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Museum curator remembers Air Force role in Canadian tragedy

CANADIAN FORCES STATION ALERT, Canada – A memorial to the crew of a Canadian Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo plane, was dedicated Oct. 30, 2016, on the 25th anniversary of the crash that killed five Canadian service members. An Alaskan Air National Guard search and rescue team stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, located the crash sit 30 hours later and rescued 13 surviving crew members. (Royal Canadian Air Force photo by Sgt. Paz Quille)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

Jeff Nash was stationed as a tech sergeant in the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, when he heard about a C-130 Hercules that crashed just south of Canadian Forces Station Alert on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada.

Nash would not understand the incident’s significance until nearly three decades later when, as curator and assistant director of the Peterson Air and Space Museum, he came across a Facebook post that sparked his interest. Nash shared the post to the museum’s Facebook page and continued researching the day he vaguely remembered but is still annually recognized by the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“I knew the U.S. Air Force was involved, but not to the extent of what I discovered,” Nash said.

Flight 22 of Operation Boxtop – as the biannual resupply mission is called – took off Oct. 30, 1991, from Thule Air Base, Greenland, carrying 3,400 liters of diesel fuel and 18 members of the Canadian Armed Forces, he said.

The pilot lost sight of the runway as the plane began its descent at CFSA, crashing about 16 kilometers south of the station.

“The weather was bad and visibility was low,” Nash said. “On the approach, they misjudged the altitude and crashed.”

Within a half hour of the rescue call, a Hercules carrying 12 search and rescue technicians from 440 Search and Rescue Squadron in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, was in the air. It reached the crash site seven and a half hours later, but the technicians couldn’t descend due to the weather, according to an article published Oct. 30, 2017, by the RCAF.

Another Hercules from 413 Search and Rescue Squadron in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, Canada, also joined the search. Meanwhile, an Alaskan Air National Guard search and rescue team stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, was airlifted via a C-5M Super Galaxy cargo plane to Thule, where they joined the search, the article stated.

“The Canadians were highly trained as well but… they didn’t have specialized equipment like helicopters to actually go out and search, recover and rescue,” Nash said. “Two rescue squadrons that specialize in Arctic rescue were called upon to help our Canadian allies.”

More than 30 hours later, the American rescue team found the crash site about 300 miles from the North Pole, Nash said. They found 13 survivors among the crew of 18 – four had died in the crash, while the pilot, Capt. John Couch, died while awaiting rescue.

The rescuers warmed and treated the injured – some soaked in diesel fuel – and prepared them for medical evacuation, according to the RCAF. A Twin Huey helicopter from CFSA made three trips to bring the survivors out of the -4-degree temperatures and back to the station.

The downed C-130 remains at the crash site to this day, preserved by the dry Arctic conditions, according to the article. Each year on Oct. 30, personnel at CFSA begin a parade at 4:30 p.m. and continue through 4:40 p.m., when the Hercules went down.

“They take good care of that,” Nash said.

The incident embodies the relationship U.S. Airmen have with their northern neighbors, he said.

“Here at the museum, we talk a lot about the U.S. - Canada partnership through the North American Aerospace Defense Command,” Nash said.

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