8:00 AM | *A race against time in Alaska to recover the wreckage and human remains from a 1952 military plane crash as an advancing glacier pushes towards a nearby lake*
For 60 years, the Colony Glacier of Alaska hid the remains of 52 servicemen in a frozen grave after an Air Force plane crashed into the side of a mountain during bad weather. The military transport plane was on route to Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage when it crashed into Mount Gannett on November 22nd, 1952 in the Chugach Mountain Range about 40 miles east of Anchorage. The wreckage of the plane and the remains of the 52 servicemen slid into the glacier next to the mountain. Recovery efforts never got into high gear that year as Alaska’s unforgiving winter came on quickly and by later the following year, the glacier and new deep snow pack had claimed the aircraft and its passengers.
It was not until 60 years later in June 2012 that the wreckage was spotted about 12 miles from the original crash site by members of the Army National Guard during a routine training mission. Since then crews have returned every summer to try to recover the remains and personal effects during a small window of opportunity of about one month when it is relatively safe to do so on the glacier. This painstaking effort is in a race against time, however, as the relentlessly north-flowing Colony Glacier continues to advance relatively quickly and it won’t be long before the plane wreckage and passenger remains are pushed into nearby Inner Lake George - and perhaps lost forever to history.
The crash in 1952 and the immediate unsuccessful recovery attempts
The Colony Glacier is a sixty square mile mass of ice and snow situated on the south flank of Mount Gannett. The icefields that feed Colony Glacier are unnamed and make up most of the surface area of the glacier. The terminus of the glacier is in Inner Lake George about 13 miles southwest of Mount Gannett.
An Air Force C-124A military transport airplane known as the Globemaster was on route to Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, Alaska on Nov. 22, 1952, with service members from all branches when it crashed into Mount Gannett and slid into an icefield above the Colony Glacier. The plane was miles off course when it crashed on that fateful day due largely to bad weather and thick clouds and rather unreliable instrumentation which was much less sophisticated than today’s technology.
The force of the crash and subsequent fuel explosion obliterated the airplane and actually triggered a massive avalanche. The combination of the avalanche and quickly accumulating heavy snowfall greatly inhibited the chances for any successful recovery attempt in the days immediately following the crash. To make matters worse, Alaska was only a territory in 1952 – not to become a state for several more years - and the US Geological Survey (USGS) had not yet even completed a comprehensive set of topographic maps for the area. The Air Force’s second and final recovery attempt took place during the following summer of 1953, but it too was largely unsuccessful with only some mail visible on the snow top and recovered. In fact, by early August of 1953 when there was an early season snowstorm, it was estimated that the plane’s wreckage and the remains of the 52 servicemen had already been buried under 50 feet of snow and feared to be lost forever.
Wreckage is sighted 60 years later and new recovery efforts begin
On June 9, 2012, debris (large yellow canister) was spotted by an Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter pilot on a routine training flight near the terminus of Colony Glacier depositing into Inner Lake George. At first, officials thought the debris was from a plane crash that hadn't yet been reported, but a ground recovery mission confirmed that it was actually from the Globemaster. Over the six decades since the 1952 plane crash, the wreckage had traveled about 12 miles down Colony Glacier (averaging about a meter per day), and is now less than a 2000 yards from the toe or leading edge of the glacier which empties into Inner Lake George.
Since the discovery in 2012, the military has returned each June to identify any new areas of wreckage exposed by the constantly moving glacier. The window to work safely on the Colony Glacier must be perfectly sandwiched between the snowpack clearing in early June and warming temperatures by mid-July that can cause an increase in large, sudden and dangerous glacial cracks called crevasses opening across the recovery area. Work typically starts in early to mid-June and is wrapped up for the year by early July. In this roughly one-month window, painstaking work is undertaken by a small crew assembled from within Alaska military organizations. They carefully hack at the glacier with ice picks and comb it with trowels, often on their knees, looking for the tiniest pieces of debris. They have found such things as uniforms, dog tags, wallets, lighters and even three gold wedding rings. In addition, over the past six years, human remains of 39 of the 52 people on board have been found, identified and returned to family members; 13 are still missing.
The most recent recovery announcement by the Air Force came on October 1st, 2018. The remains of Air Force Staff Sgt Eugene Costley have been recovered and returned to his family for burial with full military honors. Costley was a decorated Berlin-Airlift veteran who was working as a flight engineer with the 34th Air Transport Squadron at the time of the mishap, according to an obituary written by the Air Force. His brother, a fellow airman who was stationed at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, at the time of the crash, "participated with the 10th Air Rescue Squadron in the recovery attempts," but such efforts were initially limited by “treacherous conditions,” including avalanches, glaciers, and snow drifts reaching several hundred feet, according to the obituary. (Source)
Race against the clock
While this recovery effort has to be done in a methodical and meticulous fashion, there is a clear recognition that time is running out to recover the plane wreckage and human remains as Colony Glacier continues to advance a few hundred meters per year towards the glacier’s base in Inner Lake George – now less than a half a mile away. One estimate puts the available time at between two and five years before the wreckage and remains end up at the bottom of Inner Lake George - and perhaps lost forever.
Spectacular close-up Video of Colony Glacier and Inner Lake George.
Meteorologist Paul Dorian