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    September 20, 2010

    Racing to Find Aviators Entombed in Ice


    KOGE BAY, Greenland — It was December 1942 and the height of World War II when she received news of her brother. “Nancy,” her mother said calmly over the phone. “John’s been lost.”

    “When I heard those words, my heart just sank,” said Nancy Pritchard Morgan, 87, of Annapolis, Md. Two weeks earlier, on Nov. 29, her brother and two other Coast Guard aviators had been listed as missing after their plane lost radio contact — and presumably crashed — during a storm off the southeast coast of Greenland.

    Now, 68 years later, the Coast Guard has commissioned a private recovery team to try to locate, excavate and repatriate the three men entombed in a J2F-4 Grumman Duck biplane in a glacier here. The team set out last month with an arsenal of top-of-the-line technology: ground-penetrating radar, which can detect metallic objects close to the surface; advanced ice-melting equipment, which can pinpoint buried objects as it dissolves the ice around them; and a camera that can take pictures from inside deep hollows of ice.

    The team also installed two GPS devices that will track the movement of the glacier in question. The goal is to find the servicemen before their relatives are dead and the ice where they are buried moves out to sea.

    “Any branch of service wants to recover their fallen members, if they can,” said John Long, a Coast Guard master chief petty officer and the head of the “Duck Hunt” recovery mission. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

    The 15-member team, including three from the Coast Guard and a reporter, had expected to spend no more than five days investigating six sites that had been identified as promising. But relentless rain, harsh winds and low visibility kept helicopters grounded, leaving the team stuck on the ice and unable to explore all the sites. Eleven days passed before everyone was able to return to the airport in Kulusuk.

    The recovery effort began three years ago, when Chief Long began piecing together historic clues. The original 1943 accident report included a hand-drawn map from Col. Bernt Balchen, the American polar aviator who ran a training base in Greenland during the war. Chief Long determined that the crash had taken place within a three-square-mile area about 2,300 feet above Koge Bay.

    In 2008, Mr. Long ordered an aerial survey of the region using Essex ground-penetrating radar, which transmitted electromagnetic waves from a P-3 Orion airplane flying 3,500 feet above the glacier. A large metallic object like the J2F-4 Grumman Duck — which would be a valuable artifact to recover, since only 32 of them were made — would show up as a white blotch. Of the blotches on the Essex map, three coincided with the coordinates on Colonel Balchen’s map, and one had the shape of a biplane.

    To move the project forward, the Coast Guard hired a private contractor, Luciano Sapienza, chief executive of North South Polar Recoveries of Jersey City. In 1992, he was part of the expedition that recovered the “Glacier Girl”, a P-38 Lightning airplane downed over Greenland in 1942. He and his team set out for Koge Bay late last month.

    Kate McKinley, 34, a geophysicist from Charleston, S.C., was in charge of the hand-held ground-penetrating radar kit. She used a product called the Rough Terrain Antenna from a Swedish company, Mala Geoscience. Holding a data screen in front of her, she anchored the radar to her back and dragged a 12-foot sensor, resembling a gigantic rat tail, along the ice.

    With most ground-penetrating radar, “we would have to set up a grid and go from point A to B, physically marking on the ice where we picked up a reading,” Ms. McKinley said. With the Mala, exact coordinates are tracked via GPS. “It is like driving a boat over the surface of the ice with a fish finder,” Ms. McKinley said.

    The radar detects anything metallic, as well as bedrock and crevasses, within the first few hundred feet. The readout shows a cross-section of the ground on a black and white screen with hyperbola-shaped anomalies. When Ms. McKinley found an anomaly that looked promising, she marked the spot for drilling. Altogether, she was able to mark 10 spots before the rain made the ice too slushy.

    Weegee Smith, 57, a specialist in building custom field instruments, moved in next, operating a powerful ice-melter. The contraption siphoned water from a well Mr. Smith had dug and heated it to 180 degrees. Mr. Smith sprayed the hot water on the target area, digging a shaft 130 feet deep.

    Unfortunately, “the ice melted with no resistance the whole way down,” Mr. Smith said. Resistance, he said, would have indicated “that we hit something and it was time to take a look.”

    On the third day of drilling, he did feel some resistance, so it was time to bring in the subsurface camera. Designed by Alberto Behar, 42, an electrical engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the camera has a fish-eye lens surrounded by 27 LEDs that could illuminate the shaft Mr. Smith had made and transmit real-time images. Any indication of the J2F-4’s metal, oil or paint chips would prompt Mr. Smith to drill more holes.

    While all this was going on, two other teams set out to find the other candidate sites on the glacier, carefully navigating sinkholes, snow bridges and eight-foot crevasses. They marked the secondary locations and installed two permanent GPS units, which track the movement and speed of the glacier.

    “One of the biggest challenges to this mission was not knowing how fast the glacier is moving or in which direction,” Dr. Behar said. His GPS units send signals via satellite every four hours to a remote receiver in Los Angeles. Eventually, the data will give Mr. Sapienza’s team a better idea of how far the plane may have traveled since the crash.

    After four days of drilling in freezing rain and wind, the scientists saw no indication at the primary site that the anomalies detected by radar were anything but large crevasses. Effectively, the team was able to rule out this location and focus on other sites.

    Time is running out for the Coast Guard, which has already spent $579,000 on the Grumman Duck recovery effort, including $314,000 for the recent trip. With warmer temperatures, scientists say, the glacier and plane are advancing more quickly toward the ocean than previously estimated.

    “This is the warmest summer Greenland has seen in 150 years,” Ms. McKinley said.

    Mr. Sapienza said: “We are disappointed we couldn’t do more, but we learned a great deal and the Coast Guard is on track for the next steps. These men made the ultimate sacrifice, and it’s our duty to bring them home.”

    Mrs. Morgan took the news in stride as the team headed home. She has fond memories of her older brother, who introduced her to the man who became her husband. “It’s wonderful to know that John hasn’t been forgotten,” she said. “We can’t give up — not yet.”