No-Fly Zone Administered Over Glacier Crash Site

In 1952, a military plane crashed into Mount Gannett, 50 miles east of Anchorage, killing all 52 service members on board. The plane was located in 2012 at Colony Glacier, but it has taken years to retrieve the remains as rescuers can only travel to the crash site in June, when conditions are safest on the glacier. Over this time, the receding glacier has made the crash site more visible, but it has also enticed sightseers on helicopters, who risk disturbing the remains or removing artifacts. As a result, a no-fly zone has been administered this month by the Federal Aviation Administration to stop people from disturbing the crash site.

To date, 35 human remains have been repatriated, but it may take several more years to retrieve the remaining 17. The plane went down in the Chugach Mountain range, one of the snowiest locations in Alaska. During the winter of 1952-1953, in the Chugach’s Thompson Pass, a record 81 feet of snow was recorded. Colony Glacier remains dangerous due to deep crevasses, variable weather and sharp pieces of ice.

Erin Pettit, an associate professor of glaciology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, told GlacierHub about similar plane crashes that have been buried beneath glaciers. “There are a handful around the world – at least one in Greenland and one in Antarctica. Sometimes they weren’t ‘lost’ in the sense that no one knew what happened, but they just couldn’t extract the plane,” she said. “The plane was absorbed by the glacier and won’t re-emerge for hundreds or even thousands of years, depending on where it landed and how big the glacier is.”

When a plane crashes into a glacier, it is covered by snowfall and over time freezes into the glacier. When the glacier moves downslope, the plane moves along with it, until it is later revealed at the front of the glacier. Warmer temperatures speed this process up.

Flowpath of Colony Glacier (Source: Bob McNabb).

Bob McNabb, a glaciologist at the University of Alaska, calculated the speed and trajectory of the flowpath of the Colony Glacier and made a map for GlacierHub. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, McNabb said the plane traveled 23 kilometers along the flowpath, which means it would have traveled one meter per year. Using this analysis, which involved the use of satellites, McNabb calculated that the average surface velocity would have been about 1.5 meters per year.

Michael Loso, a physical scientist at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, told GlacierHub that Colony Glacier has a velocity of about 3 feet per day, saying, “That’s fast but not unreasonably fast for a big Alaskan glacier.”

Alaska has a higher rate of plane crashes than the rest of the United States for reasons like frequent inclement weather, jagged terrain, which can be obscured by clouds, and the fact that flying is the only way to get to certain remote places. The cause of the 1952 crash has never been determined.

Loso added that such crashes at glaciers are not that uncommon, saying, “Many glaciers are in mountains, and planes run into mountains every once in awhile.”

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