… Just a stone’s throw from the North Pole
By Jeff Salter
Nope … this is not about gymnastics at the Olympics.
August at 4F1H features travel themes and this week focuses on aircraft. I’ve had several very scary flights in my day, but the one I’ll relate here was not really ‘scary’ … as much as it was EXCITING.
Thule AB, Greenland
Yeah, I know, everybody’s already tired of hearing about my experiences while stationed – for most of a year – at a remote Air Force base in northwestern Greenland, 700 miles above the Arctic Circle. But, folks, such an exciting location often engenders numerous interesting stories!
Thule was about 930 miles from the North Pole. Our base touched some sheltered waters of the immense Baffin Bay. [At Thule, I was closer to Siberia (and especially to numerous Siberian Islands) than to most of the continental United States.]
Well, Thule was used for many functions besides its primary mission: distant early warning system for ‘over the polar cap’ Soviet inter-continental ballistic missiles. One of those auxiliary functions was a temporary ‘home’ base for the Royal Canadian Air Force’s annual – or possibly semi-annual – re-supply of its northern-most installation, called Point Alert.
On the very tip of Canada’s Ellesmere Island, Point Alert could dip its toenails in the Arctic Ocean (when it was liquid, that is).
Point Alert was about 400 miles north of Thule and roughly 500 miles from the North Pole. This particular resupply concentration occurred in the fall of 1972. Using the dependable workhorse C-130 cargo planes, these RCAF jocks (each cycle) would try to set a new record for fastest supply flights to Point Alert and back. [I have no idea what the record was.]
After their competition phase was over, the pilots still made many additional cargo runs — but without the clock ticking, they relaxed a bit and allowed some of Thule’s American military to ride along in the cabin jump seats.
I was in a two-man office and somehow my captain finagled a ride for both of us on one particular cargo mission.
From the time we had boarded and belted ‘til take-off was only a matter of moments. Those RCAF jocks didn’t piddle. Their flight checklists took less than half a much time as American pilots because their safety protocol didn’t require verbal confirmation of all the affirmatives. [The only verbal response would be if something did NOT check out.]
Anyhow, suddenly, from Thule’s own frozen runway, we were airborne!
With the speed competition over, these pilots took a couple of detours, to fly over something significant to them and also over the wreckage of a World War Two American aircraft which had crashed in Greenland. There were many such sites, and I had a close personal ‘attachment’ to one, because one of my Dad’s best friends went down with a bomber somewhere in Greenland and (with his crew) eventually died of starvation.
Anyhow, the trip was otherwise uneventful — not a lot of scenic variety in the Arctic. I now wish I would have realized when we were out over the fringe of the Arctic Ocean, but don’t believe I was aware of it at the time.
Well, our short ‘bench’ of jump seats was along the rear ‘wall’ of the front cabin, just a few feet behind the pilot and co-pilot. [Can’t recall if they had a navigator or not.]
When the pilot got centered over the icy runway of Point Alert, I realized I couldn’t see very much … past those large seats, all the instrument panels, and the smallish windshield. So I unbuckled and stood up. Yep. I braced my feet and held on to the back of the pilot’s seat, and crouched down so I could see as we landed. It was beautiful and exhilarating. I knew I’d never be that far north ever again in my lifetime … so I didn’t want to miss a single detail of that landing.
I’ll admit I was rather surprised that nobody reprimanded me — I half-way expected somebody to shout, “Sit down, Sergeant, and buckle UP!” But it was as though I was invisible. Now, to be sure, the pilots were focused on the important things they were doing. But my own captain didn’t say a word either.
On the ground, we didn’t venture beyond the rather small ‘operations’ building of Point Alert … so I don’t know what else that tiny installation had to offer visitors. I took a photo of my captain standing front of the Point Alert sign … and he snapped one of me. Wish I could find my copy.
What was your most exciting aircraft flight? Why?
My question is:WHO in the world told you we were tired of hearing about your experiences in Greenland??? I imagine the vast majority of us,(if not every single one who gets in here), will never have the chance to go there,and many would be afraid to…especially after the story of the crew that went down.(How horrible; may they have found God’s peace).
In all seriousness,Jeff, I know that must have been exciting, at least some of the time, for those who have any zest for life….what a shame many never take anything out of opportunities like yours….even your boredom led to some fine poetry~!
Thanks, Tonette. Well, I can’t say anybody here has complained about my repeated references to Thule, but I know how it is when people get older and keep repeating one or two highlights of their lives — people start rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh, great, we get to hear the ‘sunbathing on the glacier’ tale again.” LOL
As for that ill-fated crew. That man — my dad’s friend — left a journal … which eventually got to his family. It was published in a newspaper somewhere. And it was heart-breaking to read of their struggle, their hope, their faith … and near the end, their utter weakness from starvation.
Agree …. who would get tired of it …. and may I just add … http://iris-b.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/jl-salter-is-talking-greenland-and-his.html … for those who want to read more Jeff’s adventures ….
As for the most exciting flight …. I don’t think anything can beat your experience in Thule! But …. I liked my flight to HongKong when they were still operating out of the “old” airport. Landing / Taking off so close to the buildings was amazing. Also recently, landing in Hobart, flying in from over the water was brilliant. I’m sure the wing was only cm from the water 😉
Thanks, Iris. I was hoping you’d see this post. Glad you linked back to your interview of last month. That was enjoyable working with you on those memories.
Actually, I think your Hong Kong flight may well be far more exhilerating than my Point Alert experience. I’ve heard that airplanes have to take a nearly vertical approach … nearly like a helicopter … to land at that airport. Certainly not for the faint of heart.
I don’t know if this was Hobart, but I’ve seen pix of one airport downunder for which planes come in so close to the beach that it scatters beach towels. is that Hobart?
Are you thinking of St Maarten Airport ??
Possibly so, Iris. Can’t recall the name or region. But your description reminded me of some photos I saw where the landing gear looked like it could touch a sun-bather.
There are a few great airports in Australia, the one that comes to mind is Cairns – great descent, but Cairns hasnt’ got a beach so that’s not it. Could be Hobart. I suppose I need to visit again in summer to find out …. 😉
Ohhhh …. another great experience was flying from Anchorage (or was it Fairbanks?) north to the Arctic Circle ! The drive back was great as well …. LOL ….
I think I would enjoy that drive down the Al-Can Hwy. Of course it would have to be the proper season … which is surely not the WINTER months.
Love hearing these stories, Jeff. Keep ’em coming.
As for my own experiences, well, I don’t like to fly. Could be a control issue, seeing as I’m not the one actually ‘driving’. But, really, I’m baffled by how something so heavy could stay and inch off the ground, much less thousands of feet up.
And without fail, it seems every time I need to use the restroom, we hit turbulence.
Thanks, Jenn. I no longer enjoy flying either, but that’s partly because of all the new routines & delays & restrictions — enforced by the TSA folks. Before things got so crazy, I once had an antique hammer (which I’d bought at a garage sale) and a knife with a 4 inch blade (which I always traveled with) in my ‘carry-on’. Those checkers knew I wasn’t going to do anything wrong or dangerous …and just waved me through. Nowadays, I’d be in the federal pen. for that hammer.
Very cool, Jeff. I got the opportunity, as a tourist, to visit Greenland, although the southern tip, not Thule. It’s an amazing country. As for exciting flights, I’m not sure I can come up with one. Although, when I came home from Germany after being gone a year and having had a baby, getting off the plane to see about 20 family members there to greet us and officially meet my daughter, was a high point.
Laurie, I certainly believe the beautiful moments of your grand reception (returning from Germany after a long absence with a new baby in hand) by 20 family members … is right up there with the most memorable flights / landings. Nothing like coming home to a warm welcome … and showing the family their new relative for the first time!
Okay, I have to leave a comment here. Not that my experience can top yours! I’ve actually been to Greenland on a commercial flight (tour), but only to one place and just at the more southern reaches. That flight, however, can’t compare to the flight I made with my family on a small prop plane from Tahiti to the island of Moorea. After many flights on an around the world trip, I’d become accustomed to larger planes — big commercial jets, at least. I’d always been a nervous “flier,” but had pretty much calmed down due to the frequency of being on board various airlines while living overseas. My heart skipped a few beats, however, when we approached the craft that would take us to our next vacation spot in Moorea. It was just a tiny propeller plane – maybe 8 passengers? – with barely enough room for the four of us, a couple of other passengers, the pilot, and all the luggage. Before boarding, to make it even more upsetting, everyone was made to step onto a scale and our weight was noted, to make sure that we wouldn’t put too much weight on the plane. Yikes! Never having been on the slim side, this was a bit humiliating as well, but we all “passed the test,” and were allowed to squeeze onto the miniature plane. Bill (my husband) sat next to the pilot; the girls and I sat immediately behind. No aisles on this plane – just a few rows of seats and “squeeze space” at the edges between the walls and the door. We “buckled up;” the plane taxied out onto the runway and in a few moments, lifted into the air. Unlike jet passengers, we could actively participate in the flying experience as the pilot raised the plane’s nose and we ascended into the sky! What’s more, one could watch the land drop away and the plane just sort of float out over the ocean (gorgeous!). It was tremendously scary (for me), but I still count it as one of the thrills of a lifetime. One note: if memory serves, that was the flight where the pilot was using a Shell road map to navigate to our destination! The descent onto the island of Moorea (with its tiny, short runway!) was amazing, as we’d flown at low altitude over coral lagoons and the island’s lush tropical greenery before reaching the island airport. It was a storybook flight and a trip to remember – forever!
Carol, that does sound exciting! And a great scene for somebody’s novel someday. Maybe YOUR novel.
Yeah, that weight limit thing would worry me too. The plane you describe kinda reminds me of that one Harrison Ford flew into the terrible storm in “Five Days, Six Nights.”
Except maybe he didn’t have that many seats. Ha.
My husband says that the road map scenario belonged to another flight on that same vacation -one from Queenstown to Christchurch, NZ. Another small plane – not as scary, but a great experience also – in spite of the use of the old road map for navigation! I was afraid I’d mixed it up – and I did. All the rest is correct for the Moorea flight. Still quite an experience.
One of the advantages of fiction: you can take the best snippet of this experience, add it to the best snip of another, and weave it together with something completely unrelated … for effect.
I’d forgotten all about that flight until I read your account about Greenland. What an experience it must have been serving so far north! Thanks for the little memory jog, too!
You’re soitenly welcome, Carol.
I figure part of my writing ‘job’ is to jog memories…
Awesome. What a great experience and it really did stick with you!!
Truly did. And I’m still amazed that neither pilot nor my own captain told me to sit down!
They were probably as in awe as you and didn’t realize you were up! LOL!
ha. maybe so. Although I was likely blocking my captain’s view.
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