: “We got this?”

#7 Comment By FreeOregon On October 3, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

Do 16 years of failure in the Middle East suggest there are some things the government no longer can do effectively? The same generals are in charge.

#8 Comment By dakarian On October 3, 2017 @ 1:36 pm

UGG!

Honestly, I had thought that matters like airlifting and generally getting around the bottlenecks were being done but it was just a case of it being slower than standard recovery methods.

Also, a question, if a major issue is the lack of drivers, is the US as a whole having a problem finding drivers and others who can be brought to Puerto Rico to assist? If the issue is skilled manpower to fill the gap between supplies and the populous, shouldn’t we be dropping truckers along with those generators?

That’s a serious question. Every other venue I go to either removed their comment section or are too hostile to comment and the venues themselves seem to either focus more on attacking or defending X and Y person.

Politics aside for half a bloody second, what IS currently happening over there, both in what they need exactly and what is currently being provided?

#9 Comment By Kurt Gayle On October 3, 2017 @ 1:55 pm

@ John: A big problem with using the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy is that the landing distance requirement for the plane at maximum-load gross weight is 4,900 ft (1,500 m) – nearly one mile!

In Puerto Rico the runway at Luis Muñoz Marín Intl Airport is 10,002 feet long and the runway at Rafael Hernández Airport is 11,702 feet long, so both could safely land fully-loaded C-5s with room to spare.

But after those two airports, runway lengths in Puerto Rico could pose a problem for the C-5s. Mercedita Airport and Isla Grande Airport have only 5,529-foot and 5,300-foot runways, respectively. And after that, the Eugenio María de Hostos Airport runway in Mayaguez has a length of exactly 4,900 feet – which in Puerto Rico might be cutting it too close for comfort. The next-longest airport runway in Puerto Rico is only 3,900 feet – a definite no-go.

@ Johann: You make an important point that is backed up by people on the ground in Puerto Rico: “The delivery of supplies is not the issue in Puerto Rico at all. It’s the distribution. In fact, supplies are piling up at delivery points.”

In other words you can land transport planes at the suitable airports and unload containers at the Port of San Juan. But if the supplies are not being delivered to the places in need around the island, landing more planes and docking more container ships is not going to fix the bottle-necks. The bottlenecks are the problem.

The infrastructure in Puerto Rico — never very good at the best of times — has further broken down. In addition, there seem to be layers of local corruption that are interfering with getting supplies to those most in need.

#10 Comment By swb On October 3, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

An impressive lever of incompetence from an administrations that has a very low level of competence to begin with. Its almost like no one bothered to get the boss away from watching Fox and Friends long enough to get him to actually request someone bother to plan for a completely predictable event. I guess twittering about football players was a higher priority.

Since his base is pretty ignorant and has no idea that Puerto Rico contains US citizens, I don’t see this as being the problem that Katrina was to Bush. Fox will be able to ignore this one as well so it will disappear from the conservative bubble in the next few weeks and Trump can get back to golfing.

#11 Comment By GregR On October 3, 2017 @ 3:29 pm

As for the infrastructure issue… Heavy lift helicopters capable of moving 10 tons at a trip are more than capable of being ferried to the island via either an aircraft carrier or Landing Craft positioned mid ocean for fuel resupply. Those helicopters should have been on the ground in a matter of days not weeks. It isn’t trivial of course, but leapfrogging down the Bahama chain for refueling is certainly possible.

#12 Comment By Steve On October 3, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

Perhaps if folks making suggestions had been on site or even flown over the island, their suggestions would have more validity and not just sound like yet another political smear campaign.

#13 Comment By David On October 3, 2017 @ 7:19 pm

Operation Nickel Grass, the US resupply of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War was one of the quickest, largest airlifts in History.

Nixon went up against his own State Dept and DOD and said,

“Tell them to send everything that can fly.”

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#14 Comment By DrivingBy On October 3, 2017 @ 10:53 pm

I appreciate the perspective from someone with practical, relevant experience. If air delivery is what’s needed, it can be done.

But I also find that the news from most outlets, including here, seems to be written backwards from the goalpoint of either “Trump BadRacist” or “Trump GoodPatriot”, or more practically “plant seed to vote D” vs “plant seed to vote R”.

Berlin is not a reasonable comparison.
First, this is a short term disruption. The hurricane was expected, as PR is on the Atlantic hurricane track. It was powerful but very short lived, less than two day’s total duration. The attempt to starve Berlin lasted eleven months.

I’ll probably have to get in touch with a friend who grew up there to get a straight story. Meanwhile, what I’ve been able to find is:

The PR National Guard has 5000+ members. The majority ignored the request to report for duty.

___Thousands____ of containers are stranded in port. PR has the same number of trucks and people with two arms and two legs as before, but for whatever reason no one is moving those containers. You don’t need a CDL to move a truck in an emergency, if you can drive a tractor, car or go-kart, you can move a truck, albeit with less haste than a pro.
Broken roads are not a reason; as Combat Engineer Fumento knows, roads can be fixed to ‘good enough’ in a hurry with shovels and whatever construction gear you can get. Welding works in PR just as well as in Texas.

#15 Comment By David M On October 4, 2017 @ 1:13 am

“DrivingBy”

90% or more of the island doesn’t have cell service or electricity. Half of the island lacks clean water. Major roads and bridges are out.

Truck drivers and the national guard aren’t exempt from that.

#16 Comment By Linda On October 4, 2017 @ 9:52 am

I’m not a military logistic engineer, but what about planes or helicopters dropping bundles from airports or an aircraft carrier? Can’they they do that?

#17 Comment By Gaucho M On October 4, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

Americans are getting really good at excuses these days. Starts in school. How about asking Cuba for help – they can handle it, at a fraction of our bloated budget.

#18 Comment By Dale McNamee On October 4, 2017 @ 3:09 pm

David M,
You pointed out the obvious problems as to why an airlift won’t work… They are also the same as to why trucking in supplies can’t work until there are passable roads…

Also, if an airdrop was done… There would be a mad rush by those affected to grab as much for themselves and thus nullify the effort…

Then, there are the striking Teamsters and the moronic San Juan mayor…

And we all know how the strikers treat “scabs”…

#19 Comment By Robert On October 4, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

During WW II dock workers in England would work slowly or not at all depending on labor union desires. In the US, unions routinely would strike shutting down factories supplying our military. The US Army had to take over some 60 odd factories. It is easy to imagine similar issues in PR along with a long history of corruption. A close PR friend confirms for me this culture. The place was never very efficient. So, blame all you want on Trump or FEMA etc, but people can be their own worst enemies.

#20 Comment By David M On October 4, 2017 @ 4:25 pm

Dale,

There is no trucker strike in Puerto Rico
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#21 Comment By DrivingBy On October 4, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

@David M
Then we should be helping to fix those roads and set up key phone service as fast as possible.
But the Feds can not move at lightning speed. Perhaps it could in the ’50s, but that was a time when the country was more unified and resolute than now.

FEMA’s job is not to take over and run a local government, it is to provide assistance when local resources run out. The first responses are from the residents, towns and cities, then the State or, in this case, Commonwealth.
Regarding comms, they have two phone systems (landline and cell) and can use military band and ham radio as a third and fourth, and you can power those with hand crank or bicycle generators.

They do face severe obstacles, but that’s what a National Guard is for, including theirs. A military does not wait for an Uber to get to the place of need.
Requisition a rowboat to cross a river (or swim), send 6x6s to pick up other Guardsmen (those can drive through 4 feet of water), hike around a washout, have civilians assist Guard. Over at Conservative Treehouse there’s a chronicle of an all volunteer team that went to FL and started fixing, fueling and helping to power up the locals, no badge or uniform involved.

The mainland should help, but the 6 million people on the island need to be out in front.

#22 Comment By renfro On October 4, 2017 @ 6:56 pm

Trump is not entirely wrong.FEMA has 10,000 people there–priority One–they are using helicopters to rescue people in the rural areas—priority two—they are working on power grid restoration –priority three–they are clearing roads.
Supplies, except for what can be air dropped are stuck at port due to lack of truck drivers..so PR needs to get their own people moving…not just sitting and waiting. Any able bodied men should be walking to the port to drive trucks.

NPR

The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration tells NPR that the government is working with the truck driver’s union to find a solution for driving with downed power lines and damaged roads, and the Department of Defense says it has sent teams to work on clearing blocked streets

Kurtz was in San Juan to ask for help, and having made the trip himself, he doesn’t believe that road conditions are an obstacle. “The roads are open,” he says. “I’ve been able to come here. So why haven’t we used this to [transport goods] west?”
You have a shortage of drivers he says. “You may have a huge fleet but they ain’t moving themselves.”

“Whatever driver shows up, we put him to work,” he says.

The governor of Puerto Rico has issued an appeal for anyone with a commercial license to help distribute gas, Darmanin says.
San Juan, Puerto Rico (CNN)A mountain of food, water and other vital supplies has arrived in Puerto Rico’s main Port of San Juan.

But a shortage of truckers and the island’s devastated infrastructure are making it tough to move aid to where it’s needed most, officials say.
At least 10,000 containers of supplies — including food, water and medicine — were sitting Thursday at the San Juan port, said Jose Ayala, the Crowley shipping company’s vice president in Puerto Rico.

Part of the reason for the distribution backlog is that only 20% of truck drivers have reported back to work since Hurricane Maria swept through, according to a representative for Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

#23 Comment By Kurt Gayle On October 5, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year US State Department Veteran who writes at TAC, was on the ground for relief efforts after the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake (more than 6,000 dead) and the 2004 Asian tsunami (280,000 dead). Van Buren worked the Washington end of many other disasters and read after-action reporting from 20-30 other such events. On October 3rd Van Buren wrote “For Hurricane-Hit Puerto Rico, an Insider’s Guide to Disaster Management” for Reuters News Agency:

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#24 Comment By Michael Fumento On November 5, 2017 @ 11:10 pm

David M didn’t assert an airlift wouldn’t work. It would and could have, but it appears we’re finally behind that. The damage was done and people died and that’s that.

It now appears to be mostly the business of restoring the electrical grid, which apparently was already pretty slipshod because despite being a US territory it’s more of less Third World. And there we find that, as is so often the case, politics played a part with the company retained comprising two people from the same tiny town as the Secretary of the Interior. My, what an incredible coincidence!

So there’s plenty of blame to go around. FEMA should have had a plan comprising in part an airlift. It didn’t. It should have had a REAL company on hand to help restore the grid. It didn’t. And Trump shouldn’t have turned the disaster in a circus with his attempts at three-pointers with paper towels. My God! He desperately needs The Complete Idiots Guide to Faking Empathy When You Don’t Have Any.