The skiplane landed first needing the room on the snow while the helicopter floated to the surface with a gentle thump. The slow rotation of the Sikorsky’s main rotor the only sound which could be heard either close at hand or in the far off distance. Even my own breath seemed to die as soon as it left my mouth. It was an eerie sort of tranquility. I felt like prey even though no predator could be detected.
Where was the crew? The first noticeable thing was the utter lack of motion from the stricken plane. There was absolute stillness about the scene. The air is so brittle it could snap from our hails as we approached. The radio silence was eerie enough, this lack of human response caused a dread to creep down my spine, as spider carefully leaving a trail of silk.
When we pulled the hatch none of us were prepared for what greeted us. In the dim wintry light of the interior, the crew was utterly still and more than slightly frozen. They could only have been dead for hours. At first glance, the cause isn’t apparent but the chances of them all dying being natural, even in this harsh and unforgiving environment, are remote.
The navigator and radio operator were at their stations. The rest spread along the floor of the cabin, as if in repose. Their still forms perfect in every way.
The mechanics began their inspection of the aircraft, quickly locating the broken line. A repair of this nature under ideal hangar conditions would take three to four hours. This was less than ideal. If the weather held, the crew chief estimated this could easily be a 12-hour job.
We set up under the tent pulled from the stranded crafts emergency stores and unloaded the tools and parts needed for repair. The skiplane is capable of carrying ten passengers. It had carried six, four mechanics and two medics plus tools and supplies to the location of the ill-fated flight. The Norseman would ferry six of the ill-fated crew on its return to Little America. The S-52 would carry the other four. A new crew would return on the Norseman to pilot the aircraft once it was repaired.
The medics performed a cursory exam of the crew as the bodies were evacuated to the skiplane. While evacuating Reeves body, his nickname had been Curly because of his premature bald spot, a small hole was found in the crown of his head. Upon noticing this abnormality, the crew was reexamined. A hole, about the size of a number two pencil, was found in the same spot on each of the men. None of us, could even begin to guess what could have caused this wound, much less, how did they all receive the same wound with no signs of a struggle?
Six of us watch the two aircraft take off, heading back to Little America. The three mechanics and the crew chief, one of the medics and myself temporarily stranded in this barren wasteland of white. So far, at Little America, we have been fortunate to encounter temperatures varying no more than between zero and 20° or 25° above, no more rigorous than a New England winter really. Here deeper into the continent the temperature on this open plain has already fallen to minus 5°. The rampaging wind from the nearby plateau whips the snow into the air, which even with goggles on is blinding and stings any skin it can reach.
As designated sleep time approached, we realize there is no room in the tent for all six of us with the supplies. The crew had accomplished a great deal in disassembly, they were not quite to the point of removing the faulty fuel pressure line. Preparation to install the new line would still be at least half a day’s work. The replacement, which had to be flexible for installation, could not be allowed to freeze before completing repairs. While none would admit it, none of us truly wanted to spend the night in the R4D. We decided to draw straws for three us in the plane and three for the tent.