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Aircraft wreckage found on Alaska glacier is from 1952 Air Force crash, officials say

Published: Thursday, June 28, 2012

Updated: Thursday, June 28, 2012 09:06


ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Investigators say aircraft wreckage discovered this summer on a glacier in the mountains east of Anchorage came from an Air Force plane that crashed in 1952, killing everyone on board.

The C-124 Globemaster carried 52 people, according to the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, which has military casualty experts looking at the debris.

The crew of an Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter spotted the pieces at the tip of Colony Glacier, where it meets Inner Lake George deep in the Chugach Mountains 45 miles east of Anchorage. The JPAC investigators recovered fragments of the plane and possible human remains a few days later, Army Capt. Jamie Dobson said.

On Wednesday, Dobson said the plane is believed to be a Douglas C-124A Globemaster, a heavy-lifting transport plane that crashed Nov. 22, 1952, while approaching Anchorage. The scattered wreckage has apparently been slowly moving with the glacier for 60 years, she said. The ice field where the wreckage was found earlier this month is more than 12 miles from the crash site.

"The evidence does positively correlate to that wreckage," Dobson said.

The Globemaster was flying from McChord Air Force Base in Washington. With giant bay doors under its nose and four turboprop engines, the Globemaster, nicknamed "Old Shaky," was the largest cargo plane in the American arsenal at the time, the only aircraft capable of carrying a tank or bulldozer, or 200 soldiers.

On this flight, it carried 52 men, mostly Air Force and Army personnel and at least one from the Marine Corps and one from the Navy.

It passed Middleton Island, in the Gulf of Alaska south of Prince William Sound, en route to Elmendorf Air Force Base. At about 4 p.m., the captain of a Northwest Orient Airlines passenger plane picked up a distress call.

A scratchy signal made the call almost impossible to understand, but the Northwest pilot heard, "As long as we have to land, we might as well land here."

Silence followed. Nobody heard from the plane again.

Details of the Globemaster's final moments were revealed Wednesday by Douglas Beckstead, the historian for the 673rd Air Base Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Beckstead was looking over microfilm copies of the official reports on the incident.

"The weather was very bad with heavy clouds," Beckstead said. "They were flying with no visual references, going by altitude, a radio beacon and a stopwatch."

The bad weather continued for three days, until Nov. 25, when 32 military planes begin to scour the region. Four Coast Guard vessels searched Prince William Sound. The aerial searchers returned with reports of possible wreckage on several glaciers, but nothing conclusive, Beckstead said.

On Nov. 28, Lt. Thomas Sullivan and Civil Air Patrol Lt. Terris Moore _ at the time the president of the University of Alaska and an experienced pilot with extensive knowledge of flying in Alaska mountains _ spotted an apparent tail section sticking out of the snow.

"It was at the 8,100-foot level of Surprise Glacier," said Beckstead. "Almost at the top of Mount Gannett."

Sided by steep cliffs, Gannett is 9,100 feet high.

Sullivan and Moore landed their Piper Super Cub and spent several hours on the ice confirming that the wreckage was that of the C-124.

Fairbanks researcher and author Neil Davis knew Moore and spoke to him about what he'd seen for Davis' 1992 book, "College Hills Chronicles."

"The scene that met their eyes was not pleasant," Davis said, reading from his book. "The large aircraft had plowed into the mountainside at full speed, and except for a portion of the tail section, everything else including the crew and passenger complement was strewn over the glacier in small pieces."

The image stuck with Moore over the years, Davis said.

"What he told me was it was a pretty damn grim situation," Davis said.

It appeared that the crash triggered an avalanche that buried the smaller pieces of the wreck. "One fact is obvious from observation," Sullivan and Moore said in their reports. "The aircraft is scattered over at least two acres and covered by 8 feet of fresh powder snow."

According to an Anchorage Daily Times story, a recovery crew left Whittier by barge on Nov. 29. They anchored the craft at the base of the glacier on Harrison Fjord. Their progress to the crash site was hindered by avalanche conditions and the return of foul weather. After several days, they established a base camp at 5,500 feet, still 8 miles from the tail section.

Helicopters went beyond their safe operating altitude to supply the crews. Winds hit 70 mph. Clouds and blowing snow darkened the slim hours of winter daylight. Men suffered frostbite and rations ran low as the weather socked in. Accumulating snow trapped men in their sleeping bags as the tent sides collapsed, obliging them to dig each other out.

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