Four aircraft, 12 airmen, 25 days, 40 below zero, in the middle of nowhere.
- By Edward Farmer
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
(Page 2 of 4)
“My young friend again rode in the opposite seat…. He never sensed the developing problems and I saw no need to tell him. I figured it would be best not to go into details so he could continue to enjoy the ride.
“By the time we arrived over the beacon, there were no holes to let down through. All of a sudden the C-54 started a letdown and I knew then and there we were on our way to making an instrument approach. As we descended and entered the clouds, I thought immediately that the C-54 should turn on their landing lights, thereby, I had a chance of staying in visible contact with the C-54. It worked wonderfully. As we let down the C-54 was just a small silhouette with a circle of light around it. To me, it was a beautiful sight. When we broke out of the clouds, there were hardly any lights to see on the ground. It was practically pitch dark. But in a minute or so, we came upon the airfield and received landing instructions. I asked the C-54 to put the glider on downwind and then I would cut loose. As I pulled the release lever, I felt exalted and I had lost a little tenseness that had built up during the let down. Boy! It felt great to touch down and clear the runway….”
Later, the pilot of the tow airplane, Calvin Jackson, wrote of Murl’s landing-lights innovation: “This was a dramatic accomplishment and the Canadian people on the base lined up to greet the crew. Murl Chamberlain should have received a medal for that dramatic aviation event.”
The following day, Murl and his crewmate flew to Goose Bay, Labrador, arriving on December 16. He wrote: “Later, we found out our counter parts from Troop Carrier Command had aborted and had returned to their place of departure. The weather was a little more than what they could handle.”
The Troop Carrier glider and crew arrived a few days later. “Their attitude was arrogant and very uncooperative,” writes Murl.
“…Their entire attitude was that the 10th Rescue Squadron had no business flying gliders and that they were the only ones that were specially trained for this type of flying. None the less, I believe we gave them a lesson that we could arrive under severe weather conditions, when their pilots gave up and turned tail for home.”
The two units now had to coordinate efforts. “I did not get in on the meetings that took place,” Murl writes, “but when they were over it appeared that the 10th Air Rescue Squadron came up on the short end of the stick. I was now reduced to a co-pilot and a captain from Troop Carrier would be the first pilot. Right off, he let me know that he was in command and that I was his co-pilot. My commander [Bernt Balchen] gave some lame excuse and wanted to know if I went along with what was going on. Under the circumstances I couldn’t or did not want to mess up the rescue, or delay any part of it, because of any disappointment and I had a keen sense of duty that came before my pride. The other glider was to be flown by two lieutenants from the Troop Carrier Command.”
UP AT THE CRASH SITE, the men had perhaps three hours of sunlight each day. The crew of the B-17 rescue airplane used torches and other tools to carve out a comfortable shelter in the ice and survived on supplies air-dropped to them, including heaters. But the C-47 crew decided they should stay in their frigid airplane. “After about six hours,” wrote Calvin Jackson, “one of the [C-47] members…made up his own mind that he was going to die that night. He felt that he had one obligation to go down to the B-17 crew and bid them farewell. He climbed out of his sleeping bag, got dressed, and went down to the B-17 crew apartment, and there he found them with steaks frying, the bar was set up, the place was lined with [parachute] silk as fine as any Arabian tent could possibly be, the radios going, and they were sitting there playing gin rummy as cozy and roast as they would be if they were in their downtown apartment in New York.” The C-47 crewman ran back and told his crew mates what he had found. Eventually, “all of the crew members on the C-47 were in larger shelters and there was an underground community with apartments, everyone rejoicing, and surviving in fine condition thanks to the outstanding work done by the B-17 crew members.”
While the Air Force was mounting a rescue attempt with gliders, the U.S. Navy was trying another strategy. The carrier Saipan was ordered into position off the west coast of Greenland, carrying helicopters (including Piaseckis), for possible use if the gliders failed.
Weather around the crash site deteriorated, but neither of the glider crews was aware of the conditions as they made their way from Canada toward BW-1. The severe weather also kept the Saipan from getting into position.
“[From Labrador], there was around 600–700 miles of flying to reach our destination,” writes Murl. “The captain and I were becoming friends and we were working together as a team. It was much better to have two pilots at the controls instead of one. At least we could spell one another, while the other could take a break.” Though he has no engine and is doing no navigating, a glider pilot has his own flying to do: He must keep the craft above or below the towplane’s wake, and more or less on axis with the towplane’s direction of flight. When the towplane turns, the glider pilot has to match the turn, usually by duplicating the amount of bank. If the glider loses sight of the towplane, the two craft could collide.
“The clouds were forming and we were flying barely above the tops,” writes Murl. “It wasn’t long before we were flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules). As we entered into IFR, we noticed that ice was beginning to form on the leading edge of our wings and our windshield…making it difficult to see through. The captain was trying to look out the side window and slip the glider a little to the side, in order to see ahead. I found a very small window in the center of the windshield and proceeded to discover how to open it. I finally found the combination and the small window came open with a loud bang. Cold air blasted through but it was the only way we were going to be able to see our tow aircraft. Things started to take a turn for the worst, the ice continued to build and the glider was not equipped with deicing equipment. Matter of fact, the aircraft was not intended for weather of this kind. I believe about this time the C-54 thought it best that we descend to a lower altitude. We started a letdown, trying to find a safer place where we could get away from the ice.