… 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?