Greenland Operations of the

17th Tactical Airlift Squadron and CRREL

Steven J. Mock

March 1973


Scientists and engineers of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory have been conducting research studies on the Greenland Ice Cap since the late 1940's. The very early studies were made as part of U.S. Air Force investigations like Project Snowman in 1947 and Project Mint Julep in 1953, in which clear ice areas of the ice cap were studied for potential use as wheeled aircraft landing sites. These projects were summer operations supported by ski-equipped C-47 aircraft from Sondrestrom. Figures 1 and 2 show locations of sites mentioned in the text. Figure 1 refers to those sites in which the 17th TAS and CREEL were jointly involved, while Figure 2 refers to other locales.


During the early 1950's, the U.S. Army initiated a research and development program aimed at enhancing its capability to conduct sustained military operations in the far north. Research parties traversed large areas of the ice cap to obtain glaciological data. The U.S. Army Transportation Corps. Initiated over-snow transport with heavy equipment to provide logistic support for the construction and operation of two AC&W stations (Site I and Site II) located on the ice cap north and east of Thule. Several access routes to the interior were studied, with the best route found 14 miles southeast of Thule where the ice cap forms a gently sloping ramp to the adjacent land. The base camp established there was called TUTO, an acronym for Thule Take-Off.


 As the research program expanded an inland base was needed for deep drilling and other large scale projects. In 1955, Camp Fistclench was constructed 220 miles east of Thule, adjacent to the AC&W site (Site II), to test and evaluate methods of ice cap construction and to provide a summer base camp for research and development projects. A requirement for year-round operation led to the construction of Camp Century, in itself a unique experiment. The camp, completed in 1960, was occupied until 1966 with summer populations exceeding 220 men. A portable nuclear reactor supplied power and heat for the camp and scientific projects, chief among them was the deep drilling program, which succeeded in drilling through the ice cap and into morainal material some 4,800 feet below.


During this period aviation support was provided by attached Army aviation groups which later became an integral component of the Army Research Support Group (RSG). At its peak, "Polecat Airlines" operated three H-34 helicopters, an Otter, and a ski-equipped Caribou.


While Army and CRREL research activities were concentrated in northwest Greenland, other parts of the ice cap and Greenland were not entirely disregarded. An expeditionary type traverse using weasels made detailed stratigraphic studies of snow along a route from northwest Greenland southwards into the interior and then southwest to a point on the ice cap near Jakobshavn. The group was resupplied by the USAF, and the techniques of free air drops were refined to the point where little or no damage was sustained by supplies.


In 1958, CRREL expertise in snow and ice construction and engineering was drawn upon extensively for the design of the two DEW Line ice cap stations, Dye 2 and Dye 3. CRREL was also involved in site selection for these sites, making stratigraphic studies of the snow to predict snow accumulation rates and running wind tunnel tests to develop criteria for minimizing snow drifting problems.


Operation King Dog took place in 1958. This was an Army operation to blaze a surface route from Sondrestrom, through the marginal zone, and into the interior of the ice cap. The field party encountered great difficulty in the marginal zone but eventually succeeded in crossing it and moving 76 miles onto the ice cap before turning back to Sondrestrom.


The following year, 1959, was marked by the arrival of ski-model C-130's ready for the construction airlift to Dye 2 and 3. CRREL scientists were prepared for the advent of high performance aircraft. A scientific traverse over a large portion of the ice cap in southern Greenland was planned for 1959 and 1960. A four-man group, driving three weasels and towing five sleds, was to carry out stratigraphic snow studies and altimetry surveys. Were it not for the C-130's two weeks would have been spent gaining access to the ice cap via the route blazed by King Dog. As is was, the men and all equipment were airlifted to Dye 2 by two C-130's in less than two hours.


The expeditionary force traversed the ice cap from Dye 2 to Dye 3 and then continued south. Some 100 miles southwest of Dye 3 an air resupply was carried out and the traverse was continued to the southern tip of the ice cap east of Narsarssuak where the group cached its equipment and walked out.


The following year the field team returned to the cached equipment and traversed the ice cap by a different south back to Dye 3 and then on to Dye 2, continuing their snow studies. An interesting incident occurred at Dye 3. The team established its camp about two miles north of the site and was conducting round-the-clock measurements of temperature in the upper meter of snow. The midnight shift met a "gentleman" in a white fur suit who was so friendly that no amount of shouted insults and epithets would discourage his desire for closer contact. Only the keen wisdom and long Arctic experience of the project leader saved the group from catastrophe. He pointed out that the gentleman was a polar bear and that his friendliness towards the men was much like that of the wolf towards Little Red Riding Hood. Thereupon, the bear was dispatched with "dispatch."


The unique capabilities of the 17th and their ski-model 130's became evident to CRREL in 1963. Some years previous (1956) six summer camps had been set up by the USAF on the ice cap to make a connection between the geodetic datum of Europe and that of North America, using the HIRAN system. Because the movement of the ice cap is of prime interest to CRREL scientists, each station was marked by a 35-ft. telescoping aluminum pole. Since the position of each pole was known very accurately, it was planned to make a re-determination of their positions sometime in the future, thus measuring ice movement.


By 1963 the poles were in danger of being buried by the accumulating snow. It was decided to install new poles at each site since the means to redetermine their positions were as yet unavailable.


A CRREL field team arrived at Sondrestrom in May 1963 and briefed 17th personnel on the nature of the mission. The navigators were unanimous in their estimate of the chances of successfully finding isolated aluminum poles several hundred miles out on the ice cap. Zero! Nevertheless, the mission was pursued, and after 28 hours of flight time four of the six stations had been found. Since one of these four was scheduled for a visit and marking by a French expedition, only three had to be re-marked. On 16 May the aircraft departed Sondrestrom and landed at each of the stations (HIRAN 28, 27, and 26 in that order), where the CRREL team, with able assistance from the flight crews, installed new poles. Total elapsed time was slightly less than eight hours. JATO was used at stations 26 and 28, but was not needed at station 27 (9,050 ft.)


 The 1966-67 Blue Ice Project at Inge Lehman Station in north Greenland required a major support effort by the 17th. CRREL involvement in this USAF project was minimal but two CRREL glaciologists were flown in and later taken out by C-130 after making snow studies and testing equipment. While at Inge Lehman they traveled by Ski-Doo to "Northice" where a British expedition had wintered over in 1952-53, and dug into the old camp. The hazards of ice cap flying were evidenced at Northice by the vertical stabilizer of a British Hastings transport, projecting three feet above the snow fourteen years after its unscheduled landing.


CRREL engineers became C-130 commuters in 1959 when they started installing benchmark systems and instrumentation to monitor the long-term performance of the two DEW Line stations, DYE 2 and DYE 3. This program was continued to the present with one or two trips to each site annually. Each site visit lasts around two weeks during which time engineering surveys are run on the composite building, the buried fuel storage tanks, the waste water disposal system and the surrounding snow. The information collected has played an important role in the life extension of the DEW Line in Greenland far beyond its initial ten years. In 1969, the 17th TAS picked up the CRREL engineering team at Pease AFB, New Hampshire. With them traveled a 1/10 scale model of Dye 2, which was erected that summer at Dye 2 to study snow drifting.


In 1969, three years after the closing of Camp Century, CRREL scientists planned to return in order to measure deformation of the borehole through the ice and to run a series of tests to confirm earlier findings. The Army support forces had long since been disbanded and "Polecat Airlines" was operating in the tropics.


The 17th as requested to support the mission, and as in the past responded rapidly in the affirmative. The CRREL field party was picked up at Pease AFB on 21 May and flown to Sondrestrom where they were met by Danish scientists who were participating in the work. The first group of four men was flown into Century without incident on 22 May. The remaining four scientists came in the following day but this flight was not quite so routine. Weather conditions were marginal on landind and did not improve during offloading. After men and equipment were off, the "130" taxied away, disappearing into blowing snow. The CRREL team heard the takeoff at about 1800 hours, when JATO was fired. They then retired to their camp to eat, sleep and wait out the storm. About 0200 hours the following morning they were awakened by the distinctive sound of a C-130 and just caught a glimpse of it leaving the snow. It seems the first takeoff had failed and the combination of soft snow and poor visibility had forced the aircraft to spend nine unscheduled hours at Camp Century until conditions improved.


The field party was taken out on 2 June, the operation again taking place under marginal weather conditions. Departure was again delayed but only so that the aircrew could be given a guided tour of the undersnow city. To the best of our knowledge no one has been to Camp Century since.


Another highlight of CREEL's relationship with the 17th occurred in 1971. The CRREL engineering team was returning to Sondrestrom from Dye 3 when the C-130 was diverted to the southwest for a simulated search and rescue mission. The object of the search was "My Gal Sal," a B-17E of the 342nd Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group, which had crashed on the edge of the ice cap about 120 miles south of Sondrestrom in June 1942. A CRREL engineer photographed "Sal" during the mission and an enlarged print was presented to the squadron by the Commander and Director of CRREL in appreciation of the support received from the 17th TAS.


The Greenland Ice Sheet Program (GISP) began in 1971. It involves Danish, Swiss, and CRREL scientists who will drill several holes in the ice cap and analyze the ice cores to determine past climatic changes. In addition, a geophysical program to determine whether the ice cap is thickening or thinning is being undertaken.


The CRREL drilling, core analysis and geophysical teams and equipment were picked up by C-130 at Pease AFB in May 1971 and flown to Sondrestrom and then into Dye 3. During May, June, and July various phases of the project were successfully completed, including the drilling of a 1,400 foot hole beneath the structure. In addition to retrograding project equipment to Sondrestrom the 17th also had the distinction of airlifting 1,400 ft. of ice cores.


The 1972 GISP work relied much more heavily on support by the 17th. Reminiscent in may ways of the 1963 HIRAN operation, the objective was to find and land at a radar corner reflector in north Greenland and at a steel pole in central Greenland.


The northern site, imaginatively named Northsite, was marked by a radar corner reflector dropped by a Navy ski-model C-130 in April 1972. The reflector had been observed to break on contact but had been picked up on the aircraft radar two days later. The flight to Northsite took place on 29 July and following a sort, unsuccessful search for the corner reflector a landing was made at a DR position of 75 degrees 42 minutes North, forty-two degrees West.


The field team spent three hours completing their work: sampling the snow in a pit; drilling a 49-foot hole with core retrieval; and recording Doppler data from Navy navigation satellites to provide an accurate position fix.


Total time on the snow was extended considerably when difficulties were experienced in getting the C-130 airborne. The sixth takeoff attempt (second with JATO) was successful but so fuel had been consumed that an unscheduled and unwanted trip into Thule was made before returning to Sondrestrom.


The objective on 1 August was Crete, the crest of the ice cap along the trail system laid out by the International Greenland Glaciological Expedition. CRETE was marked by aluminum poles and a large steel pole. No problems were encountered, the navigator taking the aircraft straight to the proper location. The landing, surface work, and takeoff were all accomplished in a routine manner.


Fourteen years have passed since the 17th TAS and CRREL first got together. The number of ski-model C-130's is down from the early years and the CRREL programs in Greenland have become more modest in scope. Despite these changes, additional cooperation between old Arctic hands will undoubtedly add new material for this narrative.




This is a lising of places to which the 17th TAS has transported CRREL engineers and scientists. The locations and elevations are approximate except those for Northsite, Crete, and Dye 3, which are based on Doppler data from navigation satellites taken in 1972.







Dye 2


66 28' N, 46 14' W

6,900 feet


Dye 3


65 11' 15" N, 43 49' 50" W

8,132 feet




68 19' N, 35 21' W

9,600 feet




69 23' N, 35 55' W

9,050 feet




70 37' N, 36 10' W

10,300 feet


Inge Lehman


77 57' N, 39 11' W

7,900 feet


Camp Century


77 11' N, 61 08' W

6,180 feet




75 46' 03" N, 42 26' 34" W

9,347 feet




71 07' 13" N, 37 18" W

10, 405 feet






APPENDIX B: Aircraft and CRREL Crews


HIRAN Project: Cover and Landing Crews--Landing Aircraft #491




Warren C. Albert

Mission Commander




Charles N. Morris





Richard Henry





Ronald Hebert





Keith Van Note





Robert Edgell




1st. Lt.

Roland Guidry




1st. Lt.

Sammie Hunter





Virgil Scott

Flight Engineer




Floyd Brooks





Joe Lopez

Flight Engineer




Charles N. Dorman










Steve Mock





Don Alford














Camp Century -- Landing Aircraft #494









John Haley

Aircraft Commander




Joseph L. Reed





Rod Fauser










Dr. Willy Weeks





B. Lyle Hansen





Austin Kovacs





SP4 Larry Trenholm





Dr. Sigfus Johnson





Dr. Henrik Clausen





Dr. Jorgen Stougaard (Medicine)





C. W. Hammer








Article courtesy of:

William M. "Bill" Koverman
Firebird Navigator

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