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Arctic Field Party Work by Captain Robert A. Earle, C&GS

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In June, 1950, due to early melting of the sea ice, one of our camps located at Point Lay, Alaska, had a short supply of food and fuel. During this period, it was impossible to land anything but a small Piper Cub at this camp; therefore an airdrop of supplies was considered essential. In cooperation with the Arctic contractors we loaded 60 drums of fuel and numerous boxes of food in a DC-3 for delivery to this camp by air. To each of these drums of fuel or packages of supply were attached two or more silk parachutes. The plane flew to this camp and flying at an elevation of 1,000 feet pushed package after package into the air. The parachute drop was a complete success, as there were only a few occasions where the chutes failed to open. It was also most spectacular, as at times there were as many as 6 or 8 items floating in the air (pictures of this operation are available).

Life and work on this party posed many trying problems, as weasels and planes were continually getting lost or failing to report at designated points. In the latter case, changes in temperature along the Arctic coast and heavy ice fog often caused planes to land on small inland lakes. Due to this fact, we rarely worried about the arrival time of a plane until it was at least 12 hours overdue. In one case, a plane took off from Tigvariak Island to Barter Island, a distance of 300 miles, with three ONR scientists and miscellaneous scientific collections which they had gathered about 1600 one afternoon. We gave little thought to the fact that this plane did not arrive that night, as icing conditions could have caused it to land. We did, however instigate a search of all small craft in the area when it failed to arrive by 10:00 the next morning. After several days of searching without avail, an air-sea rescue squadron based at Ladd Field, Fairbanks, was requested to instigate a search. This organization immediately sent a squadron of 8 planes to the area which spent several weeks by use of a systematic grid in combing the area, but no trace of this plane was ever found. In summarizing the results of the search it was felt that the scientists must have induced the pilot to land on the sea ice where the plane must have disappeared in a lead or break.

Several other planes were lost during the course of our operations in the area; however, no further lives were lost. On one occasion, a small bush plane turned over in the surf, floating upside down on its pontoons; however, the pilot and passenger were able to get out of the cabin and then lash themselves to the upper portion of the floats. This fact saved their lives, because by the time a boat could reach this inverted plane the men were so stiff from exposure and cold that they had to be lifted from the floats of the plane into a launch.

As a matter of information, the ice drifted offshore between the middle and end of July and the water did not start to freeze again until after the 10th of September. It was during this period that all hydro work had to be executed.

The date for closing the season in the individual camps was always hard to determine. We naturally desired to do as much hydrography as possible; however, if we stayed in the field too long it would be impossible to evacuate our people as the floats on the planes would be cut by the newly-formed ice. Similarly, the thin sea ice was not strong enough to hold planes mounted on skis. To determine the date for closing a camp, we would take daily readings of the temperature and the water in the Arctic Ocean. The minute this temperature dropped to 30 degrees, orders were given to close camps hurriedly and we would start evacuating men and supplies, for we knew if there was an extreme drop in temperature ice could form in a few days.

An Esquimo caretaker was left in charge of the main camps during the periods between September and February each year.

While this was the most rugged assignment I ever had, it was also the most interesting in that many types of problems arose to challenge one's attention and ingenuity. In spite of working under extremely adverse conditions, most of the men from the U.S. would volunteer year after year to return to the Arctic for duty.

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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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