Pilot’s log: Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Origin:Berlin Tegel Airport (EDDT), Berlin, Germany
Destination:Interlaken Airport (LSMI), Interlaken, Switzerland
Distance:845 miles

Today’s flight takes us from Berlin south in the heart of Germanic Europe. We’ll fly south over cities including Vienna, the longtime former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the west over the scenic Austrian Alps and into Switzerland, where we’ll land in the mountain valley town of Interlaken. Get ready for some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve encountered so far!

In leaving Berlin, let’s take a moment to remember the Berlin Airlift, which happened here at Tegel Airport as well as Berlin’s Templehof Airport in 1948 and 1949, just after World War II ended. Berlin was a divided city, with the Soviets blockading the sections controlled by the U.S., Britain, and France. The situation was dire, and giving in would have forced millions of Berliners to live under Soviet control. To keep Berlin free, the U.S. and Britain teamed up to stage a massive year-long airlift that brought essential supplies to the city and its residents. Thousands of U.S. pilots and support personnel were sent to Germany to participate in this effort, which involve round-the-clock cargo flights under dangerous conditions. The campaign saved Berlin, and helped check post-war Soviet aggression.

U.S.A.F. Cpl. Ralph Dionne of Nashua just before joining the Berlin Airlift

In delivering cargo to the stricken city, U.S. pilots began giving their candy rations to children outside the airport. This developed into a full-scale effort to drop packages of candy via parachute from cargo planes as they passed low over the city. Today, older people in Berlin still recall the “candy bombings” of their childhood. At the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire, we were pleased to recently re-enact the candy bombing last year in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. The reenactment was also a way to honor U.S. Air Force Cpl. Ralph Dionne of Nashua, who served as a flight engineer during the Berlin Airlift and who shared recollections of his participation. You can see video of our re-enactment and Cpl. Dionne’s remembrances using the links below.

A statue of composer Johann Sebastian Bach outside the St. Thomas Church, where he was music director

Flying south, we’ll pass over two of the main cities of eastern Germany. Each has an important claim to international culture. Leipzig, a city of about 600,000 people, developed early at the intersection of ancient trade routes. It’s home to the St. Thomas School, a boarding school founded by the Augustinians in 1212 and one of the oldest schools in the world. As the school’s music director from 1723 to 1750, composer Johann Sebastian Bach produced an enormous quantity of music that many believe is the most important and influential ever written. Today, Leipzig is an important economic center, but also but a center of independent music, hosting the world’s largest Goth music festival every year.

Not far to the east of Leipzig is Dresden, home to 550,000 people. Most German cities suffered major damage during World War II, but Dresden is noted for being completely wiped off the map in a single bombing raid. On Feb. 12-13, 1945, allied bombers dropped explosives designed to start fires. These quickly grew into a “firestorm,” an enormous tornado of flame that consumed everything flammable, leaving the city a moonscape of rubble. It also used up all oxygen when it burned, causing people trapped in shelters to suffocate. It’s estimated that up to 25,000 people died. One of the few survivors of the Dresden firestorm was Kurt Vonnegut, a young U.S. soldier and German prisoner of war who took refuge deep underground in a meat storage locker. His book about the Dresden firestorm, Slaughterhouse Five, became a best-selling novel in the late 1960s.

A view of Dresden from atop City Hall following the 1945 firebombing

We now fly south, crossing the border into the Czech Republic and flying over Prague, the nation’s capital and one of the great historic cities of Europe. Prague got its start as the site of Prague Castle, parts of which date from more than 1,300 years ago. Greatly enlarged over the centuries, and located on a commanding bluff overlooking the Vlatava River, the castle still dominates the city today. In medieval times, it was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the main residence of several Holy Roman Emperors, most notably Charles IV, who transformed Prague into an imperial capital. At the time, Prague was the largest city in Europe after Rome and Constantinople. In later centuries, it remained a key city of the Vienna-based Hapsburg monarchy and its Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Like other middle European cities, Prague developed as a trade center near a spot where the Vlatava River could be forded. Over the centuries, several bridges were built; the most enduring is Charles Bridge, named after Charles IV, who was responsible for its construction. Charles IV personally laid the first foundation stone for the bridge on July 9, 1357 at 5:31 a.m. The exact time is known because the palindromic number “135797531” was carved into the Old Town bridge tower; the number was chosen by the royal numerologists as the most auspicious time for the project to start. The bridge, for 500 years Prague’s only river crossing, remains in use today; its 660th anniversary in 2017 was celebrated by a Google doodle.

Charles Bridge over the Vlatava River as Prague Castle looms above

Although at the center of centuries of European turmoil and war, much of Prague’s ancient streets and buildings has survived intact. Today, it’s possible to visit sites such as the city’s old Jewish cemetery, which dates from the 1400s and was in use for several hundred years. When space ran out, layers were added to accommodate more burials; eventually, as many as 12 layers were put in place, causing the cemetery to rise several yards higher than the surrounding neighborhood and requiring retaining walls to hold it in place. Prague remains crowded with the treasures of centuries of accomplishment: cathedrals, palaces, and neighborhoods of narrow old streets. Although the city was damaged in World War II bombing, much of Prague was spared destruction.

Centuries of gravestones mark multiple levels of burials in Prague’s old Jewish Cemetery

Prague, by the way, is the home of “Good King Wenceslaus” of the popular Christmas carol. Wenceslaus I, who was actually a duke, was born here in 910 and ruled the lands of Bohemia as a young man until he was murdered by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel, in 935. His tragic death made Wenceslaus a martyr and saint of the Catholic Church, but more than 1,000 years later this obscure ruler remains familiar to all mostly due to a holiday tune.

We now fly south to Vienna, the capital of Austria and a major European city with a population of 2.6 million people. Two things a visitor to Vienna should understand right at the start: for centuries it was imperial capital to the sprawling Austrian Empire, which covered much of central and eastern Europe and was one of the world’s most important nation-states until World War I. Also, for a very long time, Vienna was the unchallenged capital of the music world, with an aristocracy and art-loving merchant class that supported the work of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, and many other great composers and performers. Both of these threads are woven into today’s Vienna: a grandly scaled city filled with world-class palaces, enormous museums, spectacular theaters, ornate cathedrals, and spacious boulevards all worthy of a seat of empire, which it once was.

The “Neue Berg” grand entrance of the Hofburg, the main palace of the Hapsburg family

With Vienna, we again make contact with our friends the Romans, whose settlement on the banks of the Danube River 2,000 years ago served as a “frontier town” and bulwark against Germanic tribes to the north. Vienna emerged as the main center for the Holy Roman Empire, established in 800 by Charlemagne and Pope Leo III and which controlled much of central Europe for more than 1,000 years, until it was dissolved in 1806. From 1440, the empire was ruled by the Hapsburg family in Vienna. Over the centuries, the family erected a complex of palaces and administrative buildings that culminated in the Hofburg, an enormous central palace and elaborate grounds worthy of one of Europe’s great ruling dynasties.

The Ottoman Army surrounds Vienna in 1683

As a world capital, Vienna was a target for rival regimes. The city was besieged twice by armies of the Ottoman Empire, its neighbor to the south, but never fell. After Napoleon’s military campaigns roiled Europe, peace treaties were signed in 1815 in the Congress of Vienna. But the climax of Vienna’s status as a center of world power came in the 19th century, when the Hapsburgs presided over the Austrian Empire (later known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire), a multi-ethnic kingdom that encompassed 50 million people, all ruled from Vienna. During this time, the Hapsburgs replaced the city’s old walls with grand boulevards, creating dramatic vistas and bolstering Vienna’s reputation as one of the world’s great cities. At the dawn of the 20th century, the city remained in the intellectual forefront, home to new movements in music and the visual arts, and also to Sigmund Freud’s pioneering work in the new field of psychology. It has also given the world a new dance, the “waltz,” popularized among the ballroom-loving aristocracy by the music of Johann Strauss and his son, Johann Strauss Jr.

The enormous Schönbrunn Palace, the Hapsburg summer home, in the outskirts of Vienna

All that changed with World War I, in which Austria (allied with Germany) was defeated. The empire was broken up into many smaller nations and the ruling Hapsburgs deposed in favor of an elected government. But the city they built, now capital of a much-smaller Austria, endured. It survived World War II largely intact, emerging as a phenomenally preserved example of Old World elegance. Today, as the headquarters of the oil cartel OPEC, it remains a world capital of sorts. And the Hapsburgs are still around, too: they fought against Germany when the Nazis occupied Austria during World War II, and later became early advocates for a unified Europe. Longtime patriarch Otto Von Habsburg, crown prince and son of the last Emperor Charles I, died in 2011 at age 98. The current heir to the Habsburg throne is Ferdinand Zvonimir von Habsburg, a popular European race car driver and motorsports competitor.

Otto Habsburg-Lothringen portraitiert von Oliver Mark, Pöcking 2006

After reaching Vienna, we turn west and begin flying through the remarkable area where the green fields of central Europe meet and mingle with the dramatic Alps, the continent’s highest mountain ranges and one of the Earth’s great landscapes. Flying along the border of Germany and Austria, we’ll pass over storybook vistas of green valleys and white snowy mountain peaks that seem made in a dream. But they’re actually made deep underground: the Alps are the result of an ongoing collisions of crustal plates that cover the Earth’s surface. (Specifically, in this case, the northward-moving African plate is bumping into the staying-in-one-place Eurasian plate.) The peaks of the Alps are quite pointy because geologically, they’re brand new: they started taking their present form only about 2.6 million years ago, so there’s been virtually no time to erode like, for example, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, which were formed about 100 million years ago. The Alps, with their deep valleys and snow-capped peaks, are so scenic that they’re familiar to people worldwide as the settings for films such as ‘The Sound of Music‘ (1965). Today, the gigantic Bollywood film industry often uses the European Alps for photogenic backgrounds not available in India.

Neuschwanstein, the fantasy castle of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II

We follow the northern foothills of the Alps to the imposing castle of Neueschwanstein, located just over the border from Austria in Germany. This enormous hilltop mansion was erected in the second half of the 19th century by Ludwig II, the young ruler of Bavaria who was fascinated by medieval legends and obsessed by the romantic operas of composer Richard Wagner. Calling it Neuschwanstein after a nearby ruined medieval fortress, Ludwig II pursued the vision of his dream castle, even as it drove him into bankruptcy, causing problems for the Bavarian state. Ludwig was finally removed from power in 1886 on the basis of his irrational behavior, and died shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstances, with Neuschwanstein still incomplete. Eventually finished according to his design, the castle immediately became a popular tourist attraction, bringing in enormous revenue for the state since the 1890s. Its remote location helped it survive World War II intact, although the Nazis had planned to destroy it in advance of the Allied invasion. Neuschwanstein went on serve as the model for “Cinderella’s Castle” at the heart of all of Walt Disney’s theme parks. It’s also had a movie career, playing a major role as the castle of “Baron Bomburst” of the mythical nation of Vulgaria in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ the 1968 movie musical about a flying car.

In summer, Swiss farmers bring their cattle high up into Alpine meadows to graze

We continue flying west southwest, crossing into Switzerland, a nation with a unique place in world affairs. Formed way back in 1291, this small republic (about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined) has endured as an independent state into the modern age. Since 1815, it has remained neutral and not participated in any military conflict anywhere in the world. However, all Swiss must serve in the nation’s military or in service in some capacity; a few still are used by the Vatican in Rome as the legendary “Swiss Guard,” charged with protecting the Pope. Located at the crossroads of Roman and Germanic Europe, Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and an old Latinate dialect called “Romansch.” The Alps cover about 60 percent of the nation; from these towering mountain ranges flow rivers in all four directions. The stability and security of Swiss society has led the nation to become an international center of banking; indeed, the Swiss franc coinage designs have not really changed since 1850, making it the longest-running coin series in the world.

We’ll learn more about Switzerland in our next flight. For now, we’ll head to our destination in the mountain valley town of Interlaken, which is close to the site of an amazing aviation story involving our very own aircraft. On Nov. 19, 1946, a U.S. Army Air Corps C-53 Skymaster (a very close cousin of our own C-47) with eight passengers and a crew of four took off from Vienna, Austria on a flight to Marseille, France. Following the route we’re taking today, the plane encountered fog in the Swiss Alps and went off course. A violent downdraft forced the aircraft into a rapid descent, causing it to make contact with the flat, upward-sloping surface of the Gauli Glacier, high up in the mountains. Amazingly, the aircraft remained intact and all 12 people survived the landing without major injuries. But their ordeal was just starting: with their position unknown and no way to hike out, the dozen survivors spent six days and nights in sub-zero temperatures waiting for rescue. After finally being spotted, it took local Swiss crews 13 hours to hike to the remote location, forcing everyone to spend yet another night at the site. The next day, survivors were taken to safety by Swiss pilots who made the first successful glacier landings on skis, thus starting the Swiss Air Rescue service that remains to this day. The aircraft was left to be absorbed into the glacier, but in recent years melting caused by global warming has unveiled parts of the plane after 70 years in the ice!

The wreckage of a U.S. C-53 transport plane that crashed on Gauli Glacier in the Swiss Alps in 1946

And with that, we make our descent into Interlaken’s Airport. Thanks for coming along and we’ll see you next time!

Resources to learn more about today’s flight:

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