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Snow Patrol Redux: High-risk Arctic missions follow Vietnam
This article was first published as the cover story in the January edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
By Bruce Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
Air Force veteran Bruce Headle has been told that he should write a book about his amazing aviation career — for good reason.
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A Today Magazine cover story last year highlighted two key components of Headle’s historic military service:
• Boosting the U.S. space program in NASA’s early days.
• Serving an eventful tour of duty during the Vietnam War.
A third essential career component transpired after his Vietnam duty:
• Flying perilous Arctic missions as a C-130 airplane navigator.
In this sequel story, let’s focus on the Arctic aspect of his Air Force work.
A Simsbury native, Headle (rhymes with needle) is 85 years old — he was born on August 7, 1936. He graduated from Simsbury High in 1954, when the high school’s home was the landmark stone building on Hopmeadow Street that now houses municipal offices.
In 1958 he graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, completing his ROTC training, and was commissioned as an Air Force officer. His work with NASA occurred during his first military decade.
After serving in Vietnam in 1967-68 as the navigator for a C-130 transport plane, he returned to the States. In 1972 Headle was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage on Alaska’s south-central coast. He retired in 1979 as a major but remained in Alaska, where he has resided for five decades.
Today, he lives with his wife Mary-Michele (aka “Mike”) in Chugiak, a small town about 20 miles from Anchorage. Their three daughters and three sons-in-law live in Alaska, plus three granddaughters, three grandsons and two great-granddaughters.
During those seven years at the Elmendorf base, he continued guiding C-130s as an airplane navigator — on many hair-raising and high-risk missions.
One dangerous assignment was delivering supplies to Fletcher’s Ice Island, a massive floating iceberg in the Arctic Ocean — roughly seven miles long and three miles wide — also known as T-3 island.
For 20-plus years, the U.S. Navy maintained a research facility on T-3 manned by a team of 25-30 scientists and military personnel.
“Our C-130 would air-drop their supplies to them with parachutes,” Headle says.
Once, the plane’s crew inadvertently released a postal delivery too early: “We had to say, ‘Guys, sorry about your mail — it’s a few miles out at sea,’” he quips.
“Trying to find this floating ice island could be a challenge,” he observes. “T-3 was 1200 miles northeast of Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of Alaska. We’d fly up there from Anchorage.”
Finding such pinpoint locations was precisely Headle’s responsibility as a C-130 airplane navigator.
While the pilot flew the plane and controlled its course, the navigator directed the pilot — guiding the plane with maps, charts, on-board radar and instruments, plus other time-tested methods such as celestial navigation.
“This was way before anybody heard or even dreamed of GPS,” Headle says.
Since the advent of GPS technology, the role of an airplane navigator has been phased out. However, in Headle’s day, navigators were as vital as pilots for safe aviation. Further, navigation in the Arctic is complicated by the fact that the geographic North Pole and the magnetic North Pole aren’t in the same location.
“You can’t use a regular compass when a plane is north of the magnetic pole,” Headle notes. “That’s when magnetic compasses start to spin — they’re useless at that point. To navigate, you had to un-slave the compass and use it as a directional gyro. Plus, you didn’t always have the stars for navigation.”
Headle’s star reference alludes to a major complication of navigating in the Arctic in the summertime: the legendary white-nights phenomenon.
In the summer, the sun barely sets in the Arctic Circle, so the nighttime is bright instead of dark — making standard celestial navigation impossible because the stars aren’t visible during those white nights and therefore aren’t available as navigational aids. Moreover, navigators in the Arctic must use an “artificial overlay” because “longitude lines converge at the top of earth and you can’t measure any heading where they all come together,” Headle says.
In such extreme conditions, with multiple orientation challenges, it’s a classic understatement to say that a pilot had to totally trust a navigator.
“Pilots had no idea what we were doing,” Headle says. “Flying north of the magnetic North Pole makes for some interesting navigation — pilots got really quiet because they didn’t know where the heck we were going.”
The airborne fates of pilots and navigators were as interconnected as a pair of Mount Everest climbers tethered together for safety. One mistake, by either the pilot or the navigator, could too easily spell doom for the entire crew. That was the pre-GPS reality for every pilot and navigator, and this life-and-death dynamic was magnified and intensified by flying in the Arctic region.
In those days, Headle adds, Air Force planes in the Arctic occasionally “got lost trying to map-read because they couldn’t figure out where the heck they were.”
When Headle’s Air Force team undertook an air-drop mission to T-3 — aka Fletcher’s Ice Island — all of the above navigational handicaps were in full force. The island was about halfway between the northern tip of Greenland and the geographic North Pole, he notes.
According to the Firebirds.org website, “guiding aircraft over the barren sea ice and open water to the constantly changing position of T-3” was a monumental feat, in part because “accurate weather forecasting was impossible” due to “the absence of reporting stations and the distance … over remote Arctic wastes.”
ARCTIC TAKE ON COLD WAR
Indeed, T-3 wasn’t connected to any land mass … so it would drift in the Arctic Ocean. This circumstance resulted in the following surreal reality: At times, Fletcher’s Ice Island would drift from the territorial waters of the United States into the territorial waters of the Soviet Union.
Since this was during the decades-long Cold War, you can surmise that such a jurisdiction transition presented a problem for the U.S. personnel on T-3.
“Our Navy would have to abandon the research lab,” Headle says. “The Russians got the island for as long as it was in their territory. They were on it for a while, and when it drifted back we reoccupied it.”
Ongoing missions to Greenland were another dicey undertaking for Headle and his Anchorage-based Air Force team.
His C-130 transport plane would fly from Alaska, on the far western end of North America, and soar clear across Canada to supply and support two air sites on the far eastern end of the continent.
SNOW LANDING IN GREENLAND
“We were the lifeline to two radar sites on opposite sides of the spine of Greenland,” Headle says. “We flew off the hard runway at Greenland’s Sondrestrom Air Base to the open-snow landings at the sites. We delivered whatever was needed— diesel fuel, workers, food, whatever was needed to keep them going.”
Headle’s plane was outfitted for Arctic conditions. More specifically, his C-130 was ski-equipped.
Yes, an airplane with skis — “26-foot Teflon-coated skis, like the Teflon on kitchen pots and pans,” he says, allowing for takeoffs and landings on snow and ice.
With a special focus on landing gear, Headle outlines the journey as follows:
• Starting at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, “we’d take off on wheels.”
• For a refueling pit stop in Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, “we’d land on wheels on their only hard runway.”
• From Yellowknife, “we’d take off on wheels and land on wheels at Sondrestrom — commercial airliners from Denmark would also land there.”
• From the Air Force base at Sondrestrom, “we’d take off on wheels and then retract the wheel gear and drop the skis so we could land on skis on the snow at the two Greenland air sites.”
“Pilots had no idea what we were doing ... Flying north of the magnetic North Pole makes for some interesting navigation — pilots got really quiet because they didn’t know where the heck we were going” — Air Force navigator Bruce Headle
By the way, Greenland is linked historically and politically to Denmark — and Sondrestrom means “south stream” in Danish.
Another facet of Headle’s C-130 connects with its need for a JATO, the acronym for a jet-assisted takeoff — although no jet is actually involved. The term is synonymous with the technically more accurate RATO, or rocket-assisted takeoff.
Because his C-130 transport aircraft often carried heavy cargo, additional thrust from small rockets mounted at the rear of the plane boosted the takeoff power while reducing the runway distance needed to go airborne.
“The jet-assisted takeoff gave us enough speed to get off the ground,” he says — and in honor of this helpful aviation technology, he named one of his Siberian Huskies JATO. Headle and his wife have owned numerous Huskies.
“My wife likes dog shows, so I like dog shows — you know how that works,” he observes. “I’d rather hook them up to a sled. … I prefer mushing dogs for fun and recreation.”
Yet while dog mushing is Alaska’s official state sport — underscored by the signature Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — Headle didn’t pursue mushing full-time when he retired from the Air Force in 1979.
POST-AIR FORCE — BACK TO SCHOOL
Instead, he pursued more schooling.
“I wanted to do something totally different,” he says. “I went back to college for elementary education for two years and got a teaching certificate.”
He never taught his own class but was a substitute teacher for 19 years, usually in long-term sub roles for grades 1-6 — filling in for a teacher on maternity leave, for example.
Some educators would assert that substitute teaching is the academic equivalent of combat duty. But to a veteran of Vietnam and high-risk Arctic missions, the comparison falls as flat as a snow-packed runway on a desolate ice island.
“Some people say I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life and I should write a book — but nobody would read it,” says Headle.
You be the judge of his self-effacing assertion: If this story continued from here, would you keep reading? +
• Actually, you can keep reading if you wish — CLICK HERE for Part 1 of Bruce Headle's story, from our July 2021 edition, featuring his riveting Vietnam and early NASA tales
• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is an award-winning journalist
• Today Magazine covers the heart of Connecticut's Farmington Valley, recording the underreported upside of the Valley's five core towns — Farmington, Avon, Canton, Simsbury and Granby