Resupply mission to Alert, Nunavut falls short as stubborn fog prevents RCAF transports from landing

Resupply mission to Alert, Nunavut falls short as stubborn fog prevents RCAF transports from landing
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Operation Boxtop, the Royal Canadian Air Forces semi-annual re-supply mission to the worlds northernmost community, hit a snag earlier this monthfog kept RCAFplanes from landing and left the site with one-third of the fuel expected.

On April 20, a CC-150 airbus departed from Trenton with a team ready to deliver 1.5 million litres of low-sulphuric and jet fuel to Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut the Earths most northern base.

Alert is a listening post for picking up radio frequencies from Moscow and wherever else, says David Gray, a former resident and author of Alert: beyond the Inuit Lands, as well as an important hub for climate and ecological research.

But, 800 kilometres from the North Pole and 2,000 kilometres from the nearest grocery store, sustaining Alert isneither easy nor cheap.

Since 1956, the RCAF has been moving supplies to the base via military plane. This involves massive, annual shipments of fuel usually in spring and of dry goods includingrations, construction and research materials and the like in autumn.

Most of the year, the RCAF says, blowing snow and frequent and, in some seasons, constant darkness reduce visibility to zero. This makes sending planes to deliver goods a non-starter. Thats why both re-supply operations run in the narrow window when the temperature ofEllesmere Island rises to a balmy -15 degrees Celsius and the sun doesnt go down. These spring and autumn delivery dates are supposed to make for easy landing and a smooth process overall.

Not this time.

The main body of the 98-person team arrived at the Thule air base in Greenland on April 23, RCAF major Josh Leveque says. Though Greenlands weather was cooperative, hed been told in advance Alert was foggy.

When the first fuel planes arrived the following day, you could see almost all of Alert, except the runway, which was covered in fog, Leveque says. Dampness, water on the ground and a fierce wind from the Pacific created a freezing fog on the runway that made landing very difficult.

Still, meteorologists at Alert told the RCAF the wind would change direction, opening the runway for safer landing.

I dont want to throw Alerts weather guys under the bus but they told us they expected a change in the wind. It didnt change, Leveque says. Though, in Alerts defence, he says, civilian weather forecasts get things wrong all the time.

Though the RCAF made its deliveries, with some difficulty, on the first day after that, it was very sporadic, Leveque says.After April 24, plane after plane flew within landing distance of Alert but, without a clear path, they hung in the air until fuel became a concern and they were instructed to return.

From April 24 and May 5, the RCAF planned to deliver four C-17s and two Hercules military planes full of fuel to Alert each day. It planned a total of 30 drop-offs to reach its target.

Eventually, it became clear Alerts initial forecast was wrong and the cloud ceiling was not going to rise. Based on how the later forecasts looked, we cancelled the next deliveries, Leveque says.

On May 6, the team tasked with delivering fuel to sustain Alert for the year returned to Trenton. A total 561, 700 litres of fuel had beendelivered to the base. Thats a little more thanone third of the 1.5-million litre target.

Aside from the maintenance and weather problems, the operation went smoothly

Alerts 62 residents will have to wait until October, during the second Boxtop re-supply, to receive the rest of the planned fuel. Leveque says the RCAF will combine the usual dry lift, with extra fuel in the planes wings to support the site. Should the October re-supply fall through, Leveque says the RCAF is confident Alert has enough fuel in storage to last until January.

This isnt the first time Operation Boxtop has fallen short. Back in October 1991, Boxtop flight 22 missed Alerts runway and crashed, killing five. The weather was so hostile that the rescue plane sent after it was unable to land, leaving the survivors, soaked in diesel fuel, freezing in Nunavut snow for hours, the RCAF says.

Comparatively, Leveque says of the most recent re-supply: aside from the maintenance and weather problems, the operation went smoothly.

Difficulties aside, Gray says most would not like to see Alert closed, even if it becomes out of date and not very useful from a military intelligence point of view, because it is the most northern point on Earth.
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