Returning to Colony Glacier to look for victims of deadly 1952 crash

Published: Jun. 22, 2017 at 8:58 PM AKDT
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Digging on their hands and knees, military crews continue to discover new details about wreckage from a plane that was lost in the Chugach Mountains decades ago.

Operation Colony Glacier was launched after an Alaska National Guard test flight in 2012 spotted the debris of a C-124 Globemaster II. That aircraft was later identified as the one that crashed in 1952, killing all 52 service members on board.

“As the ice melts, it reveals more and more wreckage and also possible human remains,” said Alaskan NORAD Command Commander Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach.

Prep work for this year’s recovery efforts began at the glacier’s base on May 22. A team of about 10 people have been flying about 18 miles north of Anchorage to Colony Glacier six days a week, collecting as much debris from its surface to bring back to Elmendorf Air Force Base.

The military said it’s working on a short window each year, and June is the only safe month to conduct the operation because the snow has finally melted from winter, and the glacier’s crevasses haven’t yet significantly deteriorated.

“We actually found the engine. There's propellers up there,” said Executive Officer for Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Victoria Martinez. “There's big pieces of aircraft that we found this year.”

Martinez also confirmed they found new human remains this year. Those remains will be flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in the next few weeks for identification using a number of methods, including mitochondrial DNA or nuclear DNA.

“For the Air Force, we promise that we'll bring our service members home, and I think in this mission we are meeting that promise,” said Chief of Past Conflicts Branch of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Allen Kronin.

According to Kronin, 37 military members from the plane crash have been positively identified and given a full funeral procession at no cost to the family.

Fifteen victims have not yet been recovered.

“It gets emotional,” said Kronin, who frequently speaks with the families of the service members lost in the C-124 plane crash. “As you can imagine, you're opening up old wounds, but you're bringing their brother home.”

The C-124 reportedly crashed during a storm in late November more than 60 years ago. Officials said the pilot was “flying blind” and off-course on his way to Elmendorf Air Force Base. That’s when the plane smashed into Mt. Gannett “at full speed.” Continued inclement weather through the winter, followed by an avalanche covering the debris postponed the search for months, and by the time recovery efforts resumed the next year, the wreckage and the passengers had already been frozen deep into the glacier.

The mission is far from over. Officials said they expect there are still big pieces of the airplane hidden within the ice. Every year, new wreckage shifts to the top of the ever-changing glacial landscape, with organizers saying they will continue their recovery mission, as long as new pieces of the C-124 and service members’ remains are being revealed from the ice.