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 | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

The Troop Carrier glider was readied for a rescue pickup. “Since this glider did not have skis on it when it touched down on the snow,” wrote Jackson, “it was noticed that the wheels penetrated the snow surface and the bottom of the glider became like a toboggan on a snow surface. Recognizing this, we instructed the ground crew to place large sheets of plywood…in front of the wheels to give a little platform as it started out.”

To prepare a glider for pickup by a towplane, the crew would place a loop of nylon rope between two eight-foot-high poles set about 10 feet apart. The glider was positioned about 250 feet away, pointing toward the poles. A nylon rope attached the loop to the glider. The towplane would fly low and, with a hook trailing from the back, catch the loop, pulling the glider up.

During the first attempt, the heavily loaded glider’s wheels dug in and the rope broke. The glider crew reset the bridle and removed the glider’s wheels, so the glider would slide on its belly. After an hour and a half, daylight was fading and the C-54 made a second snatch attempt.

Again, the towplane made a long run and snagged the bridle. This time the glider had frozen to the ice and would not move. The tow rope broke, then snapped back toward the glider, sawing into one of the wings and breaking off the horizontal stabilizer. The glider’s nose was also damaged.

The second glider, back at BW-1, was prepared for a Christmas Day attempt. “Our glider was stripped of all unnecessary equipment, including the landing gear,” Murl writes. “…Needless to say, I became excess baggage and the captain was elected to try the rescue attempt.” The glider was flown out, and Murl stayed behind at BW-1.

The second glider arrived at the site and was loaded with the stranded men. “I’ll never forget that rescue attempt,” said Edwin Thomson, one of the airmen, in a 1995 article in Yankee magazine. “It was on Christmas Day, and we were finally picked up successfully in the glider only to have the towline break when we were 500 feet up—half a ton of nylon rope snapped back like a rubber band…. I still marvel at how the pilot crash-landed us safely.”

By this time, the world was watching the unfolding drama. Major newspapers covered the events in painstaking detail. “Glider Rescue Attempt Fails; New Methods Are Sought,” one article was headlined; another: “Fliers Stranded On Greenland Ice Cap Will Have Yule Turkey Even If Rescue Fails.”

Finally, after the two glider failures, the Air Force asked Lieutenant Colonel Emil Beaudry, an expert on arctic flying, to bring the airmen out. Beaudry and his copilot, Lieutenant Charles Blackwell, took off from Sonderstrom in west Greenland in a C-47—at last, an aircraft with skis was being deployed to the scene. It also had jet-assisted-takeoff (JATO) bottles. Flying over six hours during a day with only three hours of daylight, the pilots arrived at the crash site early on December 31. All the survivors boarded. The C-47 took off, climbed, and headed south.

After a stop at BW-1 and another at Goose Bay, the aircraft headed for New York City. It was a typical sleet-and-rain winter day when the airplane landed at La Guardia airport. Over 200 press photographers snapped pictures as the men deplaned.

The drama was over.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus