At the top of the world, our silver aircraft, with its high-visibility paint scheme, barely cleared the peaks of the Arctic Ice Cap. Mountains and glaciers fell behind while others appeared ahead as our C-124 Globemaster headed northeast from Thule Air Base, Greenland, to the Danish Weather Station, Nord. Situated about 500 miles from the North Pole, Nord was built during the period of 1952 to 1956 as a weather and telecommunications station and was needed for more accurate weather reports for Thule Air Base.
The personnel who manned Nord—located on the rugged north coast of Greenland, the world’s largest island—were Danes of the seafaring Viking tradition. They operated a radio navigation and weather station and maintained an emergency landing field for “over-the-Pole” civilian airliner flights.
One of several remote outposts set deep in the perpetual Arctic snow, Nord’s lifeline was from the sky. The Military Air Transport Service (MATS) provided that lifeline with its giant cargo aircraft. Flying these supply runs was an annual ritual for MATS.
Five of our Dover C-124s lumbered along the flesh-freezing route with crews flying them non-stop. We were cold-country veterans and handled these missions knowing that they had to be completed without delay. We had to wrap up this operation during good weather and good weather could turn foul within minutes in the Far North.
In charge, the commander at Thule had a tough job of running this MATS operation. He and his men knew how to live in this cold climate and so did we; the MATS aircrews that made the run. These supply hauls were nothing new to us. Hazardous, snowy, and slick runways were not the only problems as navigational equipment was extremely limited in the Polar Regions. As the global meridian lines of longitude converge at the geographic poles, this made normal direction plotting impossible, so the navigators flew grid navigation. An aircraft can depart the North Pole in only one direction: south. The artificial latitude and longitude of grid navigation made it possible to direct the aircraft south to points in the Free World, as opposed to south to points behind the enemies’ borders.
There were some navigational radio stations in the Arctic which helped, but our receivers had to be in top shape to pick them up. That was the importance of the MATS maintenance man and pointed to the devotion he brought to the Arctic resupply mission. Only the toughest, best-qualified airmen were selected for this cold-country assignment. The maintainers knew the importance of their mission. Many of these airmen had been handpicked previously for the Arctic jobs, and they knew what it meant to the aircrews if their aircraft did not perform. Their job was to get out in the cold weather and prevent mechanical problems on the big birds. Selected from MATS bases, these airmen brought their own equipment to Thule. They knew the tools that they would need for this operation.
Parts and spares were stocked at all MATS bases, but for the Arctic resupply more items than usual were needed. “Fly-away” kits containing spare parts were also placed aboard the Globemasters. On occasion, C-124 flight engineers had to make quick repairs at remote outposts. Fast work was necessary in the extreme cold. There was no waiting around for the arrival of spare parts.
A grounded aircraft in the Arctic was almost certain to become “cold-soaked.” When this condition occurred, aircraft rivets popped, seams sprang open, and a major maintenance job was required to get it going again. Restarting the engines required more than the normal gasoline-oil dilution.
The hard-driving maintenance crews pulled 12-hour shifts. Each shift had 12 hours of daylight conditions, for the light never completely faded when resupply was scheduled in the Polar Regions. During spring and summer months, complete darkness was unknown in the Far North.
With no artificial lighting needed, the operation rolled along fast and safely. Refueling trucks waited as the Globemasters touched down on their return to Thule, and gas was pumped into the depleted tanks within minutes.
Reloaded as fast as was humanly possible by the aerial port crews, the airplanes were launched into the Arctic air around the clock. The job of freight handling never stopped as these men had the cargo ready for each arriving aircraft.
A slight disruption in the schedule could easily upset the entire mission, so the loading crews aimed for teamwork. Thousands of pounds of cargo were crammed into the fuselage of one of these Globemasters in just a few hours. At the same time, another load was readied for the next inbound flight. The MATS team shot for the completion of the resupply in a little more than a week.
On polar resupply, everyone on the team was driving hard to complete an important job and, despite cold-country perils, we got the job done!
Additional note: Until its closure in 1972, Nord was run as a civilian base by the Greenland Technical Organization. In 1975, the base was reopened by the Danish Defense Command as a military base.