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

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)
Air & Space Magazine

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.

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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.…”

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