When the U.S. military vows to leave no one behind, no matter how long it takes, that vow is taken seriously. Sixty-nine years after the crash of a military transport flight into Mount Gannett, just north of Anchorage, Alaska, Air Force Master Sergeant E7 Wade McFarlande Jr. and his Crash Damaged or Disabled Aircraft Recovery team are still picking up the pieces — literally.
The C-124 Globemaster was en route from Fort McChord, Wash., to Anchorage’s Elmendorf Air Force Base when it crashed in 1952 during bad weather. All 52 crewmembers and passengers were killed.
Although the Air Force knew the general area where it crashed, by the time a search party arrived two weeks later, the plane had been covered by deep snow and couldn’t be located.
During a training mission in 2012, the Alaska National Guard spotted wreckage from the plane embedded in the Colony Glacier. Since then, teams have been sent out annually to recover debris and human remains. From 2012 to 2020, 44 bodies have been recovered, and at the end of this year’s search, a mortuary affairs team announced another body has been identified from remains found the year before.
McFarlande, from St. Croix, son of Wade and Aretha McFarlande, joined the Air Force in 2004 after graduating from St. Croix Educational Complex High School, with a plan to see the world and make a name for himself.
His first base was in Fairbanks, Alaska, working as an aircraft mechanic crew chief for F-16 aircraft. He was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and moved to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia in 2009 to work on A-10s. He was deployed to Afghanistan and then spent a year in Korea working on A-10s before being stationed in the United Kingdom, working on the new F-22 fighters.
McFarlande then decided to join a Crash Damaged or Disabled Aircraft Recovery team as a crew chief.
“If an airplane crashes, we’ll go out there and pick up the pieces, or if an airplane has an inflight emergency, like an engine malfunction or hydraulics, we’ll meet them at the runway and evacuate them off the runway. If the plane crashed on the runway, we figure out if the plane is salvageable and have to salvage as much as we can off the airplane’” McFarlande explained.
The effort by McFarlande’s team at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to recover the Globemater and its victims from the glacier was honored earlier this month with a Joint Service Achievement medal.
“We’re the only ones in the Air Force doing this right now, that has such a unique mission, where we go out on a glacier and pick up all the parts, because airplanes don’t crash in a glacier every day,” McFarlande said.
Because of the weather, the team can only visit the wreckage for less than a month each June and has to take an intensive mountaineering course beforehand, learning how to climb and repel on ropes, how to recover debris with rigs, how to walk on glaciers with crampons and how to identify whether the ice is safe to walk on.
“It’s very dangerous. It can take a split second for something to go wrong. We’re dealing with glacier ice melting. One day the ice seems perfectly hard. The next day, just from the sun being up, there’s a lot more running water and the ice looks a lot slicker to the eye,” McFarlande said. “Every step that we take when we’re out there eight or nine hours, they have to be intentional steps. We’ve been walking on the glacier when it’s shifted on us. We’ve had crevasses open up while we were out there and the sound, it’s pretty scary.”
According to McFarlande, the team found 5,500 pounds of airplane debris this year alone. Among the 98 personal items found on the glacier are a seven and queen of spades, a pair of shoes, a 1944 map of the Anchorage area, two chess pieces and a camera, though it had no film in it.
The remains and artifacts are sent to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for analysis. Effects that can be identified as belonging to someone are returned to the deceased’s family.
“Closure for these families, that’s really what it was about for me, because it’s been 69 years. For me, knowing I’m a part of this operation where somebody lost their family 69 years ago and we’re still searching. We’re going to try to find every single person. It’s way bigger than me,” McFarlande said. “We’re not going to leave anybody behind. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been.”