Sixty Years of Snow Runways

Posted by William Colgan on November 14, 2014
Cold War Science, Glaciology History

About sixty years ago, in September 1955, the US Army Corps of Engineers conducted the first test landings of wheeled military transport planes on a prepared snow runway at Site II, Greenland. The 3000 meter (10,000 foot) snow runway was prepared by repeatedly pulverizing and compressing the ice sheet’s snow surface with low ground pressure tractors. Driving the tractors from Camp TUTO to Site II, high in the ice sheet interior, took several days.

Eight successful landings with a C-47 Skytrain, led to six successful landings with a C-54 Skymaster, and finally seven successful landings with a C-124 Globemaster. Landing the pug-nosed C-124, which has an empty weight of 45,000 kg (100,000 lbs), on prepared snow runways formed the backbone of ice sheet logistics in both Greenland and Antarctica throughout the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). The slightly more nimble ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules, now a symbol of polar research, was not tested in Northwest Greenland for six more years.

So, perhaps a nod to the 60th anniversary of snow runways, without which ice sheet camps and their precious ice cores and other glaciological data would not be possible!

Correction: In an earlier post version I said the first C-124 usage of a snow runway was in September 1954. In fact, the snow runway technique was developed in September 1954, but the first C-124 usage of a snow runway was not until September of 1955. The 59.5th anniversary of transport planes and snow runways?

Polar Ice Coring and IGY 1957-58: An Interview with Dr. Anthony J. “Tony” Gow.

(skimmed from my upcoming Cold War science project.)



A wheeled C-124 Globemaster unloading on a snow runway at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to deliver a smaller ski-equipped plane in 1956 (photo by Jim Waldron;


A ski-equipped C130 Hercules taxing at Dye-2, Greenland, after dropping of our field party for there weeks in the spring of 2013. (personal photo!)

Tags: , , , , , ,

3 Comments to Sixty Years of Snow Runways

  • I have been on a project at Roosevelt Island in Antarctica where we were supported by Kenn Borek Air Basler aircraft and also New York Air National Guard LC130’s. Our runway was nothing much more than a ski way marked with black plastic rubbish bags filled with snow (to stop them blowing away). The surface was “prepared” by dragging a standard plastic fright pallet with a 45kg LPG bottle strapped onto it for weight. This was dragged along the runway with a Skandic wide track snowmobile until we were satisfied that it looked ok. The first field take off for the LC130 used all the runway and then almost 2km of Virgin snow as they continued to gain speed before rotating.
    Subsequent take offs did not use this much of the landscape.
    The aircrew were very enthusiastic about the project as the do not get many opportunities to operate out of such primitive facilities.
    They were most impressed when we loaded and delivered palletised loads up to 4000 pounds per pallet to the ramp at the rear of the aircraft for them to winch on board.
    The project is the RICE project out of Victoria University Wellington, New Zealand.

  • And the latest long-range predictions for this winter show a pattern that look eerily similar to that infamous year, with bitter Arctic gales leading to feet-deep snow drifts right up until February.

  • My father James Haning piloted c-124 to Antarctic in 1956. He’d live to see what all photos of exist from his missions then. Thanks fo sharing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *