Project “Cool Rope”

(Winter/Spring of 1967)


17th Tactical Airlift Squadron

Alaskan Air Command





During the Winter/Summer of 1967, a National Guard, ski equipped, C-123 landed on Lake Nuyakuk in western Alaska. The aircraft was loaded with material for construction of a fish camp (sanctioned by the Alaskan government) for the Native Alaskans living in the area. As the taxi (slide) was begun, the aircraft fell through the ice. The fuselage was partially submerged as the aircraft came to rest on each of the engines. As is the procedure for aircraft accidents of either Guard or Reserve, the active Air Force became responsible for the recovery and/or subsequent investigation. The Alaskan Air Command became the responsible entity for attempting the salvage of the C-123.















Minox photo by Bruce V. Bradley, former Firebird navigator.


Photo by Ray Hull


Photo by Nolan Bailey, August 1967




For some reason, which still is a mystery, I was assigned as project officer for the operation. The flight to the lake was aboard an Alaskan Air command helicopter, piloted by Major Norm Miller (later killed while supporting the “Cool Rope” operation). Upon my arrival at the site, I was greeted by Colonel Charles W. “Spook” Johnson, Jr.  (I learned later of justification for the name Spook). Colonel Johnson was a large man, with a very gruff manner who was an All American Lineman for LSU football team in 1940. His first words to me were, “Captain, are you here to help or contribute to the problem?”  Not fully understanding why the question was being asked I answered with, “Well, Sir, I will do the best I can, either way.” That was not the right answer.


My bags were placed on a small sled behind a snow mobile, driven by Colonel Johnson. As we proceeded to the “tent compound,” the Colonel began weaving rather erratically, causing my bags to shift from side to side which unbalanced the sled. Some of my bags were hanging by the straps, others slid off and onto the snow. That night was one of the most interesting sessions, with a rather unique Colonel Johnson, of my Air Force career, to that point. It became very obvious that the Colonel did not like the Firebirds, since he “bad mouthed” the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron, until I went to sleep.


The recovery operation was, in my mind, a rather simple undertaking. My plan was to use huge “maintenance lifting pontoons” under each wing, while warming the inside of the aircraft by “Herman Nelson” heaters to free the fuselage. After the aircraft was lifted above the ice, the opening, which had contained the fuselage, would be allowed to freeze until it was thick enough to support a large sled on which the fuselage would be lowered. The aircraft would then be moved by a “Snow-cat” to the bank of the lake where a ramp would be constructed for its extraction from the lake. When I proposed my “plan” to Colonel “Spook” Johnson, his comments were, “Captain, I have you out here to work, not to think. Do you understand that?” Of course, my answer was, “Yes Sir!”  


Col Johnson’s plan for recovery was as follows:


A “dead man” diesel engine powering a huge winch was installed on the shore of the lake (approximately 1/4 mile away from the site) with a cable attached to the nose of the aircraft.


An “ice island” was constructed using chain saws (borrowed from the University of Alaska) with blades approximately 6 feet long.


After the “island” was “carved out,” boats were placed in the water with large (100 + horsepower) outboard engines. The idea was to circulate the water to keep it from freezing, as demolition teams from Fort Richardson, blasted the ice in front of the aircraft to allow a passage way for the “dead man” to pull the aircraft through the cleared (by dynamite) area.


The sequence of events were to be: clear the ice from around the “ice island” with the chain saws, start the engines of each of the boats (I believe 4 were used) to keep the water moving, the operator of the “dead man” was radioed to tighten the cable attached to the nose of the aircraft. As the signal was given to the demolition team to blast the ice in front of the aircraft, the operator of the “dead man” was to pull the aircraft through the blasted area.. As one could see, this entire operation was disastrous.  As the blast was initiated, the ice, being super cooled, actually became thicker, pieces of ice from the blast came down through the wing root of the C-123 and the bracket holding the cable at the front of the aircraft, pulled the nose to a wrinkled shape. Not being deterred by this obviously unsuccessful attempt, Colonel Johnson ordered mattresses be shipped in to pad the aircraft to avoid damage from the blast. Plywood was also ordered to place over the mattresses as additional protection from ice falling from the blasted area. The procedure was attempted again, with the same result. At this point, I returned to the squadron and was to stand by (termed “Cool Breeze”) to await further instructions. Eventually, it was decided to place the pontoons, which I had suggested from the beginning, under the wings and wait until the thaw, to remove the aircraft from the Lake.


Several interesting events took place during the recovery effort:


During the drop of a pallet of dynamite, the chute failed to open. The pallet went though the ice but pressure caused the pallet to resurface and skid to a safe landing. Much speculation resulted as to why the chute did not open. Inspection of the lanyard revealed that it was never hooked up.


At one point, Colonel “Spook” Johnson was cautioned by the Alaskan Air command radio operators about his foul language.  Commercial Radio stations were monitoring our short wave radio. 


During the delivery of a “Snow-cat” to the site, the rigging failed. As the helicopter approached the landing zone, one side of the cable broke. As the machine hit the ice, it was bottom side up and was crushed to about two feet in height; totally destroyed. (Cost of the machine was approximately $25,000.)


In a cabin, constructed totally by the family, on the shore of the lake, lived a chemistry professor from a northeastern university, who had decided to move his entire family to that area. One day, they invited all of the members of the recovery team for a meal prepared on a stove constructed from rocks and mud; the meal was delicious. About once a month, mail was delivered to the family by plane, which included lesson plans for education of the two children.


Indians living on the lake were authorized to use nets placed under the ice for harvesting fish; a very unique operation. During a walk toward the Indians fish operation, I fell through crack in the ice. Luckily, with one quick motion, I was able to swing my arms enough to push back to the surface. Of course, my clothes were wet and, in a very short time, frozen. I was rushed to the campsite where climbing off the snow scooter, became a difficult task; my clothes were frozen to the seat.



The most tragic happening occurred, as I mentioned at the beginning, when one of the supporting helicopters crashed, killing Major Norman Miller. His last words to me were, “So long, it has been nice knowing you.” These words rang in my head for many years.  Shortly after that, on June 3, 1967, Lieutenant General Glen Robbins Birchard, the Commanding General of the Alaskan Air Command during project Cool Rope, died from a freak accident in a float plane which had flipped during landing, about 60 miles north of King Salmon. As all were walking out in shallow water, and, to everyone’s amazement, the General disappeared, never to be found.  

General Glen R. Birchard


Throughout the course of the project, many 17th crewmembers participated in dropping equipment and supplies on the lake. Somewhere in my archives are pictures associated with this operation. One day I hope to find them and possibly write more about Project Cool Rope.







Ray D. Reaves

Former Pilot

17th Tactical Airlift Squadron

Alaskan Air Command

Summer 1967

















































































































Addendum:  (Rough Draft)

During my tour at Elmendorf I was sent to the Cool Rope operation in February of 1967.  While there I helped remove the reciprocating and jet engines, and helped dig out the side of the mountain, which would enable us to winch the aircraft back onto land.  After the aircraft was back on shore, I helped remove all of the avionics and the C-123 was returned to Elmendorf to be repaired or scrapped. Before it was returned to Elmendorf we unloaded the prefabricated fish cannery from the aircraft. I was also invited on the trip with Major Cooper on the ill fated trip that resulted in his death.

While there I was the "Unofficial NCOIC" of the operation. I aided in the sling retrieval by H-21of Avgas dropped from the C-130's, assisted with an engine change in an H-21 in 6 ft deep snow, shot a moose when the weather locked all aircraft operations on the ground, and we almost ran out of food. I also assisted the Navy UDT team with changing an aircraft tire underwater, and removing, with explosives, rocks submerged in the water that were in the path of the aircraft being winched to shore. I was the winch operator in addition to many other jobs.

I would be interested to know if you have contact with any of the other people that were at the lake during the operation. And if you have any questions that I might be able to answer, please let me know.


Tom Marsh
SMSgt Retired







































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