Rescue on the Greenland ice cap

By James H. Robinson

This is some of the things I remember about an airplane crash at Narsarsuaq, Greenland (Bluie West One). I was stationed at Ernest Harmon Air Force Base at Stephenville, Newfoundland, 1956-1959, and assigned to the 52nd Air Rescue Squadron as an airborne radio operator. One morning rather early we were alerted about an airplane crash on the ice cap in Greenland near Narsarsuaq. We loaded our gear and got in the air as fast as we could. Our crew was already on standby and in the ready-to-go mode. We left Harmon with five or six paramedics aboard. These fellows were real professionals and very good at what they did.

I made radio contact as soon as we were airborne and got as much information as I could. I found out [that the downed plane] was a civilian airplane DC-4 hauling fuel out of BW1. The air base was in the process of being shut down and a lot of things were being moved out. It turned out that this air crew did not make the safe approach to BW1. They cheated, as we used to say, and let down over the ice cap rather than letting down over the sea and flying up the fjord to the air base. Flying up the fjord took a lot of time, and some people didn't like to do that.

[The approved approach to Bluie West One] was a real thrill. You came up the fjord with mountains on both sides and higher than you were flying, and the opening between the mountains didn't look that wide. Then all of a sudden you were on top of the base. You had to make a sharp turn and land right then. The first two or three times were scary.

When the civilian airplane was letting down over the ice cap they ran into a whiteout condition, and they could not see where they were. I don't remember the altitude of the ice cap at that location, but I know it was very high. I have seen the barometric altimeter read 11,000 ft and the radio altimeter read 1000 ft at places over the ice cap. [Just so: in southern Greenland the ice cap rises about 3,000 meters above sea level.]

While we were on the way to the crash site, other aircraft were also on the way. We were the only rescue airplane with paramedics aboard. When we arrived we let down to a lower altitude so we could look for survivors. On one pass a man was seen walking around the wreckage. All eyes on board were looking as hard as we could. He disappeared in the wreck and did not come back out. I went back to the storage and got a URC-4 emergency radio. It was rigged with a small parachute, the size used for the old Gibson Girl Emergency Radio. The Aircraft Commander lined up on the crash site and we came in as low as possible and the flight engineer and I threw the radio out. The parachute opened and the radio landed about 30 or 40 feet away from the wreckage, but the man never came out.

It was determined the winds were around 40 to 50 mph and gusty. The Aircraft Commander decided it was too risky to let the paramedics jump. We then climbed up to safer altitude and waited for the Grumman SA-16's to land on the ice. One landed and they got the man out of the wreck and put him on the SA-16. They reported he was snow blinded, and could not see the radio.

They tried to take off but could not get airborne. It seemed like forever they tried and tried, no luck. Finally they put JATO bottles (jet assisted take off) on the airplane. That didn't help. The other SA-16 dropped their JATO, bue when the JATO bottles hit the snow they buried about five or six feet. They dug them out, put them on the airplane, and still could not get airborne. They then drained most of their fuel and took everything off the airplane they could, but being lighter did not help either.

All this time we were flying around and around in a holding pattern. I was transmitting and receiving information with U.S. Air Force radio ground stations when we learned that a C-47 airplane equipped with skis was on the way from Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. Being an US Air Force Rescue Aircraft, I had already declared an emergency on all the frequencies we were using. All radio stations and aircraft had to cease transmitting on these frequencies until the emergency was declared over.

It seemed like an eternity until the C-47 got there. When it did, they landed, picked up the fellow and took him to BW1. We were real happy to get out of that awful holding pattern. At that time I canceled the emergency on all the radio channels, then asked Narsarsuaq Airways Communications to request food for the crew and the passenger to be brought to the ramp [at Bluie West One], because we needed to refuel and get on the way to Goose Bay Air Force Base Hospital in Labradore Canada with our patient as soon as possible.

We refuled, got the survivor of the crash on board, then took off. After we got airborne, the airplane trimmed out and on auto pilot. The food was spread out in the back of the airplane and we had a real picnic. If you had been on board that night you would have seen a four engine airplane flying with a minimum crew. Everybody else was enjoying the meal. Remember that was the only real food we had since early that morning. Some of us had some small cans of C rations in our Arctic survival gear, but that was gone before noon that day.

The patient was in pretty good shape, and the paramedics on board took good care of him. The SC-54 was equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks which gave us near 15 hours of flying time. I don't remember the hours we were in the air that day, but we flew all day. It was late night when we got back and landed at Goose Bay, Labrador. We made it back home to Harmon AFB, Newfoundland, in the wee hours of the morning of the next day. I never heard how they got the SA-16 off the ice and back to BW1.