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Around the World with Transocean


Transocean's Alaskan operations was initiated in 1947 when President Orvis Nelson first became interested in ferrying contract labor from San Francisco and Seattle to Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea. Bristol Bay, which lies just, north of the root of the Aleutian peninsula, is a rich source of the finest salmon. The fishermen move into the area from the West Coast for periods of six weeks to two months while the salmon are running. Transocean, which instituted the first mass movement of this contract labor by air, flew the fishermen from our West Coast ports to Yakutat, a port and airfield north of Juneau and then to Naknek on Bristol Bay. Transocean flew approximately 2,000 of the migrant fishermen up to the annul runs during 1947 and 1948. The following year the company dropped the operation because of the unpredictable nature of the fish. Nelson and his staff learned that the arrival of the salmon in the Bristol Bay area could vary as much as two or three weeks from their scheduled date of appearance, and this meant that the company with the contract for hauling the labor had to have its airplanes and crews standing by for long periods without any revenue coming in.


The first year Transocean started this movement by air, fishermen went on strike and when the strike was over all 2,000 of them wanted to get up there right away.  The fisherman were paid by the pound, so they were anxious to get to work. Transocean was just about swamped when the strike ended, but by moving in some extra planes were able to transport the whole crowd up there in three days. The men usually leave the West Coast around the middle of June and begin to come home around the middle of August. The second year Transocean had to keep some the planes and crew standing by till the fish arrived and after that decided that the only time the airline would participate in operation would be when inactive equipment was available.


Though the contracts with the salmon fisheries proved to be a disappointment from the point of view of a permanent operation, the experiments did establish Transocean as a contract operator in the air transport activity between the West Coast and Alaska.

Naval Air Station, Adak

In 1948 Nelson and his associates successfully bid in a contract with the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Drake-Puget Sound Construction Company which called for the movement of labor and some equipment from Seattle to Adak, far out on the curving arm of the Aleutians. The flight plan used for these trips, which continued for three years, called for a nonstop 1,500-mile hop from Seattle to Anchorage, on Alaska's southern coast, and then another nonstop flight from Anchorage along the Aleutian chain to Adak.


The Transocean flights to Adak provided aerial transport service for the construction of the base the Navy was establishing on the little island. The base consisted of the usual quarters and a number of large and modern warehouses-with all the warehouses set in a geometrical pattern in quarter-of-a-mile rows. The Navy apparently was not worried about the possibility of providing an enemy with a good, easily identified target for bombing or offshore shelling in that part of the world.


During his wartime flying for the Air Transport Command, Transocean President Orvis Nelson made more than 75 trips to Alaska and various air bases along the Aleutian chain, and while Transocean was carrying the salmon fishermen and the construction workers up to that part of the world he made a number of additional flights over this wild and rugged terrain.

Pet 4 Operation

From 1950 to 1952, the Navy contracted Transocean Air Lines to conduct what was know as The Transocean Pet 4 Operation. The contract called for Transocean to supply air transport service for personnel and equipment from the Navy Petroleum District Number 4 headquarters at Fairbanks to Point Barrow and the outlying oil and prospecting operations which lie scattered around the barren shelf of land that lies between the Brooks range and the northern coast of the continent.

Transocean ran what was considered to be the most rugged air transport operation in the world using a fleet of some 15 airplanes, ranging from two-engine C-47 freighters to the famous single-engine Norseman bush plane which was used for local flying.  


The company’s one pre-occupation was weather.  This slice of frozen American soil comprises the northern shelf of Alaska lying between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean and it was here that the Navy had successfully tapped some oil reserves.  Transocean used a twin-engine C44 and a DC-3 on skis for heavy freight and a number of the famous Norseman


Most of the freight for the Pet 4 operation came from the West Coast by boat to Anchorage thence by rail to Fairbanks, and finally by the TAL planes over the Brooks range to Point Barrow. Flying operations were conducted year-round. Strangely enough, the best flying condition were found in the winter, when both the land and water areas are frozen tight and solid. Transocean considered this Pet 4 operation he most rugged air transport job in the world-chiefly because of the sudden storms and the cold temperatures under which the men and machines had to operate.


Though the cold on that Arctic shelf is a merciless enemy, snow was less of a problem than might be supposed. Due to the peculiar aerographic effects of the lofty Brooks range to the south, the atmosphere in the Point Barrow region is generally too dry to carry much moisture, with the result that the snow depth of the area seldom averages more than two feet on the level. The snow is of a very fine texture and blows back and forth across thousands of miles of the Arctic much like the sand on a desert. During the warmest part of the summer - around August-this vast snow plain disappears and the forbidding coastal shelf becomes a limitless waste of swamp and sand dunes and low bushes-a topography which hinders movement far more than the frozen coating which holds the land in its grip for nine months of the year.

Although the surface of the Point Barrow region defrosts for a while during the summer, the earth immediately beneath the surface is held in the icy grip of the perma-frost the year-round. Drillers in the area have found the ground frozen solid to depth of 900 feet. One of the small hangars that Transocean used at Point Barrow was built on this perma-frost, resting on a five-inch concrete slab.  The natural gas used to heat the hangar melted the perma-frost under the center of the concrete floor to such an extent that the slab sagged five feet in the middle. A second floor was finally built over the first, and it is now a general practice to insulate the undersides of the buildings so that the heat won't spread below and melt the frozen ground.


Even though the snow cover in the Pet 4 area presented relatively few problems, the fogs, the terrific winds, and the low temperatures which plagued the region were constant adversaries. Transocean staff soon found that, due to the difficulty of working in the cold, it took their maintenance crews two weeks to do a mechanical job at Point Barrow that could be done in five hours at Seattle. Therefore, the Pet 4 planes were ferried south to Transocean's Seattle shops for general overhaul work-though it was still necessary on occasion to make repairs locally. Transocean President Orvis Nelson, on one of his trips to the Pet 4 operation, witnessed one of these Arctic repair jobs.

"We had this Norseman bush plane down on the Colville River, which flows from the Brooks range to the Arctic Ocean about 150 miles east of Point Barrow. One of our pilots had cracked up the plane in August while he was taking off from the river. The ship hit a shallow sand bar, snagged one float, and then nosed over and broke the float off. The engine mount also buckled and the prop was bent and the left wing tip was torn off. That was a tough place to get into while the ground was soft during the summer, so the boys just pulled the wrecked plane up on the river bank and let it sit. When the colder weather came, the plane just froze into position there and the winds couldn't move it.

"After the freeze-up we sent several of our Eskimo mechanics over to the wreck and landed them on the river ice and left them there for a week. They camped out on the river bank next to the plane. They used a tent, banked it up with snow, and used fuel oil heaters to keep it warm. We flew over them every couple of days in the C-46 and threw out food. Those Eskimos were out there for a week working in 72 degrees-below-zero weather.  The warmest it got while they we out there was 55 below. They took the floats off and put skiis on the Norseman and fitted a new propeller and patched up the broken wing tip. We provided them with a portable radio so they could contact us every day and tell us what they needed as they went along. When the Eskimos had finished we flew over with a new battery.


"We checked the spark plugs, heated the engine with a canvas hood and a fire pot, poured in some hot oil, and then tried to get the Norseman's engine going again. The Eskimos were all pretty unhappy when they found out that the battery Tranoscean had brought with them was dead.  That meant they all had to stay out there at the end of nowhere until we could get another
break in the weather and get a second battery to them. Transocean finally tried heating the battery with a blowtorch. It still wouldn't work, so as a last desperate measure they stuck the old battery back into the plane and tried that. It work like a charm. That old battery had been lying in
the plane six cold months and was still powerful enough to turn the engine over. Transocean pilots got the Norseman off the

river ice and came zooming over to Point Barrow, did a chandelle in celebration, a landed on a lake adjacent to the runway."     


In addition to the several C-46 Commandos and the Dc-3 on skis, Transocean bought ten ofthe single-engined bush planes and several light planes for use on the Pet 4 project. C-46s andDC-3 were used for carrying personnel and equipment from Fairbanks to the Point Barrow area.The bush planes were employed in flying personnel and supplies such as diesel fuel and foodout to the scattered oil drilling camps-some of which lies hundreds of miles across the snowywaste from Point Barrow. A twin-engine amphibious plane was also used for summer travelbetween the open-water lakes with which the region abounds.

Most of the bush pilots-those skilled specialists in Arctic flying-were inherited from a former operator by Transocean when it assumed the Pet 4 contract in 1950. Nelson made the bush pilots a part of the TAL organization and rotated them south so that they could obtain instrument ratings and big-ship flying experience at the Taloa Academy of Aeronautics in California. This additional training and the fact that they were a part of the permanent Transocean organization assured the bush pilots of a future with the company if and when TAL should lose the Pet 4 contract. While the bush pilots were taking their courses at the Taloa Academy, Transocean temporarily replaced them on the Pet 4 project with some of the company's big-plane pilots so that these men could gain experience in Arctic flying. 

One of the most unusual duties of the Transocean bush pilots in the Point Barrow area consisted of making path-finding flights for the tractor trains the contractors use for hauling heavy equipment to the oil camps. The trains, consisting of large tractors which haul a number of sleighs containing the freight cargo, a bunkhouse, a cookhouse, a radio shack, and a machine shop, are used during the cold months when the area is one vast snow plain.


The tractor trains navigate this snow plain much as ships navigate the ocean-by compass and dead reckoning and sometimes by following a course marked out by the bush planes. When a new camp is to be established or when the trail to an old camp is covered by drifting snow, one of the Transocean bush planes was sent out to pick the best route-one which will avoid side hills, slopes, rivers, and lakes as much as possible.

The bush planes carried a load of wooden laths, each lath having a steel spike about a foot long at one end and a red flag tack to the other.  As the plane surveyed the best possible route the laths were dropped at intervals of every quarter mile so that the tractor drivers could make their way from one stake to the next and thus follow the prescribed route across the snow waste. The loneliness and the isolation of this plateau extending from the shores of the Arctic Ocean to the Brooks range to the south are illustrated by an incident which happened just before Christmas in 1950. Five of the Transocean bush pilots were heading back to home base at Point Barrow when an impenetrable ice fog suddenly descended upon the region. Thou it was theoretically daytime, there was no sun to speak of during December.  The pilots of four of the planes leveled off just above the snow-covered tundra and flew on a compass course till they picked up the lights of the Point Barrow landing strip. These four planes made the base safely but the fifth pilot gave up navigation as a bad job when he was still 50 miles east of Point Barrow. Leveling off just above the snow, this flyer let down slow and prayerfully until his skis touched the surface. The plane rocketed through the loose snow for about 50 feet and then the left ski hit a frozen tundra hump and the ship spun around breaking off the left wing. The pilot, who was alone, survived the forced landing without injury. After radioing Point Barrow and giving them his approximate location, the flyer settled down to wait out his rescue.


All the planes operating in the Pet 4 project carry an emergency kit containing sleeping bags, rations, packets of candles and heating pots for warming up the frozen engines, and ski and snow shoes-everything necessary to keep the pilot and passengers alive for some weeks. The pilot of the crashed bush plane knew that he'd be safe enough if he could keep himself warm, so he rearranged the cargo, broke open the emergency kit and settled himself inside his sleeping bag. The day after the crackup the ice fog turned into a wild storm. Fortunately, the flyer was a man of literary inclinations and he had with him a large supply of Western adventure magazines. For five days, while his rescuers were trying to reach him through the storm, the pilot lay inside his plane reading adventure stories by candlelight.


Sight of a downed bush plane apparently aroused the curiosity of the white foxes which abound in that region, and the last four days the pilot could look out the windows of the ship and see scores of foxes maintaining a vigil around the ship. The plane was finally located when the storm broke and the pilot rescued by a weasel. The flyer's one complaint about his long wait was that his feet had become a little cold.


Though the north is a land of tall stories, Transocean President Orvis Nelson swears that this final note to the account of the bush pilot's rescue is true: When Transocean's chief pilot at Point Barrow called the bush pilot's wife to report that her husband had been marooned on the ice for some days, but that rescue operations were continuing, the lady replied, "That's a damned good place for him"-and hung up.

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