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Iceberg Alley: Back To The Titanic!

Crew members prepare to drop a wreath on the RMS Titanic's resting spot. © SF Tomajczyk

By April 1998 James Cameron’s epic, adventure-romance movie, Titanic, was a phenomenal hit, receiving 14 Academy Award nominations. Theaters across the nation had long lines of people at every showing anxious to see the film for the second or third time, tissues in hand. Everyone it seemed had an interest in the ship’s tragic tale, including People Magazine. After discussing an article idea I had with the editors, I soon found myself zipping into my parka and going on assignment to visit “Iceberg Alley” with the International Ice Patrol and search for rogue icebergs threatening ships at sea.

Before I continue, I would like to avow this blog entry is indeed atypical. How so? Rather than make comments about real world issues or events, I’ve decided to share an autobiographical tale instead. As such, it’s long-winded (just as I can be at times). So I encourage you to make yourself comfortable.

(NOTE: See photos of icebergs and the Ice Patrol in action by clicking on: Steve's Fieldbook.)

When I think back on that weeklong adventure to Iceberg Alley, two distinct memories materialize. The first is the monotony of the long, grueling flights we made day-after-day out over the freezing North Atlantic Ocean. One of those missions nearly killed us.

And the second memory is when we visited the RMS Titanic’s resting spot for a memorial service on the anniversary of her sinking.

My journey started at the Ice Patrol’s headquarters in Groton, CT. We flew a specially equipped Coast Guard C-130 cargo plane from there up to St. John’s, a quaint and brightly painted city nestled on the rugged coast of Newfoundland. “Newfies,” as the people are known, are a warm, happy and carefree lot who enjoy life to its fullest. As far as they are concerned, there are no strangers. Everyone, visitors included, is considered family and I was quickly adopted.

I spent the first night with the crew at a pub called Greensleeves, sampling a bit of Screech – a god-awful tasting drink appropriately named for a person’s reaction to the first sip. After switching to something less toxic, I soon I found myself learning to dance the jig, much to the patrons’ amusement. At dawn I joined the “icepicks” (as the crewmen on this operation are called) for a pre-flight briefing at Torbay, the military airbase co-located at St. John’s Airport. The mission? To fly north toward Greenland to find and map the ice pack.

At the time I couldn’t help but notice the heavy snow swirling outside the Operations Center’s windows. Were we really going out in that?

I also took note of the yellow-colored survival sleds the ground crew was placing aboard our plane. If we crashed, their content of sleeping bags, cold-weather gear and food would hopefully keep us alive until rescue teams arrived.

Since no one attending the meeting looked anxious, I kept quiet. Little did I know that tradition dictates that aviators are expected to understate every risk and hazard. Hence a blizzard is considered “…a bit of snow.” And an imminent plane crash is referred to as being “…an interesting situation.”

Three hours later, the pilot invited me into the cockpit. Stretched out ahead of us all the way to the horizon was the ice pack. It glistened, even under an overcast sky. The ice was crazed with spider web like blue threads. I was told the threads were actually very deep crevasses. The sapphire color came from the ocean beneath the ice pack or from the age of the cracked ice itself. The older the ice, the more blue the hue.

Regardless of the cause, the panoramic view was breathtaking.

In Search Of Icebergs
Since we found the ice pack, I thought we would be returning to the airport. Just in time for lunch. Perfect! I was starving and quietly envious of the others who had the foresight to bring along snacks.

But I was wrong. The mission was just getting started. Having found the ice pack, we now had to fly a 1,500-mile search pattern over a pre-selected area of ocean in search of icebergs using the plane’s two radar systems. That sounded exciting, especially when I learned we would occasionally be dropping down to 400-feet altitude, lowering the plane’s rear cargo ramp and pushing out buoys. Once submerged, the buoys would record oceanographic data (e.g., water temperature, salinity, ocean current speed and direction) and transmit it by satellite back to the Ice Patrol’s headquarters.

The pilot and crew chief gave me permission to tether myself to the plane using a wire harness and take photographs of the icebergs and buoys from the end of the ramp.

An aside: Do you have any clue just how friggin’ cold it is when the ramp is open, exposing you to 275 mph arctic air swirling in, around and right through you? I do. And for a while I had a nip of frostbite on my right buttock to prove it.

Anyway, the first hour was fun. Icebergs were everywhere. I shot through at least a dozen rolls of film. (Yes, this was before digital cameras were common.)

The second hour was amusing. Some of the icebergs were, in fact, identified by the icepicks as being whales or pods of fish swimming near the ocean’s surface.

The third hour was…yawn…booooring. No icebergs. No whales. No pods of fish. Nothing. We were now at the outer limit of where icebergs could survive very long. The water was warmer (if you call 34-degrees warm) and rougher. Together those conditions chewed-up icebergs faster than a blender makes a frozen margarita.

The ramp was closed while we continued flying the search grid. I sat atop a crate in the dark cargo bay which, by the way, was unheated. This was definitely not a comfy Pan Am passenger flight. Just six uncomfortable seats and two small, hand-sized windows. No carpeting. No food. And no entertainment. The bathroom was a bucket hidden behind a sheet of canvas hanging in the corner.

Nesting on the crate allowed me to get my feet off the cold metal floor. Plus it offered a flat place to lie down. That was certainly enticing. In spite of the loud drone of the plane’s four powerful propeller engines I considered taking a snooze. But then I realized that laying my head on the vibrating wooden box would only result in splinters, lots of splinters. The idea of pulling them out of my face, neck and skull kept me in an upright position.

A sudden flurry of activity at the front of the plane caught my attention. The crew chief raced past me and pressed his face against a small window, peering out.

“What’s going on?” I yelled. “Big iceberg or something?”

“We lost the outboard engine.”

My heart pounded. “Lost?! As in fell off the plane?”

“No, no, nothing like that. The engine iced up.”

I stood next to him and glanced out the window. Sure enough, through the swirling clouds, snow and mist I could see the right engine wasn’t spinning. The props were in a fixed position.

From Bad to Worse
The crew chief held his radio headset against his ears, listening to a conversation among the flight crew. “The weather’s shot to hell,” he finally told me. “We’re heading back. This snowstorm’s moving in faster than forecast.”

To say I was disappointed would be a lie. After seven hours in the air, I was cold, tired and hungry. The idea of a hot shower and a hot meal back at the hotel was indescribably delicious. I turned to pack my camera gear but the crew chief grabbed my arm.

“Hold on! We just got a hit on the radar. We need to get a quick visual on the berg. Stay here and keep looking out the window. If you see it, wave your hand.”

Now you see, the plane’s radar can only detect the presence of an iceberg. It can’t tell you how big it is. That’s done by an icepick using a pair of binoculars. But due to the heavy cloud cover, we couldn’t see the ocean or the iceberg. So the pilot was going to fly in a lazy corkscrew manner down towards the surface while everyone on the plane looked out the windows. Visibility was almost nonexistent, which meant we had to fly very close to the last reported radar “contact” to be able to see the iceberg. What unnerved us all was that if this iceberg happened to be tall, we could fly right into it.

I stayed glued to my post at the window. All of a sudden everyone on my side of the plane frantically waved their arms. Left arm. Right arm. Both arms. And then I saw it through the gray clouds: the snow-white face of an iceberg seemingly just beyond the tip of our wing.


I felt I could reach out my arm and touch it. And then just as abruptly, it was gone.

The pilot banked us hard away. I fell against the crate. Thankfully it was firmly strapped down, otherwise we both would have ripped a hole through the other side of the aircraft’s fuselage.

I later learned that the iceberg was not as close as I thought it had been. The berg was so massive in size that it just seemed that way to me. In fact, it was only estimated to be as tall as a 25-story building. We were flying twice that height. Regardless, I still needed to change my underwear.

I thought we’d had enough excitement for the day but once again, I was wrong. The weather got worse the longer we were in the air. The plane was bucking up, down and side-to-side in the stormy winds. Several times we free-fell a hundred feet or so, our stomachs rising to the back of our throats, only to have the remaining three engines grab the air and force us skyward again.

In the back of everyone’s mind was: Could we make it to St. John’s on two props if we lost another engine? I never voiced the question, simply because I really didn’t want to know the answer. Sometimes ignorance IS bliss.

When we finally approached Newfoundland a few hours later, the air traffic controller warned us the airport was about to shut down. The lowering darkness, high winds and heavy snow were making landings much too dangerous. Ground crews were having a challenging time keeping the runways open for aircraft.

The pilot decided to give it a try rather than abort and head for Gander, a Royal Canadian Air Force base clear across the province. He ordered me to the cockpit and had the crew strap me into a seat using a five-point harness. There was no way in hell he was going to have a correspondent for People die in a crash on his watch. If the Hercules did crash in the snowstorm, the safest place was in the cockpit.

I didn’t learn that until later.

As I recall, we were assigned the same runway designated for Space Shuttle emergency landings. (It is one of five in Canada.) I thought that was pretty nifty. It never occurred to me it was actually a bad thing. In essence, the air traffic controller was giving us the longest and widest runway available in the hope we could actually land in this “...wee bit of snow.”

We missed the first landing attempt. And the second. I saw the entire thing clearly over the pilot’s shoulder. Supposedly we were just 100 feet above the ground, but you couldn’t tell. Not in the least. I didn’t see the flash of colored beacons marking the runway until we were literally right on top of them.

My lips began to move in silent prayer.

The pilot gunned the throttle and we pulled-up for the second time. He asked the airport tower to allow him one last attempt, which they reluctantly did. To this day I still don’t know how we made that landing. I swear to God I actually saw the pilot close both eyes. I think he landed by pure instinct, not allowing the snow, fog and darkness to divert his attention. We hit hard, but damn at least we were on terra firma again. It felt soooo good! The airport immediately closed.

That night everyone bought the pilot drinks. He was our hero.

© SF Tomajczyk

Back To The Titanic
Whereas the first flight to Iceberg Alley brought a mix of excitement and terror, the last flight brought only magic. You see, we were headed to the RMS Titanic. It was the 86th anniversary of her sinking and as part of an annual tribute we were going to drop two wreaths on her resting spot.

The morning dawned with low, purple-and-black clouds that lent a solemn air to the day. As usual, the van taking the crew and I to the airport sat idling outside the hotel’s front entrance. When the driver finally gave the thumbs-up that the interior was warm, we rushed out and fought over the seats closest to the heating vents. I didn’t move fast enough, and ended-up with a window seat.

Unlike our previous trips to the airport this one was noticeably different. It was very quiet, lacking the usual bantering among the crewmembers. At the time I thought perhaps some of them might be nursing a hangover. That, or perhaps the week of 12- to 14-hour workdays had finally taken its toll.

The silence was deafening, so someone turned-on the radio. Harsh static filled the van and a few men groaned in complaint. After a few twists of the tuning dial, a station came in loud and clear. Celine Dion was singing the haunting theme song to the movie Titanic. As she did, a section of the dark sky ahead of us broke, allowing a shaft of gold sunlight to pierce through and illuminate the fields and low hills. It was eerie as hell. A chill went down my spine.

We all exchanged wide-eyed glances. The coincidence was too much.

The image of that moment has been permanently etched into my head. I will never forget it. Likewise, I will never be able to accurately describe to anyone just how ethereal the experience felt. Only those of us in that van – on that frosty dark morning in St. John’s and heading for the RMS Titanic – will ever truly know.

Like everything else on that April 15th day, the flight mission was also different. Because of the high interest in the movie, the plane was filled with television crews, journalists and photographers. One crew had even traveled from Japan, bringing along with them quite a few novel toys, including miniaturized cameras that they stuck all over the interior and exterior of the plane.

I also recall someone shooting for Discovery. He caught my attention because he was carrying what appeared to be a large silver-colored slide projector in both hands. It turned out to be my first look at a state-of-the-art digital camera. I found it interesting but, frankly, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. After all, it was bulky and you couldn’t change lenses.

The pilot flew the C-130 Hercules in a southeast direction out of St. John’s instead of north. The RMS Titanic sank some 370 miles off Mistaken Point in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. It is here where the warm Gulf Stream mixes with the cold Labrador Current, often resulting in turbulent waters and lots of fog. The ship sank less than three hours after striking an iceberg, resulting in the deaths of 1,514 passengers and crew. The wreck lies in a canyon nearly 2.5 miles (12,415 feet) underwater where the continental shelf slides into the deep Atlantic abyss. Although the ship is broken into bow and stern sections – separated by a third-of-a-mile – the debris field covers 15 square miles area.

The first clue we were getting close to the wreck site was when we flew past Hibernia, the world’s largest oil platform. It’s about 200 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, pumping more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day. The facility reminded me of a squat birthday cake with one lit candle. An enormous flame shoots into the sky, burning gases welling-up the drill shafts. You can see that flame long before you actually spot the oil platform. I imagine it’s what the Colossus of Rhodes might have looked like, holding a blazing torch high over its head.

A half hour or so later, the pilot began our descent to 400 feet. The crew chief strung a wire safety line across the width of the fuselage and then, with a smirk, lowered the cargo ramp.

Cold air roared in.

Loose papers swirled.

For the journalists standing closest to the ramp who weren’t expecting any of this, there was a mad scramble for the front of the plane. They were afraid of being sucked out of the plane. It was the only time when I found myself wishing I owned a video camera. The resulting film would have won me prizes on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

A glance at the vast, empty ocean below proved it was just another stormy day in this part of the world. The entire surface was chopped by tall waves and blowing foam.

Wearing wire harnesses, two icepicks walked to the very end of the ramp. In their hands they gently carried two beautiful wreaths. One was from the Titanic Historical Society; the other, the Ice Patrol. Over the intercom someone read a short memorial speech and prayer. It was followed by a moment of silence.

The pilot, keeping an eye on the navigational system, began a methodical countdown. Five… Four… Three…

At "One," when we were directly over the RMS Titanic, the wreaths were tossed. The giant floral frisbees flew through the air. They spun, twisted and sailed, eventually splashing on the white-crested waves. And like the 1,500 people on the Titanic, they disappeared.

Before climbing to cruising altitude for the return flight to St. John’s, the pilot announced we were going to do a fly-by of a passenger ship just off our left wing. I can’t recall the name of the ship – we were able to read it on the hull as we flew by – but I do remember visions of the poor thing plunging into the angry waves and violently rocking side-to-side. It was taking a tremendous beating from Mother Nature. You just knew everyone aboard was hugging a toilet bowl, emptying the content of their stomachs – and then some.

The irony that the ship and passengers were above the RMS Titanic was not lost on any of us. And I suspect it was likely not lost on them either. When we did our second fly-by, a number of arms waved through open doors and portholes. They were overjoyed to see a U.S. Coast Guard plane flying overhead.

© SF Tomajczyk

Unconsciously, I found myself humming the “Navy Hymn.” It was the same song – and the last song – sung by Titanic passengers at the Sunday, April 14th church service, just hours before sinking.

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

The flight back to St. J’s was quiet. Some recalled scenes of the movie in their head. Others jotted down notes for the article they had to write or the newscast they had to produce. And still others focused on the logistics of packing up their suitcases and equipment, checking out of the hotel and catching the next flight home.

For myself, the day’s memorial event – in combination with a week’s worth of visits to Iceberg Alley – reminded me just how precious life is. None of the passengers on the RMS Titanic knew they were going to die when they set sail for America. By and large, they were excited to see friends or family, visit new places, have wonderful experiences, or see dreams come true.

We are no different than them. You and I both have hopes and dreams. And we too have faith our lives will be long, rich and filled with love and lots of laughter. But in truth, we never know when the falling sand in our “Hourglass of Life” will end. It could be tomorrow. And so we need to cherish each day and the people we love. As Jack Dawson summarized in Titanic, "Make each day count."§

Website Links

International Ice Patrol
RMS Titanic
Titanic Historical Society
Previous Memorial Service Photos
100th Anniversary Program
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