Four aircraft, 12 airmen, 25 days, 40 below zero, in the middle of nowhere.
- By Edward Farmer
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
ON DECEMBER 7, 1948, an unusual aviation drama began to unfold. A U.S. Air Force C-47 transport on a routine flight across Greenland got caught in a whiteout and ended up flying into the snow-covered terrain. The pilot sustained head injuries, but all seven men on board survived.
The aircraft went down in southern Greenland, about 125 miles north of its destination, the Air Force base Bluie West One (BW-1). Three days later, an Air Force B-17 attempted a rescue of the downed airmen. But the bomber landed in soft snow and began sinking. Now another aircraft and two more airmen were stranded on the ice cap.
Eventually, a total of 12 airmen ended up in Greenland without an aircraft to get them out. The Air Force turned to the world’s premier arctic rescue organization, the 10th Air Rescue Squadron. The 10th was commanded by the legendary Bernt Balchen, the first airman to fly over both of Earth’s poles and the era’s greatest contributor to arctic search and rescue. My uncle, Murl Chamberlain, a glider pilot with the 10th, was called on to help with the crisis.
When it was over, Murl wrote a longhand account of it that I eventually inherited, along with photographs of the aircraft and people who had been stranded. This article is based in large part on his memoir.
In the 1940s, militaries were starting to use gliders for rescues. Gliders, such as those made by Waco, had been used in World War II for troop insertion and removal. Because they had no engines, they were essentially empty containers that could be filled with people needing to be transported, then picked up via a tow rope by a powered aircraft and hauled up and out. Germans used gliders in 1943 to remove troops from the Kuban peninsula in Russia, and in 1945, Allied gliders evacuated wounded troops from Remagen, Germany. Equipped with either wheels or skis, gliders could be adapted to a wide range of terrain.
My uncle Murl flew the CG-15A, an improved version of the CG-4 troop-carrier gliders made famous in the Normandy D-Day invasion and Operation Market Garden in Holland. The CG-15A could carry 15 soldiers or a light vehicle.
At the time of the Greenland crash, Murl and a few other airmen were at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, preparing to ferry a glider and its related equipment to Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska. While they were on the runway, waiting for takeoff clearance, the group received a call from the Pentagon: “We were being diverted to Greenland in order to rescue a downed C-47 on the Greenland Ice Cap,” Murl writes. “[I]n a matter of minutes we were rolling down the runway heading for Westover AFB, Mass.
“Naturally, being a Lieutenant and having the shortest date of rank, I had the honor of flying the glider. I wanted to fly the C-54 [towplane] like the rest of the pilots, but in order to get flying time, the glider was my best bet.”
In the meantime, Air Force aircraft flew over the site, parachuting supplies and portable stoves to the stranded men.
On the first leg of the flight, recounts Murl, “I was the only pilot in the glider…. I had a companion though but he had had no experience in gliders or any type of flying…. All I can remember about him was that he had two stripes on his sleeve and he was very polite. He appeared to be enjoying the ride.…”
At Westover, “we received word about the Troop Carrier Command sending another glider, and that we would all arrive together at Goose Bay, Labrador [Canada], coordinating our activities. The weather was beginning to play an important factor and it looked like we would have problems being able to stay VFR [Visual Flight Rules].
“We left Westover…. The C-54 had a tendency to keep the glider at top redline on the airspeed indicator, and I was constantly pleading to slow down or we might end up losing the glider. As we progressed on our way towards Canada, the weather continued to deteriorate. We were now flying over an overcast and the holes in the clouds were fast disappearing. Night arrived with solid overcast below. At this time I was wondering what kind of weather we had at our destination. The report from the C-54 was that our destination [Seven Islands, in Quebec] had at least 2000 feet and 3 miles or more visibility. I believe we had a small discussion about continuing the flight and all agreed to proceed. I thought about cutting loose when we arrived over the radio beacon at our destination and then about an instrument approach in the glider. One small item was missing. The glider did not have any approach charts. I started asking questions: where the field was located from beacon, what type of obstructions and what the terrain was like? Were there such things as mountains or hills that could get in the way? What are the minimums?…