Even though she was bundled up in a heavy coat and clothing, Tech. Sgt. Charriot R. Moody braced against the biting wind as she stepped off the plane and into the arctic atmosphere at Thule Air Base, Greenland.
A glance at her surroundings offered little hope the freezing weather would change anytime soon. In the distance, icebergs and snowdrifts dotted the landscape, revealing cold, harsh terrain.
Cold or not, this would be home for the next 12 months. It would just take some adjustment.
“My first thought was ‘What did I get myself into?’” said Moody, the 821st Support Squadron Surgeon General’s patient administration NCOIC. “Coming from Hawaii, I was not prepared for this.”
When Capt. Gregory Tengco, the 12th Space Weather Squadron operations support flight commander, arrived a month before Moody, he looked forward to Greenland’s three-month dark season. But Staff Sgt. Brett A. Mattmiller knew exactly what to expect when he voluntarily returned for a second remote tour as a security forces member.
Few arrive at Thule AB prepared for northwestern Greenland’s temperatures, which average minus-25 degrees during the winter months, winds reaching hurricane strength, and months of around-the-clock darkness or light.
Still, Moody isn’t here for the weather or to see the sights. She’s here for a one-year remote tour to help Thule AB support important space missions.
The base is located about 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 950 miles south of the North Pole, but also halfway between Washington, D.C., and Moscow, which was one reason it was built during World War II and expanded during the 1950s. During the Cold War, the Air Force looked north for the front-line of defense against the Soviet Union. Thule AB was chosen as a base for intercepting bomber attacks from the northeast and for refueling U.S. long-range bombers directed at the Soviets.
In the 1960s, the base population reached as high as 10,000. Today, about 150 Airmen work with as many as 400 civilians during the winter at the Department of Defense’s most northern base.
The 23rd Space Operations Squadron’s Detachment 1, more commonly known as the Thule Tracking Station, located 3 ½ miles northeast of the base, is one of eight Air Force Satellite Control Network tracking stations that relay satellite performance and mission data between polar-orbiting satellites and agencies, including the DOD and NASA.
“You can probably think of us as a very focused Internet service provider,” said Maj. Austin Hood, Detachment 1 commander. “We provide our customers the ability to access their space vehicles to expertly perform telemetry, tracking and commanding of their satellites. We will typically average 20,000 contacts a year and 15 to 20 minutes per contact on a space vehicle. This is why Thule is important, and why we physically have to be here to do this job. It’s because for these polar orbits, this is one of the few places on the planet where you can access them.”
About 13 miles northwest of the main base, the 12th Space Warning Squadron’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System provides early warning detection of intercontinental ballistic and sea-launched ballistic missile attacks against the United States and Canada and tracks polar-orbiting satellites. In 2009, the detachment under the 21st Space Wing upgraded to its current early-warning radar system, which can detect softball-sized objects more than 3,000 nautical miles away.
“The mission at (the BMEWS) has been fundamentally unchanged since 1961,” said Lt. Col. Gregory G. Karahalis, the 12th SWS commander. “What we can provide hasn’t changed, except we can now track smaller objects at a greater range than the system that was here before.”
Airmen at Thule AB rely on each other, preparation and various tools like sun lamps to help prevent seasonal affective disorder and get through Greenland’s winters — especially the three-months of 24-hour darkness. They hold game nights, movie marathons and other activities to avoid isolating themselves in their rooms.
The base traditionally marks the beginning of the 24-hour dark season with a tree-lighting ceremony in mid-November, followed by gift-wrapping for Operation Julemand, which brings presents for children in villages like Qaanaaq, about 75 miles from Thule AB.
Some of the more daring people assigned to the base even venture out into the cold and dark to go “Thule-tripping.”
“Unlike other facilities and installations, there’s no off base in the sense that you can go downtown and grab dinner or go shopping,” Moody said.
“During the dark season, when it’s cold, and you’re confined, it gets kind of claustrophobic,” she said. “To combat that, we got a group of friends to climb Mount Dundas or check out Dundas Village. We went sledding and ice skating in (30-below-zero) weather.”
However, there are times when leaving the base simply isn’t an option. Arctic storms often blow through the area, the high winds and blowing snow making it impossible to leave.
Tengco has experienced these infamous storms, which sometimes force Airmen and security police to remain at BMEWS for hours and occasionally days.
“I was stormed in for 36 hours in February,” he said. “We had snowfall the entire week, and it had accumulated and was blowing around in 70-knot winds. You couldn’t see anything outside. I was working 12-hour shifts, and we saw the storm coming, but there was nothing we could do about it.
“I prefer being stormed in on site, though, to being in the dorms because we have everything we need here,” he said, referring to the site’s gymnasium, game room, dining hall and other amenities.
After three months of continual darkness, the sun eventually does return to Greenland, which Thule AB marks with the annual first light festival in February. When the light returns, northwestern Greenland receives 20 more minutes of sunlight each day until “White Nights,” when the sun is up 24 hours a day for about four months. During this time of year, it’s not uncommon to see Moody, Tengco and their friends viewing Wolstenholme Fjord, the world’s only place where three active glaciers are connected, or climbing Dundas and following the tradition of taking a rock with their names to leave on the mountaintop.
“I’d go hiking or climbing about 10 or 11 at night, and it would be 3 or 4 in the morning before we’d even look up,” Tengco said. “If you didn’t have a watch on, you’d have no idea what time it was. You’d never sleep.”
Thule’s seasons sometimes require a second adjustment to life on the base when the sunlight returns, and Airmen can see Mount Dundas, the glaciers and radar sites and other sights for the first time.
“Because I got here in the darkness, when it came to the light season, I had no idea about landmarks on base,” Moody said. “It looked completely different. I had to reorient myself to the base because I’d never seen it.”
Some Airmen like Mattmiller not only don’t mind the drastic changes the seasons bring, but they also use them as a type of natural calendar.
“I use the seasons for milestones,” he said. “You’re going to get here either when it’s dark and wait for it to turn to sun, or the opposite. I got here in the light, so I’m waiting for it to turn dark, then once I see the sun start to come back, I’ll know it will soon be time for me to leave.”
About four months after Tech. Sgt. Siddharth Sunny arrived at Thule AB and the 821st Support Squadron, his wife Shauna came for a visit, bringing their 2-year-old daughter Clara. Clara was instantly popular with Sunny’s co-workers and other Airmen because she’s the first young child anyone can recall on the base.
“She’s a celebrity everywhere we go,” her mother said. “I was thinking when (Sunny) mentioned we could come over here, about what it was like to be deployed, and what it would have meant to have seen a child when I was deployed. This was going to be great for people to see a young child because they probably haven’t seen one in a while, and with six months of winter ahead, it gives them a little something to hold on to.”
Along with the winters and light and dark seasons, Thule AB is an extremely remote base, unlike any other Air Force installation. It also has no base gate, paved roads or off-base civilization, with the nearest village about 75 miles away. What it does have is a unique environment, partly because of the relatively small active-duty population in an extremely remote location.
“Typically, at a stateside base, I think you get close to people in your squadron, but not necessarily with the support group, the medical guys and (civil engineering) guys,” Tengco said. “But here, there are so few of us that we have to interact with each other. I don’t know if I’ll necessarily miss Thule, but I will miss the guys I worked with. We worked 15-hour days, and there were times when we slept at the radar site so we could go to bed, wake up and do it all over again.”