Top of the world landing

As the Cold War intensified, General Curtis LeMay recognized the need for emergency landing locations for US aircraft in the Arctic. Hence was born the idea of establishing an 8000-foot gravel strip at Nord in extreme northeastern Greenland at a Danish weather station. Periodic storms would close Thule for all air operations for several days, so General LeMay wanted a more northerly alternate to be available for his crews in extremis.

Thule
When storms closed Thule Air Base, where else could crews land?

In the winter of 1956-57, RB-47H aircraft supported by KC-97 tankers made Top Secret polar flights out of Thule AB Greenland to inspect Russian defenses.

I was copilot on one of these flights. In January 1957 we took off in an RB-47H (tail #281—the same RB-47H that was later shot down by a Russian fighter on July 1, 1960).  On the day of our eventful mission, which ended with an emergency landing at Nord, we departed Thule on an ice-covered runway that provided little, if any, nose wheel steering capability.

Five KC-97s prepared for flight with engines running in weather 50 degrees F below zero in order to ensure three got airborne. After a two hour head start for the KC-97s, our RB-47H would catch up with them at the northeast coastline of Greenland where two would offload fuel to top off our tanks (the third was an air spare). We would then fly about seven hours of reconnaissance, while the tankers would return to Thule, refuel, and three would again fly to rendezvous with us upon returning at northeastern Greenland. We averaged about ten hours and 4500 nm in the air, unless unpredictable weather closed Thule, as it did on this mission.

Our area of reconnaissance interest was in the Novaya Zemlya (New Land) area of the Soviet Union (we called it banana island.)

RB-47
The RB-47 was designed as a reconnaissance aircraft to watch the Soviet Union.

We carried a pilot, copilot, navigator and three ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) operators.  Our ECM operator #3 was a Russian linguist. This was advantageous to us as it turned out, because that position provided access to the Soviet voice communications spectrum. Barely into the start of the ECM’s “on watch” mission, he heard a short, barely audible Russian communication. Part of the short Russian phrase included the Russian word for aircraft. He immediately informed his Chief ECM operator and the aircraft commander.

We immediately aborted the mission and reversed course to a northerly heading. I was directed to turn on my gun radar to check behind us but saw nothing. We proceeded out the way we had planned and started on our way back to Thule AB.

At some time during the flight back, I was finally able to contact Thule radio on HF and they informed us that Thule AB was in a Phase 3 alert status for wind—not allowing the KC-97s to takeoff to air-refuel us and for us to proceed to our alternate, Sondrestrom AB in southern Greenland. By the time we had made HF radio contact with Thule radio we were pretty well committed and didn’t have enough fuel to fly to Sondrestrom.

Thule radio informed us that Nord was the only landing site available to us with our fuel state, so we diverted to Nord. There was only an ADF approach to the field. I remember there was an overcast, but it was well above minimums. It had an 8,000-foot gravel runway (thankfully the surface was snow covered and packed, so the gravel was not a problem).

Map of Arctic
Not many alternates up here.

The runway lights were smudge pots (and we found out later that they had attempted to contact us not to come because the high winds kept blowing out the smudge pots—I’m glad we didn’t get that message).

The pilot and I figured we had only about 20 more minutes of fuel and that he would try one approach and if he couldn’t get in, he would execute a missed approach and we would all bail out (eject) over the field. Well, we made it in. I swear he deployed the brake chute when we were still about 8 to 10 feet in the air, but we WERE going to land the first try.

The plane was refueled over the wings from 55-gallon barrels of fuel they stored, since they had no single-point refueling capability (which was no mean feat in itself!).

A relief KC-97 flew in the next day or two with maintenance personnel, a starting unit, and a new brake chute for us and we flew back to Thule AB.

We then heard that a KC-97 crew attempted to taxi out and take off in the Phase Alert winds when they found out that we didn’t have enough fuel to make it to our alternate, Sondrestrom AB, for an in-flight refueling but the Base Commander ordered them not to attempt it. We sure bought them many, many rounds of drinks at the club when we returned and heard about this.

As it worked out, had we not cut the mission short we would not have had the fuel to land at Nord. And as our ECM #3 later said, “Luck was with us! Spasibo, moi Sovetski Russki Drug! Translation: Thank you my Soviet Russian friend.”

Canadian message
An accidental record set.

In the late 1990s we got to wondering if these landings would have been the northernmost by a jet aircraft ever? The Russians had an airbase at Ostrov Greem Bell on Franz Josef Land but that was several miles south of Nord’s latitude.

The Canadians had a base at Alert on northern Ellesmere Island. Alert was a few miles more northerly than Nord, but Alert was a 5000+ foot runway suitable for C-130 operations, not for jets. Someone from Air Staff formally queried the Canadians for us. They confirmed the following in a letter:

“No jet-powered aircraft has ever landed at ALERT on the gravel-packed runway there. We therefore congratulate you in having landed further up near the North Pole than the Canadians themselves. We have even confirmed that Santa Claus has not yet converted to jet power. Merry Christmas.”

7 Comments

  • This is an amazing account.

    I had no knowledge of the RB-47 missions into Soviet airspace until fifteen years ago when I was at NSA headquarters on business. I visited their museum on signal intelligence which included an exhibit on your efforts – including a list of the individuals killed during those operations. They were possibly the most dangerous missions flown during the “peaceful” period between the Korean and Vietnam wars.

    Thank you for writing this piece and bringing an under-represented slice of Air Force history to Air Facts readers.

  • As a fellow contributor, I must say you are a wonderfully engaging writer! The story is more than compelling. You write with a flair that will attract further notice, I am sure. Keep up the good work—you have a gift! Brett Swailes

  • I was a control tower operator at Forbes AFB from late ’56 to mid ’59. This account brings it all back to me – working the traffic pattern with up to five B-47s shooting touch and go landings. We had no clue as to some of the real missions these planes and pilots deployed on. One of the best programs that I recall was having RB-47 pilots in the control tower as advisors when planes were flying. I remember Capt. Palm, the pilot of the plane that was shot down after I left Forbes in 1960; two Capts. Reynolds, and Capt. Finfinger who had a very distinctive voice. I remember it all like it was yesterday.

  • I am continually amazed at the conditions and other hazards to which so many of these secretive operations were exposed. I recently read Wager With the Wind, the Don Sheldon story. The unbelievable conditions of winds and temperature in those remote mountains of Alaska provide clues as to what conditions crews like yours dealt with. Needless to say I respect your service and contributions to defending our nation!

  • Loved the story, thank you LtC. Draper! If I ever run into any of those KC-97 pilots they’ll get a round from me as well.

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