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DAKOTA C-53: A new chapter to an old story

2.4 tons of material were recovered this week on the Gauli Glacier in the Bernese Alps: a small part of the wreckage of a US military aircraft that crashed in 1946. The hot summer of 2018 caused the ice to melt, bringing the wreckage to the surface, and further parts of the C-53 Dakota are expected to be uncovered in the future. A good deal of emotion is associated with this story in the region.

20.09.2018 | Communication Defence

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The long and hot summer of 2018 has caused some of the ice in the Gauli Glacier above Meiringen in the Canton of Bern to simply melt away. One of the effects is that parts of a crashed US aircraft have come to the surface. The Douglas C-53 Dakota crash-landed in the Swiss Alps on 19 November 1946. All twelve passengers and crew aboard survived and were rescued five days later by a rescue team and pilots from the Swiss Air Force. The positive news went around the world (see info box).

"MAYDAY MAYDAY- position unknown, altitude 3350m above sea level, deep snow and fog"

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, while flying from Vienna via Munich to Marseille, a US Air Force Dakota C-53 (the military version of the Douglas DC-3) made a crash landing on the Gauli Glacier in the Bernese Alps at an altitude of 3350 metres above sea level. Among the twelve passengers and crew on board were high-ranking US officers and their families. A number of passengers were injured.

The crew issued a distress call, but gave the wrong location for the crash site. As a result, a major search was unsuccessful to begin with. Because of the reception quality of the distress calls, the commander of the military airbase at Meiringen (BE) realised that the aircraft had to be close by. A bearing confirmed his hunch, and wreckage was spotted from the air shortly afterwards. US mountain troops with heavy vehicles were transported to Switzerland for the rescue mission, but it was abandoned because of minimal chances of success. The crash victims were supplied with aid parcels from the air. A small Swiss rescue team reached the group on the glacier, and then two pilots from the Swiss Air Force flying light aircraft equipped with runners succeeded in landing on and taking off from the glacier. With nine flights, they transported the stranded survivors down into the valley.

Five days after the crash landing, the first aerial rescue mission in the high mountains was completed. The success of the mission led to a considerable improvement in the very frosty relationship between Switzerland and the USA at the time. The pilots’ achievements paved the way for the foundation of REGA, the Swiss air rescue service, six years later.

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Fritz Teuscher, head of the mountain detachment responsible

This week, some 72 years later, the Swiss Air Force Mountain Detachment in Meiringen was tasked with the special mission of recovering the remains of the aircraft, which the US Air Force had meanwhile donated to the Swiss Confederation. Fritz Teuscher, head of the mountain detachment responsible, admits that, in addition to the technical challenges, there was also an emotional side to the operation. "During the mission we concentrated on salvaging and cleaning. But then emotions came into play." What happened more than 70 years ago is still vivid in the memories of many senior residents of Meiringen and Innertkirchen, the region below the glacier.

The specialists are proud that they have been able to help add another chapter to this long story: that of salvage. Teuscher is visibly moved as he looks at the Dakota's engine: "This engine is in excellent condition. It wouldn't take much to start it up again." The head of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS), Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin, ordered the mission with the two objectives in mind: recovering the wreckage and cleaning the ice for environmental reasons.

However, it is likely that the last chapter in this story has yet to be written. In 2012, the first parts of the aircraft resurfaced, including a propeller. Since then, smaller items, such as containers with emergency rations that were left behind after the rescue operation, have been found. And this year, one of the aircraft's two engines and wing parts resurfaced. Fritz Teuscher says he would be happy if he could assist in recovering larger parts before his retirement, e.g. the aircraft cabin, which is still completely lost in the ice somewhere. It is quite possible that one day his wish will be fulfilled.

Recovery work has been completed for now. Flying four times, a Super Puma airlifted around 2.4 tons of material down to the valley. The parts will be stored in a hangar in Meiringen. It is planned that specialists will begin analysing and sorting the material in winter, possibly laying the foundation for a reconstruction of the old C-53 Dakota, which would be a further chapter in the impressive history of the aircraft. The crash landing on the Gauli Glacier led to the birth of air rescue in the mountains, which brought the Swiss Armed Forces great attention and recognition worldwide.