Glacier Melt Unearths a Historical Incident
The wreckage of an American Plane discovered in the Bernese Alps

The world holds a plethora of mysteries in the most bizarre of places. From the depths of the oceans to the top of the mountains – these locations often unveil a parcel of history considered to be lost in time. We all recall the discovery of the Titanic underneath the Atlantic Ocean – an event that created the base for one of the greatest movies of all time. On 17th August, 2018, the receding glacial ice, atop the Bernese Alps in Switzerland, uncovered the wreckage debris of a crashed plane – allowing us to revisit the event that occurred 72 years ago.

On November 19, 1946, soon after the end of World War II (WWII), the American plane C-53 Skytrooper Dakota was traveling from Austria to Pisa, Italy. It carried four crew members and eight passengers on board, including several high-ranking U.S. service members and an 11-year old girl. Mid-flight, bad weather conditions over the Alps compelled the pilots to take a long detour over Switzerland. Unfortunately, gusting winds and snowstorm took the better of the situation, and forced the pilot to conduct an emergency landing on the Gauli glacier at an altitude of 10,990 feet. The plane conducted the landing at 170 miles an hour, causing several injuries but no fatalities.

After the landing, the group of 12 marooned Americans faced the biggest threat so far – surviving in the Alps. They took shelter in the wreckage of the plane, which got engulfed in ice and created igloo like conditions. They drank melted snow and rationed one chocolate bar per person for five days.

Meanwhile, as news of the crash reached the Swiss lowlands, several rescue missions were contemplated. Around 150 American troops stationed in Italy, arrived at the foot of the glacier, in the village of Meiringen, in hopes of climbing the mountain to search for any survivors. Their efforts were preceded by the Swiss Army, who deployed rescue teams after intercepting the emergency radio call from the aircraft. However, it was two Swiss pilots, flying German-made reconnaissance planes fitted with skis to land on the ice, who managed to pick up the stranded Americans. At that time, it was the largest alpine rescue operation in history, conducted for the first time by the Swiss Air Force. The incident became a milestone in Swiss aviation history, as it sparked the birth of the Swiss Air Rescue team.

In 2012, three young people skiing on the mountain discovered the plane’s propeller on the glacier. The rest of the wreckage, however, stayed buried. Only recently, the prevailing heatwave in Europe, caused by human-induced global warming, managed to melt parts of the glacier that blanketed the wreckage. The melting uncovered the wing of the plane, and several items from its cabin, like canned food and clothes hangers. Witnesses have described the image like a field covered in plane debris.

One has to be thankful for global warming for unearthing the debris of the plane and allowing us to revisit the historical incident. Peter Brotschi, a Swiss aviation expert, remembers the story, “It was the most improbable story in the history of international aviation, for a passenger aircraft cruising at a speed of 280 kilometers per hour, to hit the ground with everyone on board unhurt.”

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