FLASH! AIRCRAFT DOWN!
In 1956, when I was an 18 year old two-striper at Narsarrsuak AFB Greenland, I was working the midnight shift teletype at Base Ops when a civilian aircraft belonging to Flying Tiger Airlines, went down on the ice cap.
The procedure was for the plane’s radio operator to call in a position report every half-hour. If the plane failed to send two position reports in a row I was to send out a Flash message to the entire Northeastern Air Command (NEAC) comprising 3 bases in Greenland; all bases in eastern Canada, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Iceland. Needless to say if I were to do that I would be waking up some high rankiing brass all around the command, not to mention scrambling a bunch of Air Sea Rescue planes. The kicker was, sometimes the radio operator fell asleep, but I could not assume that. Were any surviving crewmen not rescued in a very timely fashion they would die in a few short hours. The Greenland ice cap is very unforgiving to all forms of life due to it’s sub-zero temperatures and very high winds.
When the second position report failed to come through I knew I was on the hot seat, so I did what I was supposed to do, and sent the Flash message with it’s five-bell advance warning to all bases in the Command, figuring the radio operator was probably asleep and I was going to get busted for sending a false alarm.
It turned out the plane was actually down on the ice cap. When it hit, it broke in two with the tail facing into the wind, so the lone survivor, the radio operator, was able to crawl into a bit of a wind-break avoiding the bone chilling Arctic wind. His radio had been smashed in the crash so he could not send an SOS.
Twenty-four hours later, after a dynamic rescue effort on the part of at least two Air Sea Rescue planes, the medics brought the survivor to our base, which had the closest hospital, and carried him through my work area. I got quick look at him on the stretcher as they exited to a waiting ambulance. I later heard that he eventually recovered.
From what I now understand, when they checked the maintenance records at the plane’s home base, it was noted that the plane’s altimeter was broken; meaning the pilot did not know how low he was flying; a very unacceptable situation especially when flying over the ice cap because visually, the light blue horizon seems to melt into the ice cap such that without an instrument point of reference as to your relative height, you are probably going to crash.
My Sergeant was there with me that night as the incident had the whole base alerted to what was unfolding in our heretofore dull and lonely existence. As the medics exited Base Ops my Sergeant turned to me and said – ‘Good job.’ That was all that was ever said to me about the incident which turned out to be the only time in my twenty year Air Force career that I ever had a hand in helping save someone’s life.
The story has an interesting ending. When I told this story on one of the Greenland web sites, a retired Air Sea Rescue medic who had taken part in the search for the downed aircraft contacted me and we exchanged a few e-mails about the incident, and I was able to learn the rest of the story.
My new found friend told me that his plane, an SA-16,equipped with skis & wheels could land on water or the ice cap, but when it tried to take off after rescuing the wounded man they could not get airborne due to the weight of the plane. A lighter plane was then called in, and with the transfer of the survivor, safely lifted off. My friend said he never learned how they got his SA-16 off the cap. Obviously, they had to unload a lot of gear.
I would encourage my fellow veterans to post some of their more remarkable experiences on one of the Internet web sites serving veterans. By doing so, you may learn the ‘rest of the story.’