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Remembering Bluie West One (2)

Operation Bolero--the movement of aircraft over the North Atlantic Ferry Route--was now activated. The plan was to use a Boeing B-17 heavy bomber as mother ship for a gaggle of Lockheed P-38 twin-engined fighters (single-engine fighters would continue to go by the slow and perilous sea route, with losses running as high as 50 percent). But the first wave was made up entirely of B-17s. Eighteen of the four-engined bombers set out from Goose on June 26, 1942, with six pilots turning back because of mechanical problems, weather concerns, or navigational errors.

That left 12 planes, of which 3 were lost. At the controls of Sooner, John Nichols became lost in the fog and unable to raise the Bluie airfields on the radio. He ditched in Eriksfjord and got his crew to an island from which they were rescued by Inuit fishermen. Alabama Exterminator gave up on BW-1 and tried to divert to Bluie West Eight, eventually crash landing in a meadow near Kangerlussuaq. Ralf Simpson of My Gal Sal missed both fields and made a belly landing on the Greenland icecap with his 12-man crew, leading to a heroic rescue operation by ski, snowshoe, and PBY Catalina flying boat. (Sal herself was brought off the ice in 1995 and restored as the centerpiece of the Ultimate Sacrifice Memorial near Cincinnatti.) Incredibly, no life was lost in the three crashes.

So just half of the first echelon staged safely through Bluie West One--nine planes--with the first one reaching Scotland on July 1. Spaatz wasn't pleased: he complained to Washington that the radio operators at BW-1 didn't know the bombers were coming, that the promised ski-equipped rescue plane didn't exist, that there was "radio fade" between Goose and BW-1 and also between BW-1 and Reyjkavik. Overall, navigation was so tough that he thought it might be a good idea to paint the rocks along the fjords leading up to the Greenland airfields.

Misadventure took care of that problem with respect to BW-1. On July 6, the supply ship Montrose hit a cliff while steaming up Eriksfjord. Sixteen nautical miles southwest of the airfield, its rusting hull became a checkpoint for pilots hoping to reach Bluie West One.

Coast of Greenland
Okay, here's the coast of Greenland, and there are the clouds at 600 feet. Is this the entrance to Eriksfjord? Remember that once you've entered the fjord, you can't back up! (Photo by Hamish Laird)

The most famous flight up the fjord was made in the late summer of 1942 by Ernest Gann, a civilian piloting a DC-3 overloaded with steel girders for Narsarsuaq. In Fate Is the Hunter, Gann recalls watching a movie at Goose Bay, presumably the same one shown to George James. "There are three fjords, as you see," the briefer explained. "You will also notice that all three look exactly alike.... But only one is the right fjord which leads to the field. The others are dead ends and you are advised to stay out of them unless you have learned how to back up an airplane."

That would depend on the weather. I sailed up Eriksfjord with the overcast at 6,000 feet; I'd happily have flown a Piper Cub to BW-1 that day, past those gray and brown and mossy green cliffs--never mind a DC-3 with its trusty Twin Wasp engines! Of course the clouds in south Greenland are often lower than 6,000 feet, or even 600, in which case the Montrose would indeed be a welcome sight. "It is about thirty miles up the correct fjord on the north side," Gann's briefer went on. "If you do not see that freighter you are in the wrong fjord.... You will not actually see the field until you have made the last turn around that cliff; then it will appear all of a sudden so you'd better have your wheels down a little early. It's a single runway with quite an incline.... You have to land whether you like it or not." (By this time, BW-1 actually did have a second runway, north-south beside the fjord, but it was too short and too cramped for regular use.)

Gann navigated by taking star sights from toilet of the DC-3. He spotted the island soon after sunrise, then had to wait a full hour before reaching it: Greenland is that big and that tall, piled with two miles of ice at its middle--and the air is that clear. A layer of stratus lay over the shore, and the DC-3 was soon in it. Gann let down to 800 feet, then 700, before he could see the ocean. Soon he was down to 100 feet, then 50, low enough to be in danger of clipping one of the mansion-sized icebergs floating offshore. He saw the entrance to a fjord, but was it the right one? At 120 mph, he flew into what amounted to a tunnel, "squeezed between rock, water, and cloud."

It was Eriksfjord, of course, for otherwise we wouldn't have this wonderful tale to read in our Barcaloungers. He saw the Montrose: "No woman was ever ravished with such affectionate eyes as this pitiable hulk," he wrote. One more astonishment awaited him: that Bluie West One was incomparably beautiful in its setting. The DC-3 landed safely, and with an awful rattle on the PSP, and they were fed a dinner in the McKinley Dredging Co. mess, where his co-pilot fell asleep sitting upright at table.

In December 1942, winter weather closed the North Atlantic Ferry Route for all except four-engined planes. By that time, nearly 900 aircraft had staged through the Greenland fields. Ten percent losses had been predicted, but only 38 planes went down--11 in July before the system was improved by such additions as the unfortunate Montrose. On July 22, for example, the Northland charged through pack ice to rescue the crews of two B-17 bombers and six P-38 fighters that had crash-landed on the eastern icecap, to a total 25 airmen. Not everyone was so lucky: more than once in Greenland, more lives were lost in the rescue party than had been at hazard in the downed aircraft, and two or three planes were destroyed in saving the crew of one.

B-17 on the steel-mat runway
of BW-1
Boeing B-17 heavy bomber on the steel-mat runway of Bluie West One, en route to Britain toward the end of World War II.

On July 27, 1942, scarcely a month after the first B-17 landed at Bluie West One, the 97th Heavy Bomber Group set up for business at Prestwick, Scotland. It flew it first mission on Aug. 17 against the railroad yards at Rouen, France: 12 B-17s dropped 18,900 pounds of bombs, half of which fell within "the general target area." (The lead pilot was Paul Tibbets, who later dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima.) By the end of September, the 92nd and the 301st bomb groups were also in action, for a total of 178 aircraft. They were the vanguard of the "Mighty Eighth" Air Force, whose B-17 and B-24 strategic bombers reduced much of Germany to rubble, more than once mounting thousand-plane raids upon the Thousand Year Reich. Many or most of those bombers, and some 8th AF fighters, got to Britain by way of Greenland. So did many of the medium bombers and attack planes of the tactical 9th Air Force, and even some assigned to the 12th Air Force in North Africa.

Not all went through BW-1. Kangerlussuaq enjoyed better weather than Narsarsuauq, and though the route via BW-8 was 200 nautical miles longer, that wasn't a huge obstacle to the pilot of a four-engined bomber. Indeed, some B-17s and B-24s made the ocean crossing in one jump, 1,844nm from Gander on Newfoundland Island to Prestwick in Scotland. As it happens, that was the route taken by the man who'd help discover Bluie West One: Col. Julius Lacey, flying to Britain in 1943 to take command of the 384th Bomb Group.

If anyone kept a tally of the planes that staged through Bluie West One, I wasn't able to find it. Thousands, in any event--perhaps as many as 10,000. For all practical purposes the airlift was completed by New Year's Day, 1945, after which BW-1 was reduced to something like an emergency field.

The runway received a new lease on life with the Cold War of the 1950s. Mid-air refueling was not yet routine, and jet fighters bound for European bases had to stage through Greenland. Bluie West One was built anew, for all practical purposes, its runway surfaced with concrete and stretched to 6,000 feet. It got modern barracks with central heating, two of which serve today as the Hotel Narsarsuaq ($235 a night in high season). It even boasted a tugboat to shift icebergs out of the way of departing aircraft: not noted for a quick climb off the end of the runway, the F-86 Sabre jet needed a low-level run over the fjord before it picked up enough speed to climb over the mountains.

Meanwhile, construction was underway at Thule, far above the Arctic Circle, on a base suitable for a new generation of bomber, the 10-engined B-36 Peacemaker. Thule had been a weather station during WWII with the code name Bluie West Six. It became an airfield in 1951, and in 1957 it got the 10,000-foot runway demanded by the Strategic Air Command.

The Americans had already left BW-8 at Kangerlussuaq, and soon they left Bluie West One. On Oct. 31, 1958, the American flag came down and the Danish flag went up. Today Narsarsuaq is the transportation hub of southern Greenland. In the high season there are five flights a week from Reyjkavik and Copenhagen, to be met by propjets from other Greenland airfields and by the red-and-white helicopters that service lesser towns. Once in a while a private pilot stages through Narsarsuaq, for the same reason the U.S. Army Air Forces used it from 1941 to 1958. But for the most part, international air traffic is visible only as a contrail high up in the astonishingly blue sky: the Great Circle route is still the shortest route from the U.S. to Europe, but the planes don't stop in Greenland any more.

The legend of Hospital Valley

Narsarsuaq airport today
Narsarsuaq and its airport today, with the runway foreshortened as seen from the 2,578-foot peak directly across from it. The glacier presses down on the airport but never reaches it. (Photo by Jacky Simoud)