Flying dog’s parachute lands at U.S. Air Force Museum
By Rob Bardua, Air Force Museum Public Affairs
/ Published September 21, 2004
DAYTON, Ohio (AFPN) -- A parachute made for a dog that flew alongside pilots during the Berlin Airlift was recently added to the Berlin Airlift Exhibit at the U.S. Air Force Museum here.
The parachute, donated by Clarence Steber, was worn by his boxer, Vittles, during their flights on C-47s and C-54s to help deliver food to West Berlin. The city had been blocked by the Soviet Union in an effort to force West Berliners to accept communism.
The parachute is a significant addition to the Berlin Airlift exhibit, said Terry Aitken, the museum’s senior curator.
“Throughout the history of the Air Force, animal mascots have provided unit identity and made valuable contributions to esprit-de-corps,” Mr. Aitken said. “The parachute allows us to tell the story of the Berlin Airlift's mascot and the special bonds between Vittles and the pilots (who) he flew with as a 'crew dog.’ It's a wonderful story and already a special hit with our visitors.”
Mr. Steber said it did not take long for him to grow fond of Vittles and soon realized that he would make a great companion.
“I had a friend in Germany who had a 1-year-old boxer (who) I fell in love with, and he sold him to me,” said Mr. Steber, a former Air Force pilot.
Mr. Steber said he soon discovered some of his missions required him to be away for two to three days at time. So he started taking Vittles with him, and soon other pilots began to fly Vittles on their missions as well.
“In Berlin, as soon as we were unloaded, we had to take off again,” Mr. Steber said. “Sometimes, Vittles would be nosing around other airplanes, and I had to take off without him.”
The dog began catching rides with other pilots, and sometimes it would be several days before they would meet up again, Mr. Steber said.
“Everybody knew who Vittles belonged to and eventually got him back to me,” Mr. Steber said. “The other pilots would feed him and even take him to the officer’s club.”
Sometimes pilots would give Vittles pans of beer until he got so looped that his legs would go straight out and he would have to be carried home, Mr. Steber said.
Eventually, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay heard about the dog and summoned then-Lieutenant Steber to his office.
“General LeMay called me in and said, ‘Are you the pilot who owns the dog who is flying in our airplanes?’” said Mr. Steber, who confirmed he was, thinking he was in a great deal of trouble.
“General LeMay replied, ‘Without a parachute? That dog is one of the best morale builders that I’ve had over here. I want that dog to have a parachute!’”
Soon afterward, Vittles had a parachute of his own, designed with a static cord that would automatically open the dog’s parachute in case they needed to bail out.
Although Vittles accumulated thousands of flying hours, including flying on 131 missions with Lieutenant Steber during the Berlin Airlift, he actually never needed to use his parachute.
Lieutenant Steber was not quite as fortunate, needing his parachute once when the C-47 he was flying went down over Soviet-controlled territory. Lieutenant Steber was able to bail out just seconds before his plane crashed.
“My parachute opened, and I hit the ground at nearly the same time,” said Mr. Steber, who was knocked unconscious from the crash and then captured by the Russians.
Mr. Steber said he was interrogated and “roughed up” by the Russians for three days, but eventually released when he could not provide them with any information.
Despite his own ordeal, Mr. Steber said he was just thankful that Vittles was not with him on that flight.
“It’s a good thing the dog wasn’t with me that time, or we probably both would have gotten killed,” Mr. Steber said.
At 6 years old, Vittles contracted a disease and died.
When contacted by Air Force Museum officials about donating the parachute, Mr. Steber agreed, but only after he fulfilled a promise to display it for two years onboard the “Spirit of Freedom.” The C-54 aircraft serves as a flying museum dedicated to telling the story of the Berlin Airlift at air shows and events around the world.
The exhibit was immediately a huge hit with children, Mr. Steber said.
“The kids just loved it because they see a dog wearing a parachute and they get interested and learn more about this humanitarian airlift,” he said.
Mr. Steber said he hopes many more people will see the Vittles display and learn more about the Berlin Airlift now that the dog’s likeness is at the U.S. Air Force Museum.
“He loved flying, and I’m very proud that Vittles is now part of an exhibit at the Air Force Museum,” Mr. Steber said. “That dog would have loved it!”