LANDING ON ICE-CLAD MOUNTAINSIDE NO TROUBLE AT ALL
NEW BREED OF PILOT TAMES ARCTIC
By BILL DUNCAN
(Staff writer Bill Duncan has been in Alaska observing some of our nation's defense facilities. Here is one of his reports).
Folks back in San Antonio, Tex., used to say William E, Bless could stop his jalopy on a dime. The folks should see him now. The 35-year-old Air Force pilot lands a 75,000 pound C130 Hercules on the side of an ice-coated mountain. Capt. Bless is one of the new breed of "bush" pilots flying re-supply missions in the Arctic to remote Distant Early Warning radar sites, the dome-shaped installations strung like sparking pearls over the top of the world, He is a member of the 17th Troop Carrier Squadron stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Anchorage. The primary mission of the 17th is to fly supplies to the radar sites in Alaska and Greenland located in isolated spots that only airplanes and dog sleds can reach, The pilots land on ice caps, mountainsides and on runways carved out on the frozen tundra.
Every man, every stick of lumber, every piece of equipment going and coming to these sites is flown in or out by the 17th. The ice cap operations as flights to other DEW sites, must be carried out in all kinds of weather-- the most dangerous of which is the "whiteout." A "whiteout" is an atmospheric and surface condition occurring when snow cover is complete and the clouds so thick and uniform that the light reflected by the snow is about the same intensity as the light of the sun. It is an eerie phenomenon. During a "whiteout" no object casts a shadow the horizon is indiscernible. The pilots almost may face a "snow fog"--a time when gale force winds drive thin, powdery snow making an impenetrable fog that completely obliterates vision.
The re-supply missions are militarily code named "Mona Lisa." "I don't know how that name was picked," said A/lC William R. Sims, 33, of Bryan, Tex., a C130 load master, ''I would guess it is because the woman in the painting has a trick smile." To see the operation first hand is to believe that the Giaconda smile would break into a full grin.
The airlifts are of food, fuel, vehicles, equipment and construction materials, but inside the C-130s, the load may be everything from bulldozers to razor blades. The 17th flies against a grim, inanimate enemy--the ice, the winds, the cold. It is as though nature is angry because man has set foot in a forbidden white paradise.
Because conditions are hostile to man, he cannot live long without support from the outside world. The DEW site personnel, the lonely sentinels of the Far North, could not live with- out support from the brave men who fly the supply missions. However, steady technological advances are enabling man to control the environment in the far reaches of the arctic -- at least make a beachhead for science and defense.
To the men assigned the long winters at the DEW line, the silent ice and snow has a serene appeal-- morale is high, even though tension is constant for the men who scan radar scopes on the nation's front line of defense. Blizzards are frequent and their action can change all landmarks on the icy terrain. The fierce winds sculpture the surface into fantastic crags of hard snow; sometimes the packed drifts look more like sand dunes in the Sahara than the frozen wasteland of the north.
Risks are a daily diet with the pilots who fly over the trackless ice looking for the DEW sites. Winter storms load the air with turbulence -- often at gale force. No better aircraft has been built for this flying than the pudgy Lockheed C130 Hercules. It can leap into the air in 20 seconds and can cruise at 25,000 feet. The aircraft's turbines, driving four propellers, thrive on the thin air. Some places on the ice cap are 10,000 feet above sea level and the air is so thin a person almost needs a oxygen mask to move around.
JATO (jet assisted take off) bottles cramped under the wings of the big bird are sometimes necessary, especially when the ice cap's surface is covered with deep fluffy snow. The C-130s have eliminated the need for the costlier para-dropping of supplies. Men like Capt. Bless are the backbone of the air operation. The Texas captain, flying a civilian recently, was quizzed as he maneuvered the giant aircraft toward the side of a mountain where a DEW installation stood silent sentry. "Where are you going to land?" the civilian inquired. "We are landing right now," Capt. Bless drawled. "On the side of a mountain!" exclaimed the passenger. "Sure, I got 210 fleet before I reach the peak," he replied nonchalantly as the landing skis, bit into the scraped ice mountainside runway. With the four engines in full reverse, kicking up snow and ice in its wake, the big bird stopped. Capt. Bless turned to the civilian, smiled and said: "I figure if I keep churning up this ice and snow eventually I'11 whittle this state down to the size of Texas."
Long Beach Press-Telegram
Long Beach, California
Wednesday, November 18, 1964
Article courtesy of:
William E. "Bill" Bless
17th Troop Carrier Squadron