The tiny island country has claimed hundreds of American military aircraft
by ELIOT STEIN
This story originally appeared on May 10, 2016. With 272,000 views, it was our second-most-popular story of the year.
On a chilly afternoon in 1973, Eyrún Sæmundsdóttir was knitting a wool sweater in her bedroom when she looked out the window and saw a U.S. Navy airplane fall from the sky and crash on her farm in southern Iceland.
As the plane burst out of the clouds, Eyrún twisted and tightened the yarn faster and faster, keeping her eyes on the dying aircraft until it disappeared behind a black sand dune where her property met the North Atlantic.
When the scream of metal grinding against the basalt fell away, Eyrún looked down and saw her husband staring back at her through the glass. They each remained frozen for a few seconds, bracing for something, until Einar finally dropped a bale of hay in the snow.
As blasts of wind rattled their corrugated roof, Eyrún wrapped herself in a blanket and slammed the door shut behind her. It was more than five kilometers from the couple’s farmhouse at the tongue of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier to the crash site, and their tractor was low on gas.
Unsure of what they’d find, Eyrún and Einar began slowly trudging through the ice and fog, step by step, toward Sólheimasandur beach.
Today, the plane is still frozen on that desolate black-sand beach, its carcass deserted in a haunting, post-apocalyptic grave. Ripped through by bullet holes and whipped raw by decades of punishing polar gales, all that remains is the C-117’s hollowed-out fuselage and a few coiled wires spitting out of its skeleton.
But 43 years after being abandoned, something strange has started happening. People from all over the planet are now coming to this farm to search for the plane’s twisted remains.
It all started when Sigur Rós featured the airplane in its documentary Heima. Then, a few photographers began showing up to shoot the wreck. Their images quickly exploded, and this thing has now been used as a backdrop in a Bollywood movie, by Star Trek super fans, and as a location for destination weddings. Lots of them.
Then in November, Justin Bieber skateboarded on the plane’s roof in a music video. 200 million people saw it.
Now, hundreds of people every day are following GPS coordinates to a remote, unmarked gate on the side of the road and trekking four kilometers through a barren lava desert to see the plane’s decomposing husk. On an island renowned for its rainbow-arched waterfalls, sweeping fairytale landscapes, and dancing midnight lights, this rotting machine has become one of the most iconic sites in Iceland.
It’s also become one of the most dangerous. Ironically, the same Icelandic search team that was dispatched more than four decades ago to try and rescue the crew at the crash site is now being dispatched every single day to rescue tourists trying to find the crash site.
But even as viral images and music videos are luring crowds to come find this dead plane, the story behind its final descent has remained a mystery. No one seems to know why this thing crashed, why it was abandoned and why it’s still lying on the beach.
The most common theory is either that the plane crashed because it ran out of fuel or because the pilot accidentally switched to the wrong fuel tank. Though it’s famously known as the “DC-3 wreck,” the plane is actually a converted C-117.
I learned this after I first visited the wreck in October. On our final day in Iceland, my wife and I pushed through a small opening in a fence and hiked through a driving sand storm to look for this plane.
It’s a surreal site. People from Mexico to Moldova have chiseled their names in its metal shell, but at 6:00 in the morning, it was just us and the sound of wind howling through the smashed windows.
Climbing inside the fuselage and staring into the cockpit, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened here.
After digging through military archives, tracking down survivors and returning to a 300-person village, I discovered that the untold story behind the world’s most famous abandoned plane wreck is just one part of a much larger graveyard in Iceland.
And now, the same forces that brought this plane down are waging a war with visitors.
On Nov. 21, 1973, Capt. James Wicke was flying a routine mission across Iceland to a U.S. naval air station when the weather turned. The temperature plunged to -10°C, Arctic gusts kicked up to 60 miles per hour and the carburetor of his C-117 started sucking in ice.
After fighting through heavy turbulence, both engines froze solid and quit. The plane was in such thick fog that none of the five passengers could see the end of the wings from their windows, and it grew completely quiet.
The plane was falling over Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, and plummeting directly toward a jagged 5,000-foot peak. Wicke put out a mayday and frantically tried to restart the engines. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and the men on board knew they were about to die.
Just then, Lt. Gregory Fletcher, a 26-year-old pilot-in-training who had only flown 21 hours in a C-117, grabbed the controls and made the decision to veer south and ditch the plane in the ocean.
He knew that hypothermia in the North Atlantic would set in after about 15 seconds, but colliding with the icy crag would kill them all instantly.
When the plane tore out of the clouds at 2,500 feet, Fletcher realized that they were gliding over “some goddamn thing that looked like the moon.” He lowered the plane parallel to the shore, used the frozen black-sand beach as a runway, and skidded 90 feet over a sand dune before slowing to a stop 20 feet from the ocean.
The propellers were bent, the engine coverings were crushed and the tanks were ruptured, but Fletcher had saved everyone’s life.
“Smoothest landing I’ve ever been a part of,” said Howard Rowley, an Air Force master sergeant.
With gas leaking out of the fuel tanks and the possibility of the plane catching fire and exploding, the crew opened the hatch and jumped out. But first, Staff Sgt. Vernon Romskog grabbed the plane’s survival kit. As Wicke secured the aircraft, Fletcher assembled the kit’s vintage World War II radio, put it between his knees and started cranking it as fast as he could.
“It was like something out of a John Wayne movie,” Rowley remembered. “It had an antennae on a wire that was connected to a kite, and it was completely corroded.” But an hour later, an Air Force search helicopter appeared overhead to rescue the men.
Doctors examined each of the survivors back at the Keflavík military base and found that they had each come away without a scratch.
When officials heard the crew’s accounts of what took place, the Navy gave Fletcher an Air Medal with a bronze star and a shot of whiskey. Today, he’s a lawyer in Memphis, and he keeps the yoke of that C-117 mounted in his den.
“I just tried to make the best of a disastrous situation,” Fletcher said. “I did my best.”
By the time Einar and Eyrún finally made it down to the crash site, the crew had been rescued and the U.S. military had already begun stripping the plane. The wings were being sawed off, the control deck was being dismantled and the engines were being hoisted out.
Assuming the military would retrieve the plane’s frame after gutting it, Einar and Eyrún turned around and walked home. Nobody ever came to talk to them about what happened, and after removing everything that was salvageable in the C-117, the U.S. military simply left the 10,000-pound shell littered on the beach and walked away.
In the months that followed, Einar wasn’t really sure what to do with his family’s newly inherited twin-engine cargo plane. Unable to haul it away, he began using it as a shed to house driftwood. Then, he invited a few friends to come over and shoot it with guns. Eventually, he forgot about it all together and was perfectly content to let time and nature slowly eat away at the twisted wreck.
“It was a simpler time,” said Einar, now 90 years old and tugging on his suspenders in his living room. “Besides, these things happened back then.”
Actually, yes. These things did happen back then. All the time. In fact, Iceland has historically been the Bermuda Triangle for American military planes.
Thanks to one of the most volatile weather patterns on the planet and primitive navigational beacons, more U.S. military planes have crashed on this tiny, Kentucky-size island than almost anywhere else on Earth.
According to public military records from the Air Force and Navy, from 1941 to 1973 when the plane went down on Einar’s farm, there were 385 U.S. military aviation accidents in Iceland. That’s roughly one accident every 31 days for 33 straight years.
Considering that we have never waged war with Iceland, that no country has attacked Iceland in the last 70 years, and that this far-flung island nation doesn’t even have a military, that’s insane.
“You have to understand that the weather in Iceland is a very powerful thing,” Fletcher said. “It probably changes faster than anywhere else in the world except the poles, and that’s why we don’t typically fly over the poles.”
Instead of paying to remove these planes after they crash, the U.S. military has tended to strip them of anything that’s valuable, abandon their frames and leave Icelanders to clean up its mess.
Strangely, not only is that perfectly legal, but it seems to be perfectly okay with most Icelanders.
According to Friðþór Eydal, who served as the public affairs officer for the U.S.-led Icelandic Defense Force from 1983 to 2006, as part of the Status of Forces Agreement between the two nations, there was an understanding that if an American plane crashed in Iceland, the United States would agree to pay 85 percent of the recovery cost, but the Icelandic government would be responsible for actually removing it.
“That scenario would only ever take place if a landowner filed a claim to remove the wreck,” Eydal said. “And in a place like Iceland, that almost never happened.”
Why? According to Eydal, there are two reasons. First, on an island that’s 80-percent uninhabited and where more than 60 percent of the land is covered by glaciers and lava deserts — such as Einar’s beach — there are a lot of places where you can crash an airplane and no one really cares.
Second, because of its harsh climate and limited natural resources, Iceland has to import almost everything. As a result, Icelanders tend to never waste materials and creatively re-purpose what little they have.
So once these machines fall and the military turns away, entrepreneurial locals have secretly been transforming their remains into roofs, fences and other household items for decades.
“This island used to be so littered with wrecks that there were entire companies making pots and pans out of these planes,” Eydal explained.
Others have been much more ambitious.
A month and a half after heavy icing brought the plane down on Einar’s farm, violent weather caused another plane to crash on a guy named Helgi Jónsson’s property. Helgi’s plane had taken off from the same U.S. air station as Einar’s plane, and they were nearly identical Navy models.
Since no one ever contacted Helgi about cleaning this thing up, he and his friends had been using it as a fishing hut on the shore of Lake Þveit for two decades.
Now, he wanted to turn it into a house. The only problem was it was missing its tail. So in 1994, he drove to Einar’s house and knocked on his door.
Without hesitating, Einar let Helgi drive a crane and a tractor trailer onto the beach, saw off the tail from his C-117 and haul it back to Hoffell. Helgi then fused Einar’s tail to the body of his crashed R4D, painted over it and 22 years later, he and his family still live inside the hollow shell of two wrecked American military planes.
This is actually just one in a series of bizarre events connecting the dead planes of Iceland’s ghost fleet. Somehow, they all seem to circle back to the 300-person village of Vík and a man named Reynir.
As Fletcher spun the C-117 away from the icy massif in 1973, the U.S. Navy received the plane’s mayday call and immediately contacted ICE-SAR, Iceland’s nationwide system of emergency search and rescue volunteers.
Based on the plane’s speed and height, the dispatcher estimated that the aircraft would land somewhere between the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and the sea. He looked for the closest local unit, and called its commander, Reynir Ragnarsson. Within a few minutes, Reynir had mobilized the team from Vík and headed out in a super Jeep to hunt for the plane.
The team arrived at the crash site just as the survivors were being airlifted away by the rescue helicopter. Still, as the military stripped the plane, it gladly gave the rescue unit the 800 liters of gasoline that remained in its tanks. It was enough fuel to power the team’s snowmobiles for several years afterward, and the Navy knew it was only a matter of time before it’d need to call on the men again.
Iceland doesn’t have many police officers and has no military, but it does have volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, avalanches, tidal waves and windstorms. After battling inhospitable conditions for a thousand years, ICE-SAR was created to protect Icelanders from Iceland.
When its 10,000 volunteers aren’t scrambling up ice caps or rappelling down canyons to search for missing people, they’ve historically spent a lot of time searching for missing American planes — and nowhere has this been more true than around Vík.
In 1975, the same men who were dispatched to Einar’s farm were called to go look for an American plane that went missing over Eyjafjallajökull — the volcano that grounded the world’s planes when it erupted in 2010.
After several hours, the team discovered that the aircraft had collided with the top of the volcano and flipped upside-down. The passengers died on impact, and Reynir and his men pulled their cold bodies out of the cockpit.
Then in 1977, a helicopter crashed along the volcanic desert of Mælifellssandur. The two men survived the collision and stumbled seven or eight kilometers in search of help before giving up. “Reynir and I found them the next day” said Þórir Kjartansson, who served in the Vík rescue crew. “But it was too late. They had already frozen to death.”
And in 1981, a shepherd noticed something sticking out of the ice on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and contacted the Vík ICE-SAR unit. Reynir and Þórir picked through the ice to discover a U.S. anti-submarine airplane and the bodies of eight Navy sailors who had gone missing back in 1953.
The military had tried to rescue the men shortly after the crash, but when the helicopters were engulfed in a snowstorm, they were forced to turn back. “After 28 years, the glacier had moved their bodies five kilometers,” Reynir said. “Nature is a powerful force.”
Today, the same natural forces that have caused all these planes to crash in Iceland is causing tourism to take off. The number of visitors to the island has doubled since 2010 because it’s known as a place where you can easily reach ice-covered volcanoes, crashing waterfalls and wrecked airplanes — and then post cool pictures of them on Instagram.
The only problem is, it’s not always that easy.
Ironically, 43 years after Vík’s ICE-SAR members were dispatched to Sólheimasandur to rescue stranded troops, their children are being dispatched to Sólheimasandur to rescue stranded tourists.
Some people will attempt to drive their rental cars from the unmarked gate to the wreck and sink deep into the lava field. Others will set out on foot and get stranded in a violent blizzard when the weather turns. And a few will simply wander through the barren, moon-like landscape for hours in search of this thing until they give up and call for help.
When they do, the call usually goes to Þráinn Ársolsson, a young Vík ICE-SAR responder who then has to leave his job at his father’s auto garage, and set out toward Sólheimasandur beach.
“Ever since the plane went viral, I have to rescue someone out here every single day,” Þráinn said, hooking a chain from his truck around a sunken car surrounded by four tourists from Malaysia. “This is actually my sixth call-out today.”
In fact, the calls for help have become so overwhelming that Vík’s tiny team of ICE-SAR volunteers can no longer handle them. Instead, they’ve started routing calls to Þráinn who now rescues people with his truck as a side business. He estimates that during the course of the year, he’s been called out to the beach more than 350 times.
“I can’t think of anywhere else in Iceland where this is happening.” Þráinn said. He’s right, and judging by the numbers, it’s not even close.
According to Ólöf Baldursdóttir, ICE-SAR’s national information officer, the country’s most active rescue location only registered 127 call-outs in 2015. While comparing official ICE-SAR missions with Þráinn’s private rescues isn’t scientific, it’s safe to say that not only has this plane caused far more harm to people in its afterlife than when it crashed, but it’s also become one of the most dangerous places in Iceland.
In an effort to reduce their missions to the beach, Vík’s ICE-SAR team posted a sign urging people to only drive out on the lava field with large four-wheel-drive vehicles. They also hammered in pegs guiding people from the unmarked gate toward the crumbling plane.
Nothing worked. So last month at their request, the land’s current owner — who runs a tour company that guides people to the plane in ATVs — closed the gate so that cars can no longer drive on the beach.
“We can’t stop people from coming,” Þráinn said. “They just need to know that the weather around Vík is very unpredictable and it can get you in a lot of trouble.”
The very next day, I saw what can happen.
On the last day of my return trip to Iceland, I was preparing for one final interview in my room when a woman named Æsa screamed up at me from the floor below. She ran the Vík Hostel where I was staying, and happened to be Reynir’s granddaughter. Æsa had introduced us the day before, and now he needed our help. There had been an accident.
As I jumped in her car and we sped toward the coast, she explained that a tourist had recently been dragged out to sea on the black-sand beach in Vík, just down the road from the plane wreck. As soon as the call came through to Vík’s ICE-SAR unit, all of the village’s able-bodied search and rescue members mobilized — including Reynir.
Now 81, Reynir could no longer lift bodies out of cockpits or pick through glaciers, but he could still fly his tiny Cessna plane. He first joined the rescue unit as 13-year-old boy, and he was determined to assist in the rescue mission from the air. We just needed to shovel a foot of snow away from his plane’s hangar. Fast.
When we arrived, Reynir’s son was already there digging frantically. We grabbed two shovels and picked away as fast as we could. Nobody said a word until Reynir flung open the hangar door and told us to help him push the plane out.
He slid on his gloves, tightened his wool cap and used the frozen black-sand beach as a runway before disappearing over the coast — just like Fletcher had 43 years earlier.
Like Fletcher did, we knew that hypothermia would set in after about 15 seconds in these conditions, and so we waited nervously in Æsa’s car. As the minutes passed and there was no call from Reynir, it became clear that this rescue was becoming a recovery mission.
Æsa’s phone finally rang. Reynir said that an ICE-SAR boat had just spotted the man’s floating body. It was too late.
Later that day, it was revealed that the man had been taking pictures on the black-sand beach on a clear day when a freakishly strong wave crashed onto the shore. After struggling to escape, he was dragged out to sea in front of his wife and children.
Æsa and I didn’t speak on the way back to the hostel. A few hours later, I packed my bag and went downstairs to check out.
“Be careful on your way to the airport,” Æsa said. “The weather’s supposed to turn.”
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