Detailed Report of One Storm

The report below is from an article in the 1994 'Arctic Exposure'. The article and linked pictures were provided by Capt Andrew Webster (Dec. 1996 - Dec. 1997). This interesting report details the all too often drama that occurred when sudden storms roared off the ice cap down onto Thule Air Base. These storms were graded in intensity called "Phases". Phase 1 was the least intense and Phase 3 the highest.

Click here to see Capt Webster's pictures of what it looks like between no storm and a Phase 2 storm.

The Phases (i.e. storms) would come on so suddenly without warning that shelters were placed every 1/4 mile along all off base roads. On base, ropes were strung between buildings for pedestrians to follow and always be close to. Taxi service was provided for people walking more than a block or going anywhere more than a short distance from a building. One always needed to see the nearest shelter when traveling outdoors during periods of suspected bad weather.

Below is a log detailing the extreme conditions that occurred in a very short time during a Phase 3 storm.

The Weather Changes Fast Here

The afternoon of 27 December 1957 was clear and cool. The winds were calm. The Thule Air Base Weather Group had not issued a wind warning, and no Phase Alert had been announced. The first indication of anything unusual was a report from the J-Site (BMEWS Site) dispatcher (Hilltop) to the System Controller, reporting that the winds on Site were 26 mph, and at Shelter #7 they were 23 - 25 mph. At this time, 1850 hours, the shuttle bus was dispatched to base, and a Phase Alert was declared. The winds suddenly jumped to 68 - 70 mph on Site and a Phase Two was declared at 1855 hours. The winds at shelter #7 had risen to 78 - 80 mph.

An attempt to return the shuttle bus to Site was made, however at this point the bus reported that they were stopped somewhere between the "Y" and shelter #8 or #9. Visibility was so poor that the exact location was not clear to personnel in the bus.

The base at this time was still clear, and the Road Patrol vehicle departed to lead the bus down the hill. At Shelter #1 they had visibility up to 30 to 40 reflectors (10 feet between reflectors).

At Shelter #2 they had no more than 30, and they became stuck between Shelters #2 and #3 at 1930 hours.

At 1930 hours, J-Site was up-graded to Phase Three condition with winds of 70 - 80 mph on site. Shelter #7 had 115 mph winds while Shelters #4 and #1 were calm. The winds on Thule Air Base began to pick up.

Phase Two was declared at 1950 hours, and Phase three at 2000 hours. There were people caught in the Theater, Education Center, Base Exchange, Gymnasium, and the clubs. Some were not so fortunate...A Taxi was stuck on Base, unable to find a building because zero visibility, a shift change bus from OL-5 was stuck near Shelter #3, and three pickup trucks were stranded between Shelter #1 and Hanger #10. There was a trash truck, with two DAC employees, lost somewhere on Base with radio and no Phase gear. After the Base had been in Phase Three for one hour, there were still many people unaccounted for.

At 1955 hours, the Road Patrol vehicle, which was stuck between Shelter #2 and #3 reported that the engine had stopped running. The Base Disaster Control Center was notified, and assistance was requested. The BMEWS Phase Control Center was advised that a Trackmaster Rescue Team would be dispatched as soon as qualified drivers could be located. A trackmaster was dispatched from OL-5 in an attempt to pick up the two men stuck between Shelters #2 and #3 without heat.

This rescue was stopped short of Shelter #1 due to zero visibility. During this operation, the winds at J- Site were 80 - 108 mph while at Shelter #7 they were 115 - 140 mph.

At 2219 hours, the shuttle bus reported that the windows, which had cracked earlier, were broken. The wind at this time was a steady 140 mph, with gusts of 160 mph at Shelter #7. At 2220 hours, the System Controller was instructed to dispatch the Trackmaster from Site in an attempt to shuttle personnel from the stranded bus to the nearest shelter. Fourteen minutes later it had managed to reach building #18 but was having clutch trouble. After a short delay (3 minutes) it continued, but at 2332 hours reported no heat and the visibility prevented further movement. At 2345 hours the Trackmaster advised that it was at the "Y", but at 2351 hours it reported its battery was dead, and its location unknown. (This failure was later determined to be in the electrical system, not the battery.)

At 2400 hours, the J-Site situation was discussed with the Base Disaster Control Center. J-Site was advised that a "Vee" plow and three Trackmasters would be dispatched from the Base toward J-Site for assistance. However, problems arose. The Trackmasters could not get past the Base Operations building because of lack of visibility, and their departure was delayed.

(Jump to top next paragraph . . .)

(Continued below:)

At 0113 hours, the shuttle bus advised that there were now five windows gone. At O145 hours the Base Trackmasters again attempted to depart the base, with no success. At 0212 hours the System controller was advised to prepare to send the D-9 Cat and drag the bus back to J-Site.

The winds at J-site had decreased to 40 - 70 mph, and at Shelter #7 to 86 - 104 mph. The heavy equipment is located in Building #18, which is approximately 175 feet from Building #13, and across an open area. To cross such an area during Phase Three is very hazardous.

At 0230 hours, two Trackmasters departed Base toward J-Site. At 0242 hours it was reported that the personnel in the Road Patrol vehicle had been picked up, after almost seven hours without heat. Both were okay, and the two Trackmasters proceeded toward J-Site. NOTE: the Lead Trackmaster had physically run into the road patrol vehicle that had been stopped at an angle across the road.

At 0310 hours, the base Trackmasters were reported stopped again because of high winds and zero visibility. At this time, the winds at Shelter #7 were at 69 - 92 mph. At 0314 hours, the Trackmasters reported zero visibility and icing conditions. They were instructed to return to base. They were unable to tell where they were, or even if they were on the road.

After coordinating with the Base Disaster Control Center, the Oshkosh Snowplow was dispatched from J-Site in an attempt to reach the stranded bus. At 0352 hours the snowplow headed down the hill, with winds on Site reaching 70 mph, and at Shelter #7, 92 -104 mph. The stranded Trackmaster was located in the middle of the road, near the airstrip. The passengers were picked up, and the bus was located at 0425 hours. The original plan was to shuttle people back to J-Site. However, weather conditions were such that the alternate plan of towing the bus to the nearest Phase shelter was adopted. At 0500 hours, all personnel from the shuttle bus were safely inside Shelter #9. The Trackmaster driver volunteered to stay in the shelter until passengers could be picked up. This ensured an Arctic-trained person would be available if the storm were to worsen.

After discussions between BMEWS Phase Control and the Disaster Control Group, although still in Phase Three on Base and J-Site, a bus and a snowplow were dispatched toward Shelter #9 and arrived back on Base, with all personnel, at 0845 hours.

Transportation on Base was a real mess... Any vehicle left running overnight was out of gas and the battery worn down. Those plugged in were lucky if the wind had not disconnected them. Most required a "hot shot" to start, and all were full of snow. During cleanup and recovery operations, 92 vehicles were processed through the Motor Pool for snow removal, drying, and servicing.

There was only one casualty; a broken arm suffered by a DAC employee. In the winter of 1958, an Army man at NIKE Site, located at the foot of Dundas Mountain, was lost. That's all - just lost... It is known that he left one of the buildings, but his body was never recovered. It is believed that he lost his footing, was blown down, and his body rolled onto the ice.

In the winter of 1959, again at NIKE Site, a soldier was crossing between two buildings approximately 75 feet apart. With a two inch hawser as a guideline, he lost his life. In this case, he was on the downward side of the rope, lost his grip, and was blown down. He was found in the company street the next morning. The medics determined that he had died of asphyxiation.

In 1962, at "D" Launch Site (above South Mountain) a life was lost. During Phase Three, the side panels of one of the buildings became loosened. One of the military guys became frightened and panic stricken. Against the advise of others within the building, he tried to cross to what he thought to be a safer shelter. His body was discovered the next morning, in a ditch, 15 feet from where he had started.