The Congo Airlifts


In 1960 the Belgian Congo was a colony in West Central Africa belonging to Belgium and surrounded by Angola, the Middle Congo and the Central African Republic (both originally part of French Equatorial Africa), the Sudan, Uganda, Ruanda-Urundi, Tanganyika, Rhodesia, and the Atlantic Ocean. Governed by a Governor General, the capitol was Leopoldville, and the colony’s area was 942,000 square miles with a population of 14 million.

In the 1950s, many of the colony’s black inhabitants began calling for independence. In 1957 Belgium allowed them to elect their own representatives to local government councils, but their demand for independence continued. In 1959 rioting broke out against the Belgian rule and on June 30, 1960, Belgium granted the colony independence. The new country was called Congo.

In Congo’s first general elections, held about a month before independence, nine parties won seats in the national legislature. No one party had a majority. This splitting of the votes weakened the power and unity of the Congo’s government. In compromise, on the eve of independence, two opposing leaders agreed to share power: Joseph Kasavubu became president and Patrice Lumumba became Prime Minister. Joseph Desire Mobutu was named Secretary of State for National Defense.

Civil disorder broke out following independence. Belgian officers still held power in the Congo’s army and many Belgians retained important posts in the government. Five days after independence, Congolese Army troops near Leopoldville revolted against their Belgian officers. The revolt quickly spread throughout the country causing most Belgian government workers to flee.

The Belgians, however, maintained their bases in the south in order to protect their considerable financial interests in the Katanga Province where the British, French, and South Africans also had substantial holdings. A Congolese Army (ANC) revolt in Elizabethville, the province’s capitol, was put down by the Belgians on July 9th. On the 10th, at the request of the province’s leader, Moise Tshombe, a Belgian parachute company was dropped into the province to restore order. On the following day, with the full support of the Belgian government, Tshombe announced the secession of Katanga from the Congo and began to hire white mercenaries to lead his militia. Patrice Lumumba recognized his inability to control events and sought help from the United Nations. On July 14th the United Nations Security Council authorized UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold to send a military force to the Congo. The United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain would provide the airlift.

Less than 48 hours later, the United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) and the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) started what would become the largest airlift since the Berlin blockade. Even today, this airlift (first called Operation SAFARI and later Operation NEW TAPE) still stands as one of the United States Air Force’s greatest peacetime accomplishments.

The Airlift

Africa is a land of sharp physical contrasts. Aircrews found themselves in harsh, unfamiliar environments from the Ethiopian highlands, where major airfields usually were located at 7,000 foot altitudes, to the immense Sahara Desert with sandstorms and runway temperatures of 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Sabena Airlines of Belgium operated an extensive air network in the Congo; however, the overall African airlift route system stretching from Tripoli, Libya, in the north to Dakar, Senegal, in the west and Dar Es Salaam, Tanganyika, in the east presented the USAF with numerous difficulties, the most serious of which concerned navigational aids.

Many flight legs were more than 1,500 miles long. Maps initially supplied to the aircrews showed mountains where there were no mountains and marked others in the wrong places. Apart from flying into unknown territory, the USAF crews usually had to operate only with the assistance of radio beacons which were frequently off the air. Celestial navigation over the Sahara was hampered due to blowing sand reaching the aircraft’s flight level. Air to ground radio service was generally substandard and to make matters worse, tower and approach facilities were available during daylight hours only.

Unlike the Berlin Airlift, Operation New Tape required C-124 Globemaster and C-130 Hercules’ launches from several points throughout the world into numerous terminals within Africa. UN soldiers from countries including Sweden, Ireland, Ethiopia, India, Morocco and Pakistan had to be transported quickly and safely to the African heartland.

Many of these troops were unfamiliar with modern air transport and most were leaving home for the first time. Apart from the language barrier, almost all of them presented racial and cultural problems sometimes outpaced by US Air Force policy and planning which was normally available for airlift support operations. Sanitary conditions became a matter of grave concern. UN soldiers from the African countries were entirely unfamiliar with in-flight lavatory conveniences. Disinfecting the aircraft at the end of a long flight became the unpleasant task performed by the aircrew.

To better illustrate Operation New Tape, lets go through a typical C-124 Globemaster mission to the Congo—Trip Number 227:

This particular mission involved the airlift of Pakistani troops and their equipment from Karachi to Leopoldville. First it was necessary to obtain diplomatic clearance to over-fly and transient various countries en-route. A support team was deployed to Karachi which, with teams already in place at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; Khartoum, Sudan and Leopoldville, handled the ground support function for the mission. The plan called for the aircraft to depart Chateauroux Air Base, France as to arrive at Karachi at a specific time to meet the UN requirements. Leaving Chateauroux, the crew flew for 14 hours direct to Dhahran where they crew rested for 15 hours. The next leg, 9 hours duration, took them to Karachi. The Pakistani troops, wearing berets and field packs, boarded the airplane with carbines and automatic weapons and with gear necessary for the long stay they would have in the Congo. After a three hour ground time, Trip Number 227 was again airborne with its contingent of passengers heading back to Dhahran for crew rest and aircraft servicing.

The next segment of the flight, Dhahran to Khartoum, took seven hours. At Khartoum the plane spent minimum ground time for inspection and servicing. Nine hours after leaving Khartoum the airplane arrived at Leopoldville where the Pakistani troops and their gear were offloaded.

The crew spent its crew rest at Lovanium University in Leopoldville in dormitories vacated by the Belgian students and professors when they fled the country following its independence.

With Leopoldville now behind them their next stop is Kano, Nigeria for a minimum ground time refueling stop. The town of Kano is hundreds of years old and is surrounded by a wall 40 feet thick and in some places 50 feet high. Kano had always been a big trading center and a junction point for the old caravan routes.

After twelve more hours in the air, with a refueling stop at Wheelus Air Base in Libya, the crew was back in Chateauroux having traveled more than 13,000 miles and logging 57 flying hours with an elapsed time of six days. Congo Trip Number 227 was now over.

The positioning of the initial cadres of UN troops and equipment was accomplished by September 1960 and operations decreased. During the next year the Congo Airlift was handled almost solely by the 15th, 20th and 31st Air Transport Squadrons of the 1607th Air Transport Wing (Dover AFB), assigned temporary duty with the Provisional Squadron at Chateauroux, France. In September 1961, operational control reverted back to MATS and USAFE and the provisional squadron was disbanded. All aircraft would now be scheduled from their home bases and the first such mission departed Dover on October 12, 1961.

Virtually all airlift was provided by the C-124 up until the end of 1961, when the Naval Transport Wing at McGuire AFB, New Jersey entered the operation with their C-118s. Other aircraft types entered New Tape as requirements dictated and facilities became available. On January 10, 1962, a cargo mission requirement sent five C-133 Cargomasters to Stockholm, Sweden and then on to Leopoldville.

In 1962, the UN requested the use of the C-135 Stratolifter jet aircraft to be used in troop rotation. On October 10, 1962 a MATS C-135 departed Stockholm on its first Congo airlift mission. The flight stopped at Wheelus Air Base on the south bound leg; future stops were found to be unnecessary due to the aircraft’s extended range. Several days and up to 30 hours of flying time were cut off of this 5,000 mile trip. One C-135 returned to McGuire AFB nonstop from Leopoldville setting a new un-refueled distance record.

There was a marked increase in MATS activities in April 1963 with a general reduction of UN forces in the Congo. Eighty eight MATS aircraft were involved with the C-130Es being used for the first time in the operation. These C-130s and the C-135s were used for the long distance flights whereas the C-124s shuttled troops and equipment to the on-load stations.

In late December 1963 MATS crews began the roll-up of Operation New Tape. On January 3, 1964, a C-135 departed Leopoldville and onboard were Indian troops returning to Bombay. This mission concluded 3½ years of MATS’ participation in Operation New Tape.


During the airlift, MATS transports flew 2,310 missions, airlifting 63,884 personnel plus 37,202,000 pounds of cargo from 33 different countries. In so doing, the aircraft and crews covered 25½ million miles along some of the world’s most isolated air routes.

Sources: The AMC Museum; 436th Airlift Wing; Airman Magazine, Jan 1961; Airlift, Summer 1987; Air University Quarterly Review, Summer 1961; The MATS Flyer, Jan 1965.

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To whom it may concern, I would very much like to get in contact with Roy Rogge and was wondering if you could assist me in this matter. Mr. Rogge mentions below that he was stationed at Dover AFB in 1961 and assigned to the New Tape Airlift operations. My Dad was also stationed at Dover AB in 1961 and assigned to the New Tape operations. I am in the process of writing his memoirs from his 22 years in the Air Force to pass down to his great grandsons, any information pertaining to this airlift operations would be greatly appreciated. I have several letters of Appreciation, referencing my Dad’s performance during this operations, but would be very interested in learning more about it. Any information you could provide me would be greatly appreciated.
Elaine Gray
Daughter of Ret AF Msgt Kit Gray, Jr.

I happened to be one of an Irish United Nations continent that stayed overnight in Wheelus Air Base en route to (then) The Congo May 1962, we were flown by MATS C-118 aircraft from Dublin, fond memories of being treated well during the stopover regards Mick Guidera

I would like someone to explain something that has puzzled me for years. in 1961 I was stationed at Dover AFB, Delaware. I was an aircraft mechanic (43151A) in the 1607 Flightline Maintenance Squadron. I worked in a post flight dock maintaining C124C aircraft. On 10 April 1961 I received orders assigning me to Operation New Tape. Me and some of my buddies left Dover flew to Chateauroux, France. For the next 173 days we maintained C124s in Chateauroux, and Leopoldville with stopovers in Tripoli, Libya (Wheelus AFB.). While in Leopoldville, we were barracked in the hangar at the airfield, not Lovanium University as mentioned in the article above where the flight crews stayed.

My question is this: for 173 days me and my fellow mechanics maintained aircraft used to transport UN troops and supplies in and out of the Congo during Operation New Tape, why were we not eligible to receive the United Nations medal for the Congo Operation. We were as much a part of that operation as the troops our aircraft transported.

That’s a good question as my Dad was a radio operator in the Congo in 1960. . He would tell us the stories of living there. They could only operate in civilian cloths. No USAF uniforms.

Roy I just saw your comment I don’t know all the details, but yes a medal would be in order, it’s a small world but during May/June 1962, I was with the Irish UN peace mission there and our unit were the main guard at Ndjili Airport, duties included guarding the control tower and the UN hangar probably where you were barracked, what can I say only a reply would be great to hear more regards Mick Guidera Kilkenny City Ireland

Roy another bit of history you should remember, as you were involved in mechanical upkeep of the aircrafts, after Wheelus we stopped in Kano Nigeria, but shortly after leaving Kano the port engine of the C-118 (chalk 2) caught fire, efforts to put out the fire were successful but resultant damage necessitated a return to Kano. In order to continue the flight we had to wait for a new engine. I do remember our stay for three days of very high temperatures and sleeping under the
aircraft, In the meantime Chalk 3 which was a C124 was in Wheelus ckthey loaded an engine for the C118, on arrival the engine was handed over to the maintenance unit of USAF at Kano. Mick

Thomas & Mick,
Good seeing your response to my comment. Thomas, your Dad was absolutely correct about the dress code in Leopoldville, no military clothing allowed, only civilian. When we returned to Dover, however, we were given compensation for the clothing we wore while on the flightline.
Mick, I checked my service records. When you and your buddies were standing guard at the airport in Leopoldville, I was in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. When needed our aircraft would fly to that Army station and transport the 101st Airborne troops on maneuvers. When the time was right we would open the rear doors and they would bail out.
Your engine story brought back memories of such an incident. On a flight from Leopoldville to Wheelus we lost #3 engine. A young mechanic woke me up and told me what happened. I looked out the window and sure enough #3 was feathered so I went back to sleep. We were somewhere over the Sahara and the pilot decided to turn around and go back. When we landed I was told a fuel pump was the problem so I went out and changed it. We took off for Wheelus the next morning and had an uneventful trip. I really liked the Airmen’s Club at Wheelus.