11:00 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 serviceman in a frozen grave after an Air Force plane crashed into the side of a mountain during bad weather. The military transport plane was en 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 en 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 serviceman 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 mile 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. In roughly a one-month window during which it is relatively safe to be on the glacier, 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 five years, human remains of 38 of the 52 people on board have been found, identified and returned to family members; 14 are still missing.
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 Inner Lake George. One estimate puts the available time at between two and five years before the wreckage and remains end up being deposited into Inner Lake George - and perhaps lost to history forever.
Spectacular close-up Video of Colony Glacier and Inner Lake George.
Meteorologist Paul Dorian