Stranded- page 3 | History | Air & Space Magazine
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When seven men got stuck in a grim patch of Greenland in 1948, the Air Force sent a B-17 to rescue them, but it got mired in soft snow (top of montage), only worsening the predicament. (USAF)

Stranded

Four aircraft, 12 airmen, 25 days, 40 below zero, in the middle of nowhere.

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(Continued from page 2)

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.

“I looked at that tow rope and thought, ‘If I could only crawl to the C-54 and had a chance of making it, I certainly would do so.’ But that was a fleeting thought, and I knew that I had no chance what so ever of accomplishing such a feat….

“It appeared that we were about to buy the proverbial farm; therefore, it was to our best interest to prepare for the big event, or try to stop the transaction if at all possible. At this time, I got out of my seat to go back into the fuselage of the glider to check on the life raft, that had been put aboard in case we had to ditch at sea. The life raft was rather large and it would have been a big job in order to discharge that raft out the side door, pull a lever to fill the raft with air, and then make sure the raft stayed around until both of us could get aboard. I realized that our chances were very small [even] if we could accomplish this task. The life raft was large enough to accommodate 10–12 passengers…. We would have to be extremely careful not to pull the air lever until the life raft was outside….

“I checked everything over and then returned to my seat, saying nothing about what I thought to the captain. As I put my headset back on and buckled in, the captain was upset about something. He said that the C-54 [crew] are considering cutting us loose because the weather ahead was forecast to be below minimums and they didn’t have the gas to return to Goose Bay towing a glider. He became completely irrational and dove the glider and pulled the nose up rather sharply and let go of the controls. This maneuver put a lot of slack in the tow rope and eventually in a few moments there would be a sharp jerk. I grabbed the controls and put the glider’s nose down and tried to minimize the jerk that was milliseconds away. We survived this maneuver and I asked, ‘What in the hell are you thinking about?’ All he said, ‘What’s the use, they are going to cut us loose anyhow.’ I shouted back, ‘We’re going to hold on as long as possible! I am not giving up that quickly!’

“We were now skimming along the top of the water not more than 200–400 feet above. The ice had melted, but that ocean was rough looking with many white caps present. The weather reports started to improve and it looked like we might make our destination. There was no more talk about ditching at sea, and we were beginning to feel that maybe we could survive another day.”

Finally, the glider released from the C-54 and landed at BW-1. Writes Murl: “I must say the ground felt so good that I could just kiss the ground and feel the soil and snow sift through my hands….

“A few days later, the other glider made the trip without many problems. The weather at BW1 was VFR. For some reason or another, the second glider flew directly to the rescue sight [sic] and proceeded to land near the downed aircraft,” even though the snow was very soft.

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