<< Previous
1 of 10
<< Previous
1 of 10


Our planes are waging a relentless battle to conquer polar cold and guard America against sneak attacks across the world’s roof.

By Major General K. P. McNaughton, U. S. Air Force

FOR nearly four centuries the Arctic defied the hardiest explorers from the temperate zones. This vast ice-locked world with its midnight sun, Aurora Borealis and paralyzing cold has been an impregnable barrier across the shortest route between the East and West.

Now the development of long-range aircraft is wiping out that barrier and, for the first time, exposing America to bombing and invasion by air. The polar regions have become vitally important to our national defense. For, should that dreaded World War III suddenly explode upon us, the key battles probably will be decided in the air over the Arctic.

By traveling the polar routes, military aircraft now

may fly with ease from the major cities of Europe and Asia to the industrial centers of the United States. For example, by way of the Arctic, the air distance from Chungking, China to New York City—two of the world’s most strategic cities from the military viewpoint—is a mere 7800 miles against 12,700 by land and sea. Long-range jets could cover that shorter route in a matter of hours, where the conventional surface journey would take at least three weeks.

Should an airfield be set up on the frozen wastes near the North Pole, cities open to shuttle air attacks would include New York, 2950 miles away; San Francisco. 3150; Detroit, 2850; Moscow, 2050; Berlin, 2200, and London, 2300.

In these tense times, America therefore must keep a watchful “aerial eye” guarding the top of the world. To fill this need, the United States Air Force is training and organizing what might be called an “Arctic Air Force” to meet and destroy any enemy bombers or guided missiles before they can strike our industrial targets.

Three large Air Force fields are now in operation in Alaska. At Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, an outdoor cold-weather test unit is maintained. In the immediate area, at Mile Twenty-Six, a World War II fighter base has been enlarged to accommodate our heaviest bombers. To the west, near Anchorage, Elmendorf Field is under expansion. Emergency airfields are located throughout Alaska and at strategic points along the Aleutians.

Flights by Alaska-based squadrons during the past two years have shown our Air Force how to operate planes and equipment efficiently in the polar regions and have proved that U.S.A.F. units can fly anywhere in the Arctic during any time of the year. It is no accident, moreover, that jet planes have been undergoing intensive tactical exercises up there for well over a year.

Within recent months remarkable progress has been made in our knowledge of polar aerial navigation. Alaska has been mapped comprehensively for the first time in history. Our airmen have cleared up much of the mystery concerning the magnetic north pole—which is really three poles in a magnetic field in the vicinity of Prince of Wales Island. Now, thanks to such discoveries as this and a revolutionary system of navigation, a pilot can fly anywhere and fix his location to within one mile.

When the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron arrived in Alaska, navigators found their maps were marked with huge white areas marked “Unexplored.” They also found that the charts used in the lower latitudes were not practical for polar, or high-latitude, navigation.

Converging latitudes at the top of the world made guesswork out of most attempts to navigate by means of ordinary maps. Near the magnetic poles, compasses perform like roulette wheels. Northern lights and sunspots black out radios and electronic equipment.

Sounds have terrific carrying power in the cold, clear air. During World War II the Japs on Kiska didn’t need air-warning devices. They could hear our bombers taking off from Amchatka, 75 miles away.

For many months jet fighters have been going through rigid tests in the Arctic under simulated combat conditions. The Air Force’s “Hat-in-the-Ring” Squadron, equipped with Lockheed P-80B “Shooting Stars,” arrived at Ladd Field, Fairbanks. Alaska, in December, 1947, for the first mass tactical operation of jet aircraft over the polar area. This was a unit of the First Fighter Group, based at March Field, Calif.

Before taking off, the planes were winterized. To withstand temperatures down to minus 65 degrees F., they were modified so that their GE-Allison J-33 turbo-jet engines could be started with gasoline, because that fuel is more readily combustible. Later they switched to kerosene, the regular jet fuel. Recently the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics and the AiResearch Manufacturing Co. of Los Angeles have developed the first successful starter for jet and turbo-prop engines. This new self-starting system may solve one of the problems of jet operations in the Arctic.

Exact training procedure for the jets is, naturally, secret. In general, though, when not supporting the ground forces in simulated combat the jets “go upstairs” to fly top fighter cover for bombing missions and aerial supply flights. Officials have expressed complete satisfaction with the jet fighter as experimental, first-line equipment in the Arctic. Using the faster jets, pilots can complete their missions in about half the time required in conventional aircraft.

Special weather-equipped B-29s make regular flights over the Arctic. The 375th Reconnaissance Squadron has been handling two vital missions for more than a year: first, to observe weather conditions over the North Pacific from the Aleutians to Japan, and second, to maintain weather recon reporting facilities in the polar area. Because of the scarcity of ground weather stations, there is a negligible amount of forecasting data available north of 70 degrees latitude.

Polar prowls are made thrice weekly by the 375th Recon Squadron, flying out of Ladd Field. In these nights, B-29s take off with capacity loads of 134,000 pounds on 17-hour missions. At takeoff they carry 8500 gallons of fuel, 14 crewmen.

For most of the trip these planes fly level at 10,000 feet which is high enough to evade most bad polar weather. However, they must go up to 20,000 feet till they are north of the Alaskan mountain ranges.

Summer missions are flown in continuous daylight and winter missions in continuous darkness. To aid comparison of all types of information, the planes usually follow the same route: From takeoff point the 375th heads for Aklavik on the Arctic Sea Coast of Yukon Territory, then to Cape Manning on the southern tip of Prince Patrick Island, from there northward up the 123rd meridian to the Pole. The return trip is via Point Barrow, Alaska.

Radar is vitally needed for Arctic flying. The operator can track and determine active cold fronts 50 miles away and identify various types of ice formations.

There are few manmade landmarks such as cities, roads, railways and towns. Natural landmarks like lakes, rivers and coastlines are often so badly obscured by snow that it is next to impossible to distinguish them from land.

By a new grid system, radar operators have learned to estimate wind, drift and ground speed to a fine margin, even through an overcast. The margin of error in figuring the drift has been narrowed to one degree. Ground speed can be computed to within five knots.

Actually polar weather isn’t as treacherous as legend would have it. The air is mostly stable and the greatest hindrances are fog, snow and ice haze. In winter there are few clouds and it is fairly clear although of course darkness prevails all, the time.

Right at the North Pole it often is warmer than at Ladd Field. Strong winds are prevalent, one mission hitting a cyclone over the polar cap. ‘ Pertinent weather information is relayed by a Naval weather-teletype machine to all points of the U. S., Canada, Alaska and even Hawaii. Such information is extremely important since Arctic weather today foretells the world’s weather tomorrow.

The Air-Weather Service operates a network of sub-Arctic weather stations that have shown the feasibility of sustained operation in the area. It also operates daily round-trip weather flights from Fairbanks, Alaska, to the North Pole and is experimenting with auto- matic weather stations in remote Arctic regions where it is impractical to assign personnel.

Following a new rotation system for training in Arctic air war, the 43rd Bomb Wing, a Strategic Air Command unit is rotating three five-plane units of B-50s to Alaska for 45-day special field exercises, ending March 15. The four-engine Boeing B-50 is an improved postwar version of the B-29, with a top speed of 400 miles an hour, a cruising speed of 300, and service ceiling of 30,000 feet.

Wing headquarters for these first B-50s in Alaska is at Davis-Monthan Air Force base, Tucson, Arizona. Under the plan the bombers are flown from Tucson to Eielson Base near Fairbanks.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the danger of the effect of intense cold on metals, plastic and rubber. Equipment must be thoroughly winterized. Plastic brackets on aircraft crystallize at low temperatures and must be replaced with metal. Hydraulic propellers are hard to “feather” and give way to those that are electrically controlled. All exterior plumbing has to be specially wrapped. Sometimes truck engines have frozen right while they are running.

When a plane lands, the fuel must be drained or it will freeze in the fuel lines. Engines, tail surfaces, wings, turrets and carburetors air scoops must be covered. Covers have to be pulled skin tight to prevent moisture from forming underneath, then freezing.

Batteries are removed and stored in a warm place. Mats are placed under all rubber tires so that they won’t freeze to the runway, go flat or have the bottoms torn off.

All parked aircraft must be tied down because of the Alaska Williwaws. These storms, often including 100-mile-an-hour winds are caused by wind piling up against a mountain and then “boiling over” on the leeward side. They strike suddenly and toss unsecured airplanes around like chips. Luckily, it’s easy to anchor a plane against one of these violent storms. A crewman tosses the loose end of a .rope on the runway and pours a bucket of water over it. In a moment the rope’s end freezes solidly and securely to the runway.

Other changes to adapt our planes to subzero operations include the use of new greases, cold-weather packing around hydraulic units and the installation of an electric blower to defrost the pilot’s windshield and canopy. Synthetic rubber, brittle under severe cold, was replaced with natural rubber, including the sealing of the pressurized cockpit.

When a plane is prepared for polar flight, the covers must be removed. Snow, frost and ice (which may form instantly) must be cleared from all surfaces. All parts of the plane must be checked carefully because metal sweats and ice forms wherever there is moisture. The same cold that will freeze a man’s bare hand in two minutes will cause the small amount of moisture discharged from the exhaust of a single plane to create an ice fog that may settle over an entire airfield and paralyze operations. The engines must be preheated by ground-heating units before they can be started and aircraft weapons thawed before they will operate.

Many of these winterization problems in the Arctic are being solved despite temperatures as low as 65 degrees below zero. Among the test planes being used are Fairchild Packets loaded with special equipment. The huge twin-box car is provided with snow and ice tires for the main landing-gear wheels. These tires have small slivers of steel impregnated in the tread to provide better traction and protect the rubber from ferocious slashing by the elements.

In one recent and very successful test with the Packets, additional heat for the cargo compartment, cabin and also for the outside wings, fuselage and tail surfaces was provided by four specially designed hot-air exchangers, instead of the two inboard exchangers formerly used. These furnish enough heat per hour to warm over 200 big rooms in a good-sized hotel. In this new system air, introduced by scoops, is heated to 350 degrees and forced under pressure to the leading edge of the wings and tail surfaces. The temperature on the outside surfaces of these equipment items, rises to about 130 degrees, preventing the formation of ice.

Training exercises for Arctic maneuvers have been conducted in various parts of Alaska and the United States by the Army and Air Forces since 1946. In 1948 two of these were held, “Yukon,” at Big Delta, Alaska, and “Snowdrop” at Pine Camp, N. Y. They proved the efficiency of transporting men, equipment, material and supplies by air to a combat, cold-climate area, fully prepared to engage an enemy. They also revealed improved methods for parachuting equipment and for landings and takeoffs by gliders on ice and snow.

The Air Force’s new crash rescue system deserves special mention. Since 1947 the A. F. has maintained parachutist teams of medical technicians and guides to be used by the 10th Rescue Squadron in Alaska. The teams each include two medical technicians, two Alaskan guides and a jump surgeon and do remarkable rescue jobs when aircraft are forced down in inaccessible areas.

For more than a year the squadron also has been using long-range Douglas C-54 Sky-masters for glider hauls and pickups. With the new method, rescue squadron can fly gliders loaded with medical aidmen and Arctic survival equipment to the scene of a crash without trying to land the four-engine transport the airmen “snatch” injured and survivors back to safety.

The squadron now includes four separate flights, each having two twin engine Catalina amphibious aircraft (for air-sea rescue), two four-engine bomber-type aircraft, two helicopters, two liaison-type aircraft and one twin-engine transport.

The four-engine jobs B-17s carry large lifeboats. The boats are dropped to crews forced down in the water. The long-range bombers also are used to locate crashed aircraft.

Often the parachutist rescue teams accompany the bombers in locating downed aircraft. These teams jump immediately on their missions of mercy rather than await arrival of the transports.

Helicopters have conclusively proved their usefulness in the Arctic. Back in September, 1947 an A. F. Sikorsky R-5 helicopter 10th Rescue Squadron at Ladd Field, made its first rescue mission above the Arctic circle, flying to Bettles, Alaska, 185 miles northwest of Fairbanks, to rescue George Plucinski, a trapper, stranded for two weeks on an inaccessible river bank.

Since this dramatic rescue the air force has been testing for frigid climates the new R-5F helicopter, which holds three passengers and the pilot—two more than earlier models. A tricycle-type landing gear and “high-lift” rotor blades provide better performance.

The R-5F can carry a covered Utter or rescue hoist on each side of the cabin. Cruising speed is 85 miles per hour, range is 245 miles and climb rate is 1200 feet a minute.

Realizing that morale and efficiency are all-important in combating the rigors of Arctic flying, the Air Force set up an Arctic Indoctrination School at Nome, Alaska in September, 1947, to teach air crews how they can best survive the subzero cold.

Fliers are warned not to bail out of their planes in emergencies unless there is immediate danger of explosion. Chances of survival in the bleak polar wastes are much better if the crew rides the crippled plane down to a crash landing, then sticks near it both for shelter and for easier spotting in the snow and ice by search parties.

The men learn how to live off the land and build snow houses for survival in the face of 60-below-zero weather. They must get used to wearing clothing loose enough for air to circulate. Tight garments cause perspiration, which quickly freezes in the cold and thus forms a frost lining next to the skin. The men also find out that they may suffer a frostbitten face unless they shave regularly, as the moisture in the breath will freeze on a beard and turn it into an ice mask. On the other hand, the face must be protected with a special shield, or heavily greased, to prevent sunburn. Goggles, too, must be worn all day outdoors as a precaution against snow blindness from the intense glare.

After a course in the new school, the men still respect the Arctic and its very real dangers, but they show more courage and confidence in facing the rugged polar life.

The late General “Billy” Mitchell, noted air pioneer, said: “Whoever holds Alaska will control the airlines of the world.”

So far, our only challenge for control of those airlines has come from a nonhuman enemy, the polar cold. Should this cold air war over the Arctic suddenly grow hot, at least we’ll have the pilots and planes right there on top of the world—ready to spring to America’s defense and strike back a powerful counter-blow.

  1. Rick Auricchio says: April 27, 200912:58 am

    The similarity between this photo and “Bull Blinkers” is striking.

  2. fred says: April 27, 20093:29 am

    yes folks for years we worried about men sneaking across and attacking alaska while we sat in the cold with our bvd’s pulled over our heads

  3. Charlene says: April 27, 20094:59 am

    Speaking from personal experience: if it’s so cold that you have to wear a cloth balaclava with goggles, it’s too cold to be going around with your jacket unzippered.

  4. Torgo says: April 27, 20098:15 pm

    Vayr iz Sarah Palin, hmmm?

  5. Harry says: May 1, 20094:58 pm

    An elephant seal with a rifle! RUN!

  6. Sgt R Watson USAF (Ret) says: April 19, 20105:36 pm

    I was in the 10th Rescue Sqdn at Ladd Field from 1947/1949.

  7. Joyce Marden says: June 9, 20108:22 am

    My chance did anyone know my Dad Harold Marden. 1949-52 His nickname was Just routine. Achorage,Alaska.
    Thank you,

  8. jayessell says: July 4, 20102:49 pm

    With magnetic compasses useless, did they use gyrocompasses?
    Inertial navigation?
    (Are those the same thing?)

  9. Firebrand38 says: July 4, 20103:07 pm

    jayessell: No they aren’t the same thing. Inertial Navigation here
    Gyro compass here

    Inertial Guidance uses gyros, but not in the same way a gyro compass uses to find North.

  10. Toronto says: July 4, 20105:54 pm

    Jay: Astral would make more sense, at least for the fighters. Inertial units were huge in that era.

    I’ve never been in a P80, but one had a ride in a T33 (a variant) and it was anything but spacious.

  11. jayessell says: July 4, 20106:11 pm

    Of course, Celestial Navigation.
    Isn’t there a picture here somewhere of a plane for
    training navigators?
    It had several clear domes on top.

  12. Firebrand38 says: July 4, 20106:19 pm

    Toronto: Not for fighters. I think the first automated star sextant was the one installed on the Lockheed A-12/SR-71 in the late fifties.
    Back when this article was written someone had to use a sextant to manually determine the position.

  13. Kelly Duke says: June 23, 201310:20 am

    My father (William S. Duke) was a Crew Chief (head mechanic) servicing the P-80Bs during this period as part of the First Pursuit Group out of March Air Force Base, Riverside, California. My sister being born at March prior to the deployment while I was born in 1953 at Ladd Army Air Base during my parents stay in Alaska. I am seeking any additional photos or personal recollections of this period at Ladd to fill out a family history. If any readers have anything they can share on this subject feel free to e-mail me at [email protected]

    Thanks. K. F. Duke

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.