Life at Thule

  • Published
  • By Michael Tolzmann
  • Air Force News Agency
Landing on a snow-packed winter runway 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle can be a harrowing experience for anyone who journeys here. Snow-blinding winds howling in excess of 50-miles-per-hour, temperatures plunging below zero, and 24-hours-a-day without sunshine are commonplace and make it unlike nearly anywhere on Earth.

But from the moment their feet touch the ground outside the aircraft, Air Force people here find an irreplaceable experience beginning with handshakes from the base commander and senior staffers who stand at the bottom of the exit stairs, enduring the extreme runway cold to welcome each and every person who arrives here. Airmen serve a one-year remote, unaccompanied tour here in a multinational environment on a pristine, deserted, rocky, frozen landscape that illustrates the most extreme of environments found anywhere.

"This is not something you get to experience every day, or even in a lifetime. The beauty here ... you cannot express the magnitude, the gracious beauty of it," said Col. Edward A. Fienga, 821st Air Base Group commander here.

"It looks like the moonscape here. It has an incredible, rugged beauty of its own," said Lt. Col. Bob Pavelko, commander of Detachment 3, 22nd Space Operations Squadron.
"Not many people can say they've been this far north or to Greenland. You've got to try it once. I'd rather be here than in Korea," said Staff Sgt. Alisha Miles, 821st Air Base Group.

The base is the Department of Defense's northern-most base. Built in the 1950s during the nuclear arms race, this location was strategically selected because it is halfway between Moscow and Washington D.C. Since 1961, Thule AB has evolved with two major space missions supporting the Air Force Space Command. Two tenant units contribute to the space superiority mission here.

The 22nd SOPS's Detachment 3 is a tenant unit and is part of the 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. The unit's primary mission is to communicate with polar orbiting satellites by sending information to and receiving data from these satellites using three massive satellite dishes at the automated remote tracking station. They provide telemetry, tracking and command operations for U.S. and allied government satellite programs.

"Space is the ultimate high ground. If we lose the ability to communicate, we lose the battle," said Colonel Pavelko.

Detachment 3 specialists communicate with polar orbiting satellites 10 to 14 times per day and receive and relay data used for communications, navigation and weather. They make more than 22,000 satellite contacts per year. Indirect support to war fighters is made by moving data and information that may be used on the battlefield.

The Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, or BMEWS, is operated by the 12th Space Warning Squadron, a tenant unit from the 21st Space Wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. They have a primary mission of intercontinental ballistic missile and sea-launched ballistic missile detection high over the northern polar cap. They have a secondary mission of space surveillance, monitoring all the objects in space that come through their polar coverage area. They perform these missions with a large two-faced, solid-state, phased-array radar system. They relay gathered space information to Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo., to update a master space catalog. Two or three American or Canadian servicemembers monitor the console at all times.

"Up to 3,000 miles away, we can see a piece of metal the size of a softball," said Lt. Col. Timothy Lincoln, 12th Space Warning Squadron commander. He said because there are still emerging threats in the world, the BMEWS mission continues to be of great importance.

Located 13 miles from the center of the base, the BMEWS site sits atop a large hill, allowing its radar to have an open view northward. Because of the severe winter weather here, the BMEWS site has it's own "storm dorm" with 15 rooms to house personnel when travel to the base is suspended. Security forces Airmen stand at the ready at the BMEWS site 24-hours-a-day.

BMEWS is undergoing an upgrade to its radar and will become a part of a new missile defense system called the ground-based midcourse defense. The new capability will support a larger Department of Defense system that could destroy incoming missiles before they enter our atmosphere.

"For the most part, we have a very normal base with lots of facilities for quality of life that keep people at the edge of mental acuity so they can perform their jobs as well," said Colonel Fienga.

Airmen at Thule work with civilians and contractors who are Canadian, Danish and Greenlandic, totaling a work force of 600, 52 percent of which are Danish.

"The continuity here is represented by the contractors who are here for the long term, whether it's the U.S. or Danish contractors," said Colonel Fienga.

Along with the primary space missions, Thule Air Base also functions like a more typical base. With the closing of Keflavik Air Station, Iceland, Thule has become an alternate landing base for transiting aircraft. Alaska Air National Guard aircraft often stop here for fuel when moving to or from a theater of operations.

"It's a unique opportunity here ... just being in the darkness," Colonel Fienga said. "With a one-year assignment, you can roll up your sleeves and really get something done, because you're likely to only be one deep in your job. You have a lot of responsibility at junior rank up here."

Airmen and civilians here develop ways to deal with the harsh environment. Senior Airman Tom Gast said the first thing he does in the morning is turn on his "happy lamp" to keep his circadian rhythms in balance.

"The cold is one of the biggest challenges. If you're trained and know what you're doing, you'll do all right," said Airman Pedro Pita, 821 Security Forces Squadron.

"During the summer there is a lot to do here," Airman Pita said. "You can climb Mount Dundas or go Thule Tripping. You can go down to the waterfall or to the ice caves. During the winter, everyone here misses the sun. During the summer, you'll stay up all day and not realize that it's two or three o'clock in the morning. We have shades in our rooms to blacken out the light, but it's definitely difficult to sleep during the summer time.

"A couple of civilians had a 'run in' with some Arctic foxes. But actually, the wildlife is pretty calm around here. If you don't mess with it, it won't mess with you," he said.

Thule Air Base facts:

-- The base has no fence or gates.
-- No roads lead to the base.
-- Thule is so far north, a compass there points westward toward the magnetic North Pole.
-- Placed over the continental U.S., the island of Greenland would stretch from the southern tip of Texas to north of the Canadian boarder.
-- Thule's latitudinal equivalent in the southern hemisphere is located on the continent of Antarctica.
-- Thule's latitude is more than 500 miles further north than the most northern point in Alaska.
-- During the winter months, arrival to the base can only be accomplished by air or dog sled, and supplies are flown in.
-- Thule Air Base provides resupply support for smaller non-U.S. military sites both in Greenland and northern Canada, and for several arctic scientific studies.
-- Arctic foxes, arctic hares and seals are commonly seen at the base.
-- The base has the Air Force's only deep-water sea port, a pier and a tug boat.
-- A public address loudspeaker system is located in every building on the base to announce a storm alert during the winter storm season.
-- Heated survival shelters are placed at short intervals along the outlying roads at Thule.
-- During the 1960s, Thule was populated by more than 10,000.
-- Today, the base has a population of approximately 600, made up of American Airmen, Canadian and Danish military members, and civilians from Greenland, Denmark and the U.S.
-- Three glaciers meet in a fjord bay near the base.
-- Thule Air Base is the only Air Force base with a white runway. This is to prevent it from warming in the summer sun and melting the ground below.
-- Buildings here sit above ground to prevent the permafrost from melting below. If the permafrost melted, the building would sink.
-- Exterior building walls are a foot-and-a-half or more thick. Windows are small. Exterior building door handles are large and raise upward to open the door, preventing a polar bear from opening a door by applying its weight downward on a handle.
-- Polar bears are occasionally seen on base.
-- The base creates its own power and heat and is self-sufficient. It has redundant power and heat sources.
-- A typical walk-in deep freezer door is found here as the exterior door to a building.
-- Greenland is the largest island in the world.
-- More than 80 percent of Greenland is covered by a permanent ice cap. -- Antarctica is the only other location in the World where a massive ice cap is found.
-- Scientists estimate that a complete melting of the Greenland ice cap would cause the water level of all the world's oceans to rise 20 feet.
-- Native Greenlandic people, called Inuits, have lived in the area for more than 900 years.
-- The nearest village is located 75 miles away, and no roads are found between Thule and the village.
-- During the summer, from April 23 to Aug. 19, the sun never sets but remains above the horizon.
-- During the winter, from Nov. 1 to Feb. 10, the sun never rises.
-- In the summer, ships dock here and supply the base with enough fuel and other supplies to last the winter.
-- Sunlight lamps or 'happy lamps' are found throughout the base and used during the period of total darkness. A free tanning bed is located at the gym.
-- The base has no trees.
-- The base has a grassless nine-hole golf tournament.
-- During the summer, people here conduct a 'polar bear' swim in the bay while icebergs float nearby.
-- Tours of a nearby island are conducted on the base's tug boat.
-- The base has its own rock band, comprising officers and enlisted and one civilian.
-- The community center has a cappuccino bar, Internet access and a free arcade equipped with pinball, air hockey, foosball, and video games.
-- The all-ranks service club has European-styled dining and a banquet hall with a stage for live performances.
-- The gym is open 24 hours a day, and has saunas, a water massage bed, an exercise pool and free fruit.
-- A free taxi service is available base-wide 24 hours a day.

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