By Master Sgt. Michael Stevans and Capt. Matt Francom
821st Support Squadron
THULE AIR BASE, Greenland — Among the frigid arctic temperatures, there is a small contingent of Canadian military personnel who provide signals intelligence intercept capability at the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world.
Originally established in 1950 as a weather station, Canadian Forces Station Alert is located 1,140 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 508 miles from the North Pole. Despite its austere location, CFS Alert maintains a constant presence of approximately 28 military, six environmental and 35 contractor personnel and requires semi-annual resupply missions to sustain the inhabitants.
This isolated, remote outpost can only be sustained through an air resupply mission, known as Operation BOXTOP, during the relatively short “warm” season. BOXTOP occurs twice a year, in April and September, and delivers dry goods and fuel critical to the continued mission of Canadian allies at these austere locations.
From Sept. 7-21, 105 Royal Canadian Air Force personnel, aircraft and equipment descended on Thule AB, the Air Force’s northernmost airfield, and 40 RCAF personnel to CFS Alert to execute Operation BOXTOP II 2013. Thule is an ideal location for staging such a critical mission because it has the only 10,000-foot runway north of the Arctic Circle and is only 950 miles south of the North Pole. Additionally, Thule AB has a team of highly qualified Air Force air traffic controllers and contract airfield management and transient alert personnel who run 24-hour airfield operations during Operation BOXTOP.
Among the most inhospitable places on earth, Thule AB and CFS Alert personnel brave freezing temperatures, arctic winds and blinding storms to ensure the vital lifeblood of supplies and fuel reach their final destination. Operation BOXTOP II 2013 was no different. During the two short weeks of BOXTOP operations, three RCAF C-130J Hercules aircraft made consecutive flights, 24 hours per day, five days per week to deliver 305,500 pounds of dry goods and 191,000 gallons of fuel to CFS Alert and Eureka Research Station in northern Canada; supplies that will sustain the outposts through the spring. The supplies and fuel carried by airlift were delivered to Thule AB by cargo ship, earlier in the summer months, to the DoD’s northernmost deep water port.
However, this September’s BOXTOP operation was not all smooth sailing. CFS Alert was covered in fog and severe storm conditions during the first four days of the operation, putting the successful completion of the minimum requirements for sustainment through the winter months at risk.
“We were facing a tough situation with the weather,” said George Stewart, director of Logistics and Airlift Coordination for the Department of National Defense Alert Management Office (Ottawa). “Our aircraft couldn’t get into Alert and were turned back due to the poor visibility. We lost almost the entire first week of flights because of bad weather.”
Leading the operation for the Canadian Forces were Maj. Andy Bowser, Boxtop Detachment commander, and Capt. Tyler Simor, deputy Detachment commander. Together with their team of highly skilled operations staff, load masters, aircrew, ground personnel and mission planners, they were able to make up the lost time and deliver the supplies without extending the operation, saving critical funds for the Canadian Forces.
“Operation BOXTOP is just one of the vital missions that Thule AB provides to the Arctic region. As the largest airfield this far north, many different organizations depend on Thule, including the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Danish government,” said Roosevelt Mitchell, Thule AB airfield manager.
Operation BOXTOP will kick off again in April 2014 and continue the excellent service of providing joint Canadian partners with a lifeline to survive the harsh arctic winter.
“Thule Air Base’s support for BOXTOP and our weekly supply flights is outstanding,” Stewart said. “If it wasn’t for Thule, there probably wouldn’t be Alert.”