Chapter 2 - Thule, Greenland 1954
My weather squadron commander at St Johns was a Col Sandifier and on 2 September 1954 I was assigned as weather Detachment commander to Det 24, 5th Weather Group, Thule AFB Greenland. This was and still is a large air base north of the Arctic Circle and on the northern west coast of Greenland. The base was named after the Eskimo village that was there. After the AB was built the Eskimos were relocated in new houses in the next fiord north of Thule. About 30-40 miles and was called "new" Thule. All of the "barracks" and office buildings were rectangular box shape aluminum construction. Toilet and washing facilities were self-contained except for the steam heat which was piped above ground to each building from a central heating plant. The water and waste had to be serviced every few days by tank trucks. These buildings were set up about 4 feet above the ground on piles. The base operations on the flight line which also was half weather station was about five blocks from my barracks. Each officer in our barracks had a private room about 9 feet by 6 Feet. I had a single bed, dresser and a writing table and chair.
Normally I worked 8AM to about 5PM and most of the time if I was not flying I would spend time at the base weather station on Saturday and Sunday. There was about 40-45 weather personal. Lt Hempy, MSG Medlock, Capt Claude Driskell, Lt Mayhew, Capt Nilsestuen, Major --- There were about 6 officer plus 3 or 4 enlisted forecasters; the highest rank not including myself was a major. My replacement in 1955 would be a Lt Col. I had a staff sergeant administration clerk and a Tech sergeant supply clerk. We had a large weather observer section and a radiosonde section and we manned 2 observing sub detachments at two DEW line sites on the Greenland ice-cap. Site 1 was about 100 miles directly north of Thule AFB and Site 2 was about 200 miles east of Thule and on the "back bone" of the Greenland Island. It was about 6000 ft in elevation. The observers rotated out to the sites on a 30 or 60 day tour. All of them wanted to go there as the duties were quite versatile; from their required weather observations to running the snow plow to level the snow runways for the base ski equipped C-47's.
I was told by the base not to assign any black personal to these sites. This made a problem for me explaining why-not as we has a few black weather observers that wanted to have duty at these sites. I had a tech-sergeant for a supply man and he was good. We had to order all our supplies a year in advance so they could be shipped by sea when the sea ice was not frozen. We often had to send emergency weather supplies by airplane to one of the other two bases on Greenland. These bases were Sonderstrom AB half way down the west coast of Greenland south of Thule and Narsarssuak AB at t he southern tip of Greenland. This was called the Miami of Greenland. Actually their weather was no better and no worse than Thule's. Our weather Detachment always got excellent inspection reports on our supply operations thanks to this Sergeant. I was the only rated (flying) officer in our detachment so this didn't cause any problems in our forecaster duty roster. Since our major duty was making n aviation forecasts, I was able to keep a pilots view point on our operations. I found that all during my Air Force career as a Weather Officer and a pilot, operations run much more smoothly by me being rated.
Our mess hall food was the best that I have eaten in the service and a lot of restaurants. We always had fresh salads and fruit. There was always two choices of meat. I think the food regarding calorie values was designed for a person working outside in the cold and snow. There was a gym, hobby shops and theater. The NCO and Officers club were excellent. We had a hospital at which some nurses were assigned. These were the only American women at Thule. There was a Danish Colonel on the base since Thule was on Danish soil. He had his wife on Base. The Base had a couple of USO troupes visit us during the year. I remember Bob Hope, with Jerry Calonna and of course a pretty and well formed girl entertainer. I sat across the table from them when they ate at the Officers club.
Thule base operations and the weather station were in the same building so I was available for a lot of flying time. I was made an instructor pilot for the Base C-47's. Most of the flying was to the two DEW line sites delivering personnel, mail, food and equipment. There was a flight every day if the weather permitted. My first C-47 flight was a check-out in the C-47 on 14 September. All of the C-47s were equipped with skis. The ones on the main gear were about 4 1/2 of 5 feet wide and about 9 to 10 feet long - the tail wheel had a smaller ski. The skis were open in the center and were adjustable on the main gear so the ski could be hydraulically raised and lowered so about 8 inches of tire stood below the ski for use when we landed on the asphalt runway at Thule and lower to about even with the bottom of the tire when we landed on the snow. They had a small winglet attached to the rear of each ski so they would "fly" level in flight. We had JATO take-off capability with four JATO units that hung on open parallel bomb racks below the main spar of the wing. We had electric toggle switches on the cockpit panel to set these JATO units off. We used these JATO units to supplement our engines when we took-off from DEW line site-2 which had an altitude near 6000 ft. They looked like a bomb without fins and had a jet nozzle pointing aft. After firing the JATO and they had been expended we would jettison them on to the ice-cap. We never used them for take-off at Thule.
I have quite a few 8mm movies of my year at Thule. Lots of ice and glaciers and hopefully will get these films onto a VHS tape. Since Thule is at 76 degrees north and above the Arctic circle we lost the sun below the southern horizon for over n month in mid-winter. During this darkness period at noon we could see the glow of the sun over the horizon to the south. Winter flying without the sun gave a very isolated feeling even though there was some light from the stars and we still had the moon at times. Our base was the only lights that were visible for a 100 miles.
Another problem was to know where you are and how to get from here to there. A compass was useless because the magnetic north pole was west of us near Resolute Bay instead of near true north. This and the closeness we were to the magnetic pole made our aircraft magnetic compasses tilt and become unusable. The procedure to get a course was to set our directional gyro to the runway heading just before you put the throttles open for take-off. If you forgot we would have to circle the field and fly parallel to the runway so we could set the gyros with the correct heading. These gyros had a fair amount of precession so we had two ways to keep them corrected. One was to radio our local GCI(radar) site and have them track our course to correct our headings on the gyro and to use the planes mounted astro compass to check the precession of our gyro. Knowing the sun and\or the moon move at 15 degrees an hour and taking sights on the sun\moon we were able to correct our gyros. The longest flight was to the east site-2 and it would take almost 2 hours.
We would be without radio contact for about an hour between Thule and the site. It was always good to finally make radio contact with the site and receive a "steer" to the their runway. Landing at the site was always interesting. The runway was on top of the ice-cape and marked by 3 or 4 50 gallon drums. At night they would light diesel oil in each drum. You set up a gradual descent to this "strip" and at about 25 to 50 feet you could discern the surface and start making a flare to land. The surface of the strip was only slightly smoother than the surrounding ice cap which usually has a 4 to 6 inch snow ridges called "sastrugi" and are characteristic of wind swept polar plains where the winds tends to blow constantly in one direction. Touch-down was very noisy like landing on a tin corrugated roof. When we landed, taxied and took-off from the cap with the the skis in an extended position so the tires hardly extended below the bottom surface of the skis. These skis did not slip and slide like "person skis" and it took about 30" manifold pressure to taxi the C-47. This is equal to cruising power. If the skis had frozen, then it would take almost take-off power to break them loose. At site-2 out on the middle of Greenland the surface temperature was usually about Ð50 degrees F. The aircraft would generally be on the ground no longer than half an hour. The flight engineer would stuff a gunny sack into the front of each engine oil cooler and start the engines about every 10 minutes while the cargo and people would unload and reload. When I made the trip I would check on our 2 weather observers who were TDY here. Outside in the air at -50 you could feel the cold just seep through your clothing. It was cold!