Polar Podcasts

06: Kent Brooks – The Plane Crash

August 11, 2020 Julie Hollis Season 1 Episode 6
Polar Podcasts
06: Kent Brooks – The Plane Crash
Polar Podcasts
06: Kent Brooks – The Plane Crash
Aug 11, 2020 Season 1 Episode 6
Julie Hollis

In this episode, we hear from Kent Brooks, Emeritus Professor at the Geological Museum in Copenhagen, about a chance discovery while on a geological expedition to east Greenland in 1966, the implications of which followed him over forty years.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we hear from Kent Brooks, Emeritus Professor at the Geological Museum in Copenhagen, about a chance discovery while on a geological expedition to east Greenland in 1966, the implications of which followed him over forty years.


06: Kent Brooks – The Plane Crash

Based on interviews held on January 9–10, 2020 in Kendal, England

Note: Polar Podcasts are designed to be heard. If you are able, please listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that is not evident in the transcript.


Kent 0:02

Perhaps we’ll er, perhaps we’ll talk about the plane crash. I’ve just got to remember about it though.

Julie 0:11

Welcome to Polar Podcasts, where you’ll hear stories from geologists who’ve spent their careers, their lives, exploring and studying the remarkable and remote geology of Greenland. Why did they become fascinated with Greenland? What were the problems and the discoveries that drove them? And what was it like working in these remote places, where few people venture, even now? I’m Julie Hollis.

In this episode, we hear from Kent Brooks, Emeritus Professor at the Geological Museum in Copenhagen, about a chance discovery while on a geological expedition to east Greenland in 1966, the implications of which followed him over forty years.

Kent 0:58

The, the Oxford group was David Bell, Brian Atkins, two undergraduates, who I’ve lost, I’ve rather lost touch with now, Richard Norris and David Parish. Anyhow, the four of us, our idea was to go and visit the er, the Lilloise Intrusion which is er, what shall we say, two hundred kilometres to the, to the northeast of Skærgaard in a very inaccessible place along the Blosseville coast. And er, well it’s, it’s an extremely inaccessible place. It had been discovered by, by Wager when he was sailing with Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen on the second Scoresbysund expedition. They sailed down from Scoresbysund to Ammassilik in order to look at the nature of the Blosseville coast, or the coast between Scoresbysund and Ammassilik with a view to er, mapping it. And, and er, in the event that people want to, want to go, go between the two places. Nobody ever did in fact, but they built a, a series of huts along the coastline so that if any Greenlanders who wanted to sledge from one to the other, could sledge from there along a line of huts. Anyhow, they came to Wiedemans Fjord and Wager spotted these unusual looking rocks inland. And he went with Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen onto the Kronborg Glacier in an attempt to go and see what these rocks were. He thought they were syenites.

Julie 2:21

A syenite is a fairly unusual sodium- and potassium-rich magmatic rock.

Kent 2:27

And they, they weren’t able to get across the Kronborg Glacier, so they never found out. And we, we thought was a, this was a, a suitable, a suitable sort of target we could, we could go and solve this problem being, being naïve, still naïve, even though we’d been to Greenland before and found out that things didn’t work out as you normally planned. Anyhow, we were dumped by the Norwegian ship there and it didn’t take us very long to find out that we couldn’t get across the Kronborg Glacier either. It was a pretty horrific place. And er, we decided that maybe we could outflank it by going inland. Well this was when we, when we found this crashed plane, which was er, to play a long, a long part in my, in my life, or it carried on influencing me the next thirty or forty years.

We were going up the glacier and it was, the sky was blue and the sun was shining and you couldn’t really see anything because we were blinded. And after we’d got to the top of a rise on the glacier and somebody turned around said,“My God there’s a, there’s a star on the side of that rock.” And we looked and we said, “Oh it’s not a rock, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a bit of plane.”

So we turned round and went back and had a look at this and it was, it was indeed a plane, a crashed plane that we er. The fuselage was intact with the two, the engines had broken away and rolled across the glacier on impact. And it didn’t take us long to find out that there were eleven, eleven or twelve er, corpses on board.

Kent 4:06

Well er, we were rather stymied. We couldn’t get across the glacier, and so we er, retreated to our base camp on Wiedemans Fjord. And er, we eventually were relieved there. And we, we, we had a radio but we couldn’t contact anybody with it. We, you never could. I mean there were always these radio blackouts and er, people weren’t listening or they weren’t manning, manning the channels and stuff. We never, we never had much joy with radios in the old days.

But er, it then turned out that when we were on our way back to England, we stopped off at the er, the American Embassy in Reykjavik. And er, it happened to be a Sunday morning. And we knocked on the door and some flunky came out and we said we want to see the Ambassador. And he said, “You can’t see the Ambassador, it’s Sunday morning.” So we said, “We want to, we want to report er, twelve dead American citizens.” And he said, “Oh, well that’s, that’s different.” So of course the Ambassador came along. We told him all about it and we said, “They’re in a very, a very awkward place on a glacier there and we found them in er, in the beginning of August. It’s now the middle of September and we don’t think you’ll be able to find them because the place will be covered with snow by now. We recommend that any expedition out there to retrieve the bodies, that it’s put off until next summer.”

Well, imagine our surprise when we er, came back to Oxford, come about November we had a message from the American Embassy in London thanking us for our information and saying the US icebreaker Atka had been immediately directed to the site and er, the bodies had been recovered and been returned to America and were in the, in the Arlington National Cemetary.

Kent 6:41

Well, never really thought more of that for a long time. Except we did get some letters from the er, from the family of the crew members, also thanking us. Because the plane, it had been originally in Spain. And had been transferred to er Keflavik, Iceland. It was a Neptune, they’re called. They’re used for er, for identifying submarines. And this time, in the midst of the Cold War, the er, the Denmark Strait and the er, Atlantic Ocean between er, Scotland and Iceland were the two routes by which the, er Russian Soviet nuclear submarines could escape from the Arctic Ocean into the Atlantic. And so they kept constant surveillance of these two sea lanes. And this er, Neptune, it was used for surveilling the Denmark Strait.

Well, the plane had gone down in, I think 1962 and er, there’d been an intensive search with er, as many as thirty planes, I think, covering a huge area. And they continued to search for at least fourteen days. It’d gone down on the, on the twelfth of January. I happen to remember it’s the twelfth of January because that’s my wife’s birthday. And it’d gone down in conditions where visibility was very poor. There was heavy snow. And it’s route had been to er, fly from Keflavik to er, the sea area off the mouth of Scoresbysund, then turn east and er, make a triangular route back to Keflavik.

Where we found the crash, it was far off its route to the west. And it had obviously flown into the glacier. And we were informed that the radar they had on board would not show up the ice. So it er, if they were flying over a glacier, they would see the bedrock but they wouldn’t see the ice. And the plane had flown into the ice and er, well, been destroyed.

It was in reasonably good condition when we found it. And in fact the fuselage was intact. The nose area was pretty smashed. And the engines had er, torn off and rolled away. But the corpses were strapped into their seats. They were wearing survival suits, they were strapped into their seats and it was all a bit er, bit spooky really to go in there and see these corpses sitting in the plane seats. Anyhow, at this time we never thought more of it cause the, the US Air Force had cleared it up or the navy had cleared it up and it wouldn’t pay to think more about it.

Kent 8:18

Well in 1995, I was flying in that area over by the Lilloise Intrusion. That was the one we couldn’t reach because we couldn’t cross the glacier. But now we were airborne so there was no problem about that. And I said to the pilot,“There used to be a plane crash over the other side of the glacier here, but I don’t suppose there’d be anything to see now because we were told they’d er, recovered the bodies and er, removed the wreckage.” Well er, if there’s one thing that pilots are fascinated by, it’s aircraft crashes. You can’t keep ‘em away from an aircraft crash. And he said, “Well, let’s go and have a look!”

So he zoomed across the glacier and er, we flew in low, like two or three feet above the ice looking. And he said, “There’s plenty of wreckage around here still,” and there was, yes. And he said, “And there are body parts!” I said, “There can’t be body parts. They took them back, back to the Arlington National Cemetary.” “Oh yes,” he said, “there’s a, there’s an arm and a leg over there.” So er, well we went and we rooted around in, he and the other pilot, they went there on several occasions. But er, we informed the police in Nuuk that we’d seen body parts on the glacier there. But we got a reply from them saying they didn’t have resources to investigate the matter. So it remained as it was.

And then a few years later, like 1997, I had a contact with a chap called er Bob Pettway in Kentucky. And he’d heard that I’d spotted body parts and parts of the plane on the glacier. And it turned out he’d been in this squadron when it was in Spain. And er, all these guys who’d died in the crash were his former colleagues. Since he came out of the navy, he’d worked as a CIA agent. And er, he was very anxious to do something about this when he heard that body parts had been found of his comrades, his former comrades. And he set up a, a petition group to get the navy to go out and clear the place up and return the bodies for proper burial in the United States. Well er, he had an uphill job there because they really weren’t interested in er, spending all that money to have a trip to Greenland. But he mobilized public opinion and er, I was rung up by the American Ambassador in Copenhagen and invited, invited to have lunch with him in the embassy and tell my version of it. And er, I was told that President Bush would be very interested in my comments.

Kent 10:50

Anyhow, in the end this all succeeded. But it didn’t work out until 2004. Although I’d found the thing again back in 1995. It took to 2004 to get, to get a naval expedition mounted when they went there with dogs and all kinds of things. I told them there’d be no problem. They should go, if they went in the middle of summer, there’d be no problem because there’d be, be bare ice on the site. But they er, had to spend millions of dollars on doing this, it had to be done, every, every contingency had to be taken care of. And they went with a whole lot of what they call cadaver dogs. Because they said they might not be able to locate the cadavers. Anyhow, they, I guess the US Navy got plenty of money once they, once they thought they’re going to spend it.

So they recovered the bodies, returned to the US and there was a whole lot of stuff about where they were going to be buried, whether they were going to go into Arlington National Cemetary. They had a communal grave there. Or whether they were going to be returned to their families and buried in their home place. Anyhow, by 2009 they had a ceremony in the Naval Airforce Base in Jacksonville in Florida. And they’d got another plane that was identical to the one that crashed, a sister plane to it. And they’d dressed it up in the er, the number and everything of the crashed plane. And it’s put on display there. There have a huge area where naval planes, Catalinas and all those sort of things are on display at the Naval Base in Jacksonville. So I was invited to a ceremony there where they er, they unveiled this exhibit. And er, gave Bob Petway some kind of medal from the navy. And then we were taken round and er, given a short flight on one of the planes that had replaced the Neptune, the modern version of the plane.

I mean I was very touched by er, the captain’s daughter called Patty. They lived on a naval airforce base in Jacksonville and she told me that er, she was six years old at the time. And er, she heard that her daddy had disappeared and wouldn’t be coming home. And er, they kept living on the airforce base for six months. And then she and her mother and little brother, they were kicked and moved to live in an apartment in Jacksonville town. And she was very upset about it because she said she looked out every morning because to see if her daddy was coming up the path. He’s lost his plane so he’s have to walk back. And er, she expected to see him anytime. But they’d moved out of the airforce base now and he wouldn’t know where to, wouldn’t know where they were. 

Julie 13:27

I’m Julie Hollis and you’ve been listening to Polar Podcasts.

Julie 13:36

In the next episode, we hear more from Emeritus senior scientist Niels Henriksen, about the first geological survey mapping campaign in east Greenland in the late 1960s.