A Trip to the North Pole

By George W. Swenson, Jr.


The RD4 airplane
The RD4 airplane.

A slim young man in a khaki parka slipped onto the bench next to me in the mess hall and said, "Dr. Swenson, I'm Bobby Fisher, the chief pilot. I understand you're a radio engineer." I admitted it, and also that I'd finished my work and was waiting for the next plane south, three days away. "We have a problem with a radio transmitter at our drifting ice station near the North Pole. Could you fly out there with us tomorrow and look it over?" I agreed with alacrity and we strolled over to the supply room to outfit me with a regulation parka, mukluks and mittens. My own clothes, apparently, though veterans of many arctic journeys, were not officially acceptable for such a mission. I knew the round trip distance from Point Barrow to the Pole was about 2600 miles, and that the airplane was an R4D, a World War II Navy version of the famous DC3. Its speed is about 150 miles per hour, so it will be a very long trip in the winter darkness. Nine hours each way, in fact. No radio navigation facilities enroute. These pilots make the trip every week, but for me it will be the experience of a lifetime.

Life among the -ologists and -isicists

In 1963 I'd been given an interesting consulting job by the University of Minnesota. Prof. John Winkler of their physics department intended to launch a series of high altitude balloons in the Arctic, to study cosmic rays traveling downward, parallel with the nearly-vertical geomagnetic flux lines. The atmospheric circulation was expected to be circumpolar, so that the balloons could conceivably travel round and round for an extended period. Their positions would have to be tracked continuously and it was decided to use low-frequency radio beacons on the balloons, to be tracked by a few direction-finding stations on the ground. The Minnesota people designed the scientific apparatus, the beacon transmitter and its unique antenna, and the ground-based direction-finding antennas. My job was to study the atmospheric noise levels in the Arctic, to determine therefrom the appropriate transmitter power, and to design and build the special low frequency receivers. I recruited my colleague, Bernard Flaherty, to help me and we commenced experimenting with receiver designs.

The author standing on the Arctic Ocean off Point Barrow, Alaska
The author standing on the Arctic Ocean off Point Barrow, Alaska.

Those were early days in transistor technology. We couldn't find any precedent receiver designs for the low frequency of 70 KHz, so we had to develop them from scratch. The first one was so sensitive that it saturated on the atmospheric noise in Urbana, Illinois, unless it was in the very well-shielded screen-room.

In February, 1963, I took the first receiver up to Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point on the North American continent, to measure the radio noise environment. It was quickly apparent that the atmospheric noise was extremely low there, so it would be appropriate to build receivers with the best sensitivity permitted by the state of the transistor art. It followed that the balloon-borne transmitters could have very low power, less than one watt, and still be receivable over the two thousand miles or more that would be necessary.

Those measurements finished, there was an opportunity to explore. I'd been to Barrow before during my service there with the University of Alaska, but never in the dead of winter. It was pitch dark most of the day, of course, and bitter cold, typically -50š or -60š F in biting winds. Barrow was said to be the largest Eskimo village in the world, with about 600 inhabitants at that time. I wanted some pictures of dog teams, which have always fascinated me, so I wandered about the village during the hour or so when there was enough light, looking for them. Alas, during the few years since my last visit they'd all disappeared. Snowmobiles are faster than dogs, and don't have to be fed during the summer. Finally I learned that the only dog team in town was owned by the dentist, a white man! He trotted them out for me and I got my picture, but somehow it wasn't quite the same.

It's always been difficult for me to photograph adults in one of these native villages; it seems an invasion of privacy. With children it's different. They love to pose, and they're as curious about me as I am about them.

Eskimo children
Eskimo children

Barrow was the site of the Arctic Research Laboratory, operated for the Navy by the University of Alaska, a place for visiting scientists to live and work while investigating various Arctic phenomena. The lab occupied a series of rudimentary buildings originally built during World War II as a base for exploring the petroleum deposits of the Arctic Slope. There were comfortable dormitories, a mess hall, shops, basic lab space, and various jeeps, snowmobiles, tractors, boats, and airplanes to support field work. A skillful staff of mechanics, drivers, cooks, pilots and guides ran the enterprise, mostly Eskimos. Botanists, zoologists, oceanographers, geologists, geophysicists, and lots of other ologists and isicists came there to study the tundra, the sea ice, the aurora, the lemmings and other Arctic things.

Over the Arctic ice pack

During that epoch of Arctic exploration a number of large ice floes floating about the polar sea had been occupied by parties of scientists for extended periods. More-or-less permanent camps had been established on huge ice cakes shed by the glaciers of Ellesmere Island, to swing slowly about the pole in a period of a few years. The Arctic Research Lab had two of these camps, one called ARLIS-II, about 50 kilometers from the Pole, and one called T-3, something more than half way and somewhat to the east of the line from Barrow to the Pole. The pilots explained that we'd land at T-3 to refuel and deliver groceries. The R4D doesn't have enough fuel capacity to make the round trip without refueling, and there's no supply at ARLIS-II. A Canadian icebreaker had called at T-3 a couple of years earlier, at a time when the ocean currents had carried the camp close to the mainland, and had established a cache of fuel oil and aviation gasoline. The other ice island had to be supplied entirely by air so there were no extra stocks of anything.

In the pitch dark at 5:00 the next morning I reported to the airstrip and climbed aboard the plane. My fellow passengers were five Eskimo men, replacements for crew rotating off ARLIS-II, and a new chief for that station, an old arctic hand just returned from assignment in Greenland. These knowledgeable people proceeded to make themselves comfortable. One side of the plane was piled high with freight, almost to the ceiling. The other side had a row of bucket seats. The Eskimos immediately climbed into sleeping bags atop the stacks of freight, and lit cigarettes. The station chief and I belted ourselves into seats for the bumpy takeoff from the steel-plank air-strip, then chatted for a few minutes before he, too, climbed into the last available space above the freight.

I was too interested in the proceedings to think about sleep, even if there'd been space to lie down. I watched through the window as the lights of the Dew Line radar station passed beneath us and we headed north over the arctic ice pack. Soon, however, it began to get chilly in the cabin, then downright frigid. As my feet began to freeze I gradually realized why the others had rushed for places near the ceiling. That's where the heat was, what there was of it. In subsequent years, in several long, winter rides in R4D's and C47's, both military versions of the famous DC-3 airplane, I learned an important fact: they have inadequate cabin heating systems.

Homing in on T-3

When I couldn't stand the cold any longer I moved up into the cockpit to the jump seat between the two pilots. They worked in relatively warm surroundings, but the jump seat was tiny and cramped. We cruised along over the ice pack, continuous but wildly convoluted by pressure ridges. As the hours wore on a pale glow appeared on the southern horizon, throwing the pressure ridges into relief and revealing the desolation stretching endlessly ahead.

The pilots held a steady course on the gyrocompass, making routine scans of the engine gauges and other housekeeping checks. I was puzzled that they didn't send position reports by radio and discovered that they had never been able to contact anyone by high-frequency radio while flying and that once over the horizon from Barrow they would not expect any communication of any kind. My professional curiosity was piqued, so I went aft to the radio compartment to inspect the equipment. To my utter astonishment I found that the high-frequency transmitter and receiver were the original World War II equipment, neither crystal-controlled nor accurately calibrated. They were intended to be operated by a full-time professional radio-man with the aid of an accurate frequency meter. No wonder the pilots couldn't make them work! The whole setup was hopelessly inadequate.

What if we had to make a forced landing, with no way to tell anybody? In further conversations the pilots revealed that exactly that had happened some months earlier. One of their big planes had gone down on the ice, the result of loading a drum of fuel oil into its tanks at T-3. Though the error was discovered by the ground crew soon after the plane's departure, there was no way to send a warning. When the plane didn't show up at Barrow, there was no way of knowing where it had crashlanded. Fortunately the passengers and crews were rescued by searchers in small planes after several cold, lonely days on the ice. The plane was lost. All this was food for thought as we flew steadily northward.

Eventually the radio beacon at T-3 showed a solid bearing on the automatic direction finder and the pilots homed in on its signal. A glimmer showed up far ahead, different in color from the stars blazing in the dark sky, and in another ten minutes it was resolved into a short line of flickering lights at an angle to our direction of flight. "The T-3 airstrip," announced Bobby Fisher, as he throttled back, dropped the wheels and wing flaps, and circled into his descent. The strip felt bumpy and mushy and we lurched violently from side to side as we slowed to a stop. I comforted myself with the knowledge that the R4D is a rugged old crate, and the battering was unlikely to collapse the landing gear.

We stepped out into -45š temperature and biting wind. A tractor towing a sled loaded with fuel drums approached with its headlights boring two bright tunnels in the blowing snow. We all pitched in to pump gasoline up into the wing tanks of the plane, taking turns at the crank handle of the pump. I sneaked a look at the color of the liquid in each drum: no fuel oil for the plane I'm riding in! It was cold work. Even the Eskimos were happy when the job was done and we could trudge over to the mess shack for a quick lunch and some relief from the frigid blast.

The art of celestial navigation

Soon we were back in the plane, jolting down the runway and into the air, heading due north once more. Again, I missed out on a warm berth near the ceiling, but I was still too interested in the proceedings to care much.

Basically, flying over oceans or other featureless terrain can be quite boring, though it's important for the pilots to keep busy with their navigation and the care and feeding of the engines and other aircraft systems. I could understand how we found our way to T-3. Take a course out of Barrow on the gyrocompass, and hold it until we get close enough to get a good bearing on the station's beacon transmitter with the automatic direction finder. Now we had a different problem. It's not so easy to set the gyrocompass at T-3, as there are no fixed directional references on the surface of this drifting and rotating ice cake. The radio beacon on ARLIS-II is not working well and can't be heard beyond twenty miles by the plane's rather insensitive direction-finding receiver. This will be interesting.

We were a couple of hours out of T-3, apparently still relying on the original calibration of the gyroscope made at Barrow many hours earlier, when the copilot said to me, "Hand me the two yellow books from the briefcase there, behind you." One was entitled The Air Almanac the other H.O.248, Sight Reduction Tables. The pilots studied these books of numerical tables for a few minutes, then Bobby took a compact aircraft sextant out of its case, aimed it out the windshield and while peering into its eyepiece called out, "Mark," and again, "Mark." His partner gazed intently at his wristwatch, clipboard on lap and pencil in hand. After a few calculations on the scratch pad, they drew a straight line on a chart. Then the whole procedure was repeated, resulting in another straight line. Where the lines intersected, Bobby said, was our present position. What they'd done was to measure the angular altitudes of two known stars and to determine from these the two lines of position on the blank chart of the Arctic Ocean.

I was impressed. I'd always assumed that celestial navigation was an arcane subject requiring intimate knowledge of the stars and of trigonometry, as well as years of practice. Yet, here were two young bush pilots, without military or airline training, who said they'd learned the technique through a short period of self study and practice. Surely I, a professor of astronomy and engineering, could do as well. Subsequently I did, and parlayed the skill into several adventures, some of which have been related in earlier issues of The Bridge.

In any case, the procedure worked. The site reduction table automatically yields the calibration of the directional gyroscope during the manipulation of sextant observations.

The celestial position permitted a course correction, and after another hour or so Bobby announced that we ought to be nearly at our destination. No bearing on the ADF yet, but a very faint signal can be heard. Finally, many miles ahead, another short segment of light gradually resolved into the line of kerosene flares marking the airstrip. The ADF bearing had materialized only at the last minute, long after we'd sighted the lights.

The now-familiar, jolting, ice landing accomplished, I followed the pilots into the Quonset-hut mess hall, still marveling at the skill and aplomb with which they'd found this tiny speck in the vast wilderness of ice. Now it was my turn to show my craft, if I could. The radio transmitter was located in the mess hall, and I tackled it immediately after breakfast. Or was it supper? Pancakes and sausage, I remember, but in 24-hour darkness one loses track of time.

My turn to show my craft

There was no instruction manual, but the transmitter appeared to be rated at 200 watts output, and was crystal controlled, amplitude-modulated with either voice or audio tone, with a carrier frequency of about 250 kilohertz. The antenna ammeter was indicating five amperes of radio-frequency current. Even if the antenna radiation resistance were only ten ohms this would represent 250 watts of output power. Surely we should have heard this from some hundreds of miles distance, as we had the one on T-3. The fact that the signal had finally appeared at the right place on the direction finder's dial showed that it was on the correct frequency.

There was still the antenna and the grounding system to consider. The station crew described the ground: a wire dropped directly down into the sea through a hole bored in the ice. The ice is thirty feet thick. This sounds ok; how about the antenna, then? Outside in the howling wind our flashlights reveal a 2 ¥ 4 post nailed to the corner of the mess hall, about ten feet high. A similar post on the bunk house, one hundred feet away. Between them stretches the antenna wire, sagging within a few feet of the ice, the downlead from the mess-hall end leading directly to the transmitter. Here's the problem, I thought. Asked why they'd built the antenna so low, the man in charge of the radio said, "We got more antenna current with a low antenna than with a high one, and we were told to maximize the current." I thought to myself, "And you'd have gotten still more current if you'd just short-circuited the antenna terminals, all reactive, just like this."

The new station manager had been looking over my shoulder as I poked into the innards of the radio system. We'd discussed the system a bit on the flight in and he was understandably concerned to learn how frail was this lifeline upon which his crew's safety absolutely depended. I was now able to tell him with reasonable certainty how to make a dramatic increase in the reach of his transmitter. Have two sixty-foot masts fabricated in the Barrow shops and installed 75 feet apart at ARLIS-II. Run a horizontal wire between the tops of these masts and drop a downlead from its center directly to the transmitter. The station manager eagerly noted this recommendation and indicated his determination to follow through.

All this activity took only half an hour or so. Hanging over us was the knowledge that the airplane's engines were rapidly cooling in the bitter wind. Should we wait too long before starting them again, they'd have to be heated first, an exceedingly complicated process. The pilots were understandably anxious to get going. But here I was at the North Pole, or at 50 km as close to it as I was ever likely to be. I wanted to savor the experience, but obviously couldn't delay our departure. I glanced up at the North Star, directly overhead, and around the horizon, completely featureless, knowing that every direction I looked was south. The situation was exactly as I'd imagined it. It was too dark for photography-no souvenirs. Just the knowledge that I'd been there, at the traditional goal of generations of valiant explorers, and that I'd had a real mission to perform and hadn't arrived just as a tourist.

I won't dwell on the trip back to Barrow. It was interminably long and indescribably cold. A faint tinge of twilight appeared on the southern horizon for a half-hour or so, then faded away. The radio beacon at Barrow was audible for a couple of hours before arrival, so there was no need for celestial observations.

Eventually we arrived and landed. The adventure was over. Despite my frozen feet and fatigue, I'd enjoyed every minute of it and its impressions had been forever burned into my memory.