I can only imagine what the crew of seven servicemen endured as they realized their declination into the ground at Sólheimasandur Beach. On November 21st, 1973*, overburdened with icy conditions, the volcanic ice-covered beach and turbulent sea must have blended with the sky, forcing the crew to fly by instinct. The deicing system on their C-117 was failing to prevent ice from building up; it was failing to keep them in the air.
On a return flight from Höfn, after dropping off supplies, the ice added considerable weight and instability. Perhaps blinded by the ice building up, they had to land by force, uncontrollably coming to a halt on a frozen estuary. The weight of the airplane penetrated the frozen river but it managed to stay above the ice.
Their initial radio distress call targeted the landing at sea west of Vik. I believe that the crew was preparing a ditching scenario at sea, but in the final moments before bailing out, they spotted the beach and stayed with the airplane. Soon after, they were found and rescued by a helicopter on the Sólheimasandur Beach almost one kilometer from the surf and four kilometers from the Ring Road.
I’m not an aviation disaster expert, nor do I specialize in aircraft forensics, although while visiting the crash site I had initially thought that, when cresting the lip of the gully (if it was there forty years prior), the plane tipped onto the nose crumpling it, perhaps explaining the expedited deterioration of the front of the aircraft. The tail section appeared to be mechanically removed (i.e. with a rotary saw) noticeable from the uniform striations in the metal ribbing, and I had envisioned this took place in order to remove the contents.
I found out later, after discovering the news article, blog posts, and photos, that I was completely wrong. The cargo was already delivered, the nose was mostly intact in the 1980’s, and the tail was used to complete a DC-3 converted to a summer cottage in 1984. But what happened to the wings and engines? I’m not sure. The Naval Star and text “United States Navy” remains visible in the base coat of white paint due to the additional layer prolonging the deterioration. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see what remains after over forty years of extreme weather, vandalism, and tourism.
Note about this post: The initial text (first three paragraphs) is my synopsis of the crash based on the original newspaper article. I only discovered the news article after looking into the history of this airplane when we returned from Iceland. The plane is a McDonnell Douglas R4D-8 (Super DC-3) which was redesignated as a C-117D; the DC-3 is often called a “Dakota” by the RAF. * The date of November 24th and that it ran out of fuel is often misreported, however, in the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið, the correct date is November 21st and it was forced to land due to severe icing. Below is a (rough) translation from the original newspaper article.
Photographer’s Tip: Shooing on an overcast day with an ND Grad will help balance the light and yield a dramatic sky. Shooting on a clear day (even with an ND Grad) will be a challenge, except during early morning or evening.
Morgunblaðið (Morning Paper)
Thursday 22. November 1973
Dakota-engine Emergency Landing at Sólheimasandur Beach Yesterday
DOUGLAS Dakota-engine of the type C-117 made an emergency landing shortly after noon yesterday at Sólheimasandur Beach. Sailors with the airplane, from the Navy, all escaped safely. The airplane was coming from Höfn, where it had flown supplies to radar stations in Stokksnes.
Mr. Sigurðsson, reporter with the Morning Paper (Morgunblaðsins) in Litla-Hvammi, said it had been approx. 14h00, the plane emergency landed in the lower estuary at Sólheimasandur Beach. Ice was over the estuary and it broke under the plane. However, she hung in place on the ice. The Rescue and Accident Prevention Team in Vík and men from farms west of Vik immediately began to look for the airplane. At around the time they came to it, a helicopter from the Navy arrived and took the men who were in the airplane.
As mentioned earlier, the aircraft was coming from Höfn. She flew quite high, and when she was over Mýrdalssandur she hit very heavy icing and the motors became unstable. She began to lose altitude and sent out a distress which other Navy could hear. Once received, three Phantom-jets and two helicopters were sent for the airplane, but it was thought, it made an emergency landing at sea. The Dakota-engine persisted to the western Sólheimasandur Beach but remained no longer aloft and made a forced landing in a smaller estuary.
Hannes Hafstein from Accident Prevention Iceland said that air traffic control had immediate contact of the reporting requirements. It was thought the airplane would make the emergency landing in the sea rather than east of Vik. They had contact with Vestmannaeyja Radio to all boats from Vik. The whole area was laid out where the airplane could be in the sea from Vik to the Þjórsárósum River. They had contacted boats in Stokkseyri and in Eyrarbakka and they asked to go, but they could not get out of the harbor because of the surf. The search had been sought from Þorlákshöfn and when the first boats arrived, the news came that the airplane had emergency landed on land.
Hannes said that people from The Rescue and Accident Prevention Team in Vik were currently on duty with the airplane along with two Americans. A group of repairman from the Navy headed east and planned to guide them down the sand to the airplane. Distressing trips were made up and down the sand by rescue servicemen in jeeps and cars.