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Thule Trippin'.

The dark at the top of the world has its bright sports

It's like walking into a freezer, only this freezer stretches I for a thousand miles in each direction. On a typical January day at Thule Air Base, Greenland, the temperature outside hovers at 20 degrees below zero. Moderate temperatures by Thule standards.

There's epic grandeur to the cold at Thule -- a sort of natural aloofness to accommodating life outside of polar bears and arctic foxes. It's without mercy and doesn't accept excuses of carelessness or frailty from those caught in it. You don't linger outside because you can die. It's that simple.

The moment you step out of a building on the small base, the cold becomes an enemy that must be fought until reaching shelter. Your nose hairs are frozen when you breathe in, and the exposed areas of your face are numb within seconds. Cars parked outside are kept running throughout the day for fear of the engines freezing up. You ask yourself, often loudly, "Why didn't I wear an extra pair of socks today?" as you wiggle your toes vigorously to chase the numbness away.

In this arctic land where zero on the mercury gauge is considered balmy, the cold of Thule is an accepted part of life for the 130 Air Force Space Command troops assigned there. Nowhere else in the Air Force is the weather more scrupulously watched. A sudden storm with blasts of frigid wind up to 200 knots can kill someone caught outside. Here, the weather is not just a topic of conversation -- it's lethal.

When Thule talks about storms, it's either storm one, two or three. At storm three, all transportation and movement outside of shelters are halted in the face of winds of more than 50 knots, wind chills of minus 40 or colder and visibility of less than a quarter of a mile. Thule members always remember their first storm.

"I woke up at 2 a.m. and heard what I thought was the sound of a freight train," said Tech. Sgt. Robert Hernandez, chief of safety for the air base. "I said to myself, 'What is that?' The wind was rubbing against the metal siding of the building. Then I heard the announcement over the speakers that we were only in storm two. We weren't going anywhere."

Winter also brings constant darkness at the top of the world. More than 900 miles south of the North Pole and almost 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Thule does not see the sun during winter. For three months, starting in November, the sun does not break over the horizon. Conversely, for more than three months in the summer, the sun never dips below the horizon, which makes sleeping at 3 a.m. difficult.

The only way supplies come during the winter is through airlift. There are only two regular flights a week, one from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., and the other from Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Aside from these, Thule is cut off from the rest of the world.

Not your father's Thule

Thule is not a new base. The initial base and airfield were constructed in 1951, the dawn of the Cold War. Construction crews built the base in just 104 days under total secrecy in an operation code-named "Blue Jay." Its mission was to be a refueling point for long-range bombers on missions to the Soviet Union, should the need arise, but eventually bombers, fighters and Army Nike air defense missile batteries were based there. At its zenith, the base was home or the support unit for about 10,000 U.S. military and NATO troops, all poised to strike back at the Russian Bear over the Polar Cap.

Since the Berlin Wall fell more than a decade ago, the Cold War has cooled faster than a beer on a windowsill in Greenland. Today, about 800 Air Force members and Danish, Greenlander and American contractors reside at the base year-round. The population goes drastically up in the short summer when the ice in the harbor melts and supply ships come into port. Thule is the world's northernmost deep-water port and, ironically, the Air Force runs it. With the warmer temperatures also come the scientific researchers studying the Arctic, and construction and maintenance crews from Europe and America.

The extreme weather and the remoteness of the location (Thule can only be reached by air or ship in the summer.) have given the air base a reputation of being an avoid-at-all-costs assignment for generations of airmen. Commanders in the past have wielded Thule as a threat to send a shiver up the spine of anyone who wanted to wear a swimsuit rather than a parka.

Thule is not for the frail -- physically or mentally -- but what it lacks in all-night convenience stores and beach towels, it makes up for in human spirit. Thule spirit.

"Thule is one of those legendary places," said Col. Michael Rampino, the commander of the 12th Space Warning Squadron, the host unit. "When my father-in-law, who is ex-Air Force, heard that I had an assignment to Thule, he said, 'Who did you tick off?' It may have been like that once, but not anymore. There are no troublemakers here. This isn't your father's Thule. It's been the highlight of my Air Force career."

"I've served at the northernmost base, and I'm proud of that," said Tech. Sgt. Brian Glassburn, the chief quality assurance evaluator with Detachment 3, 22nd Space Operations Squadron. "When I told people I was going to Thule, everyone said, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' Now, when I hear that, I know they've never been here."

As strange as it seems, Thule pushes a sort of camaraderie onto its people that commanders at larger installations only wish they could achieve. As people stationed there noted frequently, there is nowhere to go at Thule other than ... well, Thule. No one leaves at the end of the day and disappears into suburbia and shopping malls or theaters. The same qualities that make Thule so unenviable an assignment curiously make it possible for individuals to become part of a small, old-fashioned society.

"There's no off-base here," said Staff Sgt. David Wallasky, the noncommissioned officer in charge of training and resources for the security forces. "We've all got to be together, so we are. That makes it a little closer than you would find at a stateside base."

Eyes on the skies

Despite the lower defense profile today, Thule is still on the first line of defense. The air base has the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, a two-sided, solid-state, phased-array radar system that just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The primary mission is to provide early warning against launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles and sea-launched ballistic missiles against the United States and Canada. The radar tracks the skies over most of the northern hemisphere from Labrador to Alaska in a fan-shaped pattern, focusing on northern Russia for signs of missile or rocket launches.

The site is one of three keeping eyes on the skies -- 24 hours a day. The other sites are in Alaska and England. Together they cover from China to Africa. The radar can track objects the size of a softball 3,000 miles out in space. It's also able to track up to 16 satellites or missiles within 1/18 of a second. If a launch is detected, the crew commander of the three-member missile warning operation center calls the Missile Warning Center at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo. If any attack were imminent, the Thule crew would be the likely ones to see it first.

"After it's spotted, it's about 30 minutes until impact," said Lt. Col. Dale Smith, the operations officer of the site. "That's why we have a manned crew, in case the computer hardware and software go 'kerplunk.'"

The unit also watches space for satellite re-entries, breakups and decays.

Maneuverable satellites that do not belong to the United States or its allies are watched to see if there is any change in orbits. Since the days of Sputnik, the site has tracked more than 26,000 objects in space. There are still 8,331 still in orbit. The site monitors nearly 400 to 500 orbiting objects on a daily basis.

About 10 miles away is Det. 3, 22nd SOPS, another site with its eyes on space. This site, known as "Pogo," talks to polar-orbiting satellites. The site downloads telemetry and mission data, and sends directional and maintenance commands. Polar-orbiting satellites pass over the North Pole 12 to 14 times every day, so, like the other site, the Air Force and civilian contractor crew is there 24 hours a day.

"We're just the link, the operator so to speak, between the satellite and the users," said Maj. Greg Hillebrand, the detachment's operations officer. "We don't get to see what the information is that we're downloading. It's transferred to the reels of magnetic tape and shipped to the users."

The 24-7 operations at Thule mean that both sites, though only a few miles from Thule, have dining facilities and dormitories. When winter storms hit, crews on duty can't venture outside, and their replacement shifts can't relieve them. A Thule storm sometimes can last for days at a time. A dozen small shelters dot the landscape on the 10-mile road to the missile site for travelers caught in a sudden storm. Both crews must be able to continue the job until relieved. Satellite control and missile early warning don't shut down, no matter how intense a storm is outside.

Thule trippin'

They call it "Thule trippin.'" When you trip on Thule, you get a vehicle from the motor pool and ramble beyond the boundaries of the base -- one of those taken-forgranted things that doesn't occur to you until being confined to a few buildings on a base for nine months.

Thule members take advantage of the solid sunlight by trippin' as much as possible. Climbing Mount Dundas, a flat-topped mesa that juts out into the bay, is a frequent summer ritual. A tongue-in-cheek golf tournament invitational takes place at the top of Dundas every year. And hordes of thick-skinned swimmers earn their polar bear status by rushing into the iceberg-studded ocean in the middle of summer. It's not a long plunge, mind you, just enough to submerge themselves and then run howling back to shore. All of which is recorded for posterity onto videotape and played continuously on a local channel.

"It's a unique feeling to be stuck in one place with nowhere to go," Hernandez said. "People have to go Thule trippin' because nature is our main entertainment. It's great just to be able to go see the ice caves or climb Mount Dundas. At home it's, 'I can't wait to see that movie,' Here it's, 'I can't wait until I can walk outside and throw rocks at the water.'"

But in the winter, human contact remains the dearest commodity.

"Sunday brunch is such a big deal here," Hernandez continued. "The main reason you go to the brunch, the club or the dining hail is for the same thing -- human contact. If you go from your work to your room, man, that's it for you. That's why I like these old flat-tops (living quarters from the '50s and '60s with flat roofs and communal bathrooms and day rooms); they're old but you feel that human contact. I used to think of myself as a loner, but now I know I'm not."

Thule spirit

Rampino goes to the flight line to say hello and good-bye to everyone arriving at or leaving Thule. He's not required to. He wants to. It's part of that small-town environment feeling, where everyone knows your name, and you're part of a small select group of people.

"You get such a strong impression, once you're here, of how well the people get along," he said. "It really is a small international town. It's called 'Thule Spirit,' and we try to have fun at the top of the world. It may not be as pretty as other places, but it's unique. When the sun comes up, we're swimming in the ocean in the summer, golfing and skiing. We don't have a chairlift, but we have a truck take people to the top of the slope."

Quality of life for his troops is not just a nice thing here. It's a necessity.

The colonel has a long to-do list to improve the living and working environment of Thule. Old dormitories must be scrapped and replaced. Aging plumbing and sewer systems repaired. Spare parts and new equipment shipped in. Flight lines upgraded. A new clinic built. Steam plants fixed. Furniture replaced. Internet lines put in. Lights and poles rebuilt. Education services provided. It would take him more than the year he has in Greenland to make all the changes. But he knows now is the time to start since Thule will stay open until at least 2020.

"When the Cold War ended there was a general drawdown," the colonel said. "All the money for expensive construction and renovation went to bases in the States or to more visible overseas bases like Osan [Air Base, Korea] or Ramstein [Air Base, Germany]. The Cold War may be over, but as long as there are nuclear ICBMs, we'll have a job to do here. It's an important one, with short time lines and no room for error."

The colonel buttoned his parka, preparing to go to the flight line to say good-bye to some departing members leaving on the weekly flight out.

"The relationships you make here will last you for the rest of your life," he said.

28 years and counting

Military members only do one year in the harsh climate of Thule. But for some, a year isn't enough to see all the beauty of what is perhaps one of the last great unspoiled wildernesses.

Many of the civilian contractors, both Dane and American, stay on for years, many lured by the high pay, tax breaks and the chance to leave a regular life behind in their native land for whiter pastures.

Jack Stephens, an American weather forecaster, has found a home in Thule. He's been there since 1973. And 28 years after arriving, he's still not ready to leave.

"Back in those days, it was less developed," he said. "You could hear someone breathing in the next room, not snoring, just breathing. There were no Internet connections. And all you could see were tapes of the worst of American TV. Much tougher than today. It's gradually gotten better, a little piece of civilization in the middle of the wilderness," the white-bearded Stephens said in the recreation center, a cup of hot coffee nestled in his hands.

"In 1973, I had gotten out of the Air Force, and I was generally dissatisfied," he said. "I saw an ad in "American Meteorologist" magazine for a forecaster here. I said 'What the hell.' Within a few weeks, I was standing here."

It was here, Stephens said, where his love of nature began and inspired him to take up photography.

"Whales, birds, foxes -- there's an abundance of wildlife up here," he said. "And I never get tired of seeing it. There are whole valleys of birds, millions of them, clouds of them. From a distance, they sound like a crowd in a stadium. It's like it was hundreds of years ago before man came by to wipe them out."

Many people at Thule don't venture too far from the base, even in the summer. Stephens explores the hidden valleys, fjords and ice caps, often spending time with the native Inuit people -- and all the time taking photos. Since he first picked up a camera in 1980, he has chronicled the beauty of Greenland's vast open territory, its wildlife and its people.

"When you're out there by yourself, you feel not just alone, you feel alone alone," he said.

The taste of Greenland's open land has made him uneasy about returning to the States.

"I have a house in Florida," he said. "But when I go there, there's so many people around, it doesn't feel right. I get a closed-in feeling. Here, in this incredible nature, you're alone. You have to keep on your toes. Sometimes, when you're camping alone, you hear something move, and you don't know what it is. It works on your imagination."

Stephens' expertise in the North has earned him a job with the Peregrine Fund, a non-profit nature conservation and study organization. He keeps equipment in working condition for them until they arrive at Thule for their summer studies. But, more importantly, he travels with them to spots that would take them years to find.

"A lot of people here have capitulated to spending 20 years in a bar," he said. "I started out because I just wanted to see. I was curious. I didn't think it foolhardy. I didn't think about that. I just consider myself lucky to see all this nature."

Austin Carter
COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Air Force, Air Force News Agency
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Thule, Greenland
Author:Carter, Master Sgt. Austin
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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