Emergency landing in Sólheimasandur

Iceland Storytelling

They have already passed Hornafjörður: Captain James Wicke is not worried at all. The delivery of military equipment went as planned, and they are now on their way home. In the midst of the Cold War, the US Navy is actively involved in the arms race, and it’s just a routine mission over Iceland. Really nothing to worry about.

Suddenly, the weather changes abruptly: temperatures drop below -10 ° C, winds blow 100 km / h, and the carburetor begins to spit ice. Both engines get tired in the turbulence, then they end up exhausted, completely iced, and stop working very quickly. The change of situation is as rapid as it’s brutal: the plane is then immersed in such a fog that none of the seven passengers can see the wings of the aircraft … Ice settled on the whole cabin , the plane is heavier than ever.

Wicke launches a Mayday while feverishly trying to revive the icy engines. But the Douglas DC-3 remains silent and begins its fall over Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, about to crash into a jagged peak over 1,500 meters high.

It’s November 21st, 1973, the day before Thanksgiving. All the crew guesses that they will die.

Lieutenant Gregory Fletcher, a 26-year-old pilot still in training, knows he has only flown twenty-one flights so far. The fear of dying largely overwhelms his small experience and he’s already taking control of the plane to head south. He takes the crazy decision to drop the plane into the ocean. If he knows that the waters of the North Atlantic would leave the crew fifteen seconds before the fatal hypothermia, a collision with the icy mount would instantly kill him and his comrades … That’s when everything goes faster: at two thousand five hundred feet, when the plane breaks through the storm, Fletcher has an idea. He finally leads the aircraft on a course parallel to the shore. They slide on this disconcerting surface that makes them almost think of the moon.

It is the beach of Sólheimasandur.

Fletcher uses frozen black sand as an airstrip. He skidded about thirty meters on a dune before braking a few meters from the ocean. The propellers are completely folded and the engine covers crushed. But Fletcher just saved several lives.

The tanks are open and fleeing: in the fear that the plane will catch fire and explode suddenly, the crew leaves the plane at once. Sergeant Major Vernon Romskog grabs the survival kit stored in the aircraft while Wicke watches for fuel leaks. Fletcher has already assembled a radio kit from the Second World War, places it between his knees, and begins to crank the radio as fast as he can. The antenna is completely corroded but still, it is in a sigh of relief that an hour later, they see an Air Force rescue helicopter appear on the horizon.

 

 

The passage is almost invisible. On the side of the road, we went back to two attempts to find the opening that the Icelandic have formed along the fence. This is where you have to start walking to join the site.

Impatient, I take the step on the icy road while Nico finishes to put on his crampons. It’s four kilometers through a barren lava desert, in which the mystery is maintained when walking. There is absolutely nothing around, just this lunar landscape that extends to infinity. We got up early to take advantage of the early hours of the day when we will be there. I guess we are approaching when I see a drone fly as the rising sun begins to dart its light on a metal shell: the wreckage of the plane is behind this dune, forty five years after the disaster, still frozen on the desolate beach of black sand, with the ocean just behind.

The empty carcass looks like a fatal tomb in a post-apocalyptic world. Abandoned, time did its work and the polar winds slowly nibbled the twisted cabin. The old pile of sheet metal is riddled with bullet holes, the fuselage incomplete, and there are only a few scattered cables undulating on his skeleton. Two, three photographers are there too, and their objectives have already inspected the entire decomposition of the wreck. Soon, a tourist climbs the fuselage to take a look inside the exploded cockpit, while the sound of the wind howls through the portholes.

Today, the most commonly accepted theory is that the plane crashed because it ran out of fuel. The surrealist site has since become a curious phenomenon: after the first images of the plane were shown in a documentary, the story of the unfortunate aircraft quickly became a great success. Instagram and social networks have been through viral images and videos of the wreckage, and now hundreds of people are using their GPS every day to find the plane, leaving names of all countries engraved on the metal remains.

But this cursed beach is still one of the most dangerous sites in the country: ironically, the same rescue team that, forty-five years ago, had been searching for the DC-3 crew, is now deployed daily to rescue lost tourists. Some, trying to lead their rental car to the wreckage, sank painfully into a lava field. Others, choosing to walk, were caught in a violent snowstorm. Finally, others have walked indolently through the arid and desert landscape for several hours until they are completely lost. In order to reduce the frequency of rescue missions, all vehicular paths were closed.

Back at the Keflavík military base, the surviving crew is examined by  the doctors. As they approached death, a hypocritical paradox retracted to the slightest scratch of their body. They are all safe and sound. Fletcher is decorated with an Air Force Medal. Today a lawyer in Tennessee, he not only treasured the bronze reward, but smiles every time he sees the control stick of the DC-3 he exhibited at home. The piece reminds him every time these ginned memories, so deep in his him that no detail has been frayed.

“I just did what I thought was right in a very catastrophic situation,” says Fletcher. “I did my best, and it worked. “

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