Ice Patrol: My hunt for icebergs

Michael Wendelin Arizona ’78

My International Ice Patrol story was published in the Summer 2019 issue of the Association of Naval Aviation’s Quarterly magazine, Wings-of-Gold. But the story started nearly six years earlier while I was on one of my last Navy missions as a C-130 Loadmaster flying through St. John’s Newfoundland Canada.  

St. John’s is the stopping point for many US Military C-130 aircraft making the trip to Europe and beyond, or returning home using Great-Circle navigation. I saw the Coastie C-130 sitting there and asked the Ground support rep what it was doing there. He said, “The US Coast Guard is here for the International Ice Patrol.” It was at that point where I thought, “I am going to fly with the International Ice patrol and write a story about it. 

Woodrow Wilson Signed the Coast Guard Act of 1915 on January 28 of that year. It was the combination of the United States Life-Saving Service and the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Some people believe that this Act was a direct result of the US Navy not having spare ships to patrol the Iceberg Lanes off the coast of Newfoundland and the Revenue Cutter Service being the go-to assets to patrol the Iceberg Lanes. That is how the US Coast Guard has retained the mission since the RMS Titanic sank after striking an iceberg steaming from the UK to the United States in 1912. 

My story: 

The US Coast Guard crew is flying one of the oldest and most coveted missions in Coast Guard history. A mission that Coast Guard C-130s have been flying for 56 years. They are piloting CGNR 2004, an HC-130J Super Hercules flying the search track in search of icebergs, and I Mike Wendelin get to fly along to hunt for icebergs.  

For over 100 years, the US Coast Guard has been tracking the movement of icebergs off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland. For 70 of those years, a Coast Guard Aircraft has flown the Ice Reconnaissance Deployment (IRD) mission. 

The first Coast Guard aircraft to fly the IRD mission was a PBY-5A on February 6, 1946. Later the C-130, a B model, equipped with Doppler navigation, flew the IRD mission starting in 1963.  Today an HC-130J with the Minotaur Mission System onboard is used for the IRD mission. In 2019 fourteen IRD missions of nine days each have been scheduled from February through August. In 2018 the HC-130J flew 346.7 flight hours during 10 IRD missions. The IRD is allotted 500 flight hours per season. 

The IRD mission begins with an HC-130J departing from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, NC, and flying into Groton – New London CT, Airport near the IIP Operations Center (OPCEN) and picking up the Ice observer team, and then flying up to St. John’s, Newfoundland. St. John’s serves as the International Ice Patrol’s detachment site and home away from home.   

Once in St John’s, our mission day starts with the extended crew getting together for weather and the search track briefing.  The search track comes in daily from the OPCEN. Consideration is given to the weather and satellite imagery. Priority is given to the edges of the iceberg limits to ensure that there are no icebergs close to or outside the borders. Once the track is known, the crew boards the aircraft and flies the track. While the flight crew is flying the track, the Observers are looking for icebergs either visually or utilizing the Minotaur system. Observers tap sightings into a tablet that is programmed with the search track map in a system called BergTracker. When the mission is complete, all observations are used to update the iceBerg Analysis and Prediction System (BAPS).  

The IIP mission is one that all Coast Guard Aviators covet. Mission Commander Lt. William Philyaw, The Command Pilot on IRD three, said, “This is the coolest mission for a Coast Guard Aviator, He went on to say, “The people of St. John’s and Newfoundland are awesome!” Another IIP pilot, LCDR Michael Deal, said, ” Getting to fly around Canada and on a mission that originates back to 1912 and aiding in the detection of icebergs is a pretty special experience.” 

The extended IIP flight crew consists of two Pilots, a Loadmaster, two Mission System Operators, a Dropmaster, and one or two basic crew members.  The Ice Observer team consists of four Ice Observers and a Tactical Commander. The Observers rotate between fore and aft positions on the aircraft. The RIO (Radar Ice Observers) are forward in the flight station are working with the Mission System Operators using Minotaur to scan for icebergs. The IOs (ice observers) in the back are visually scanning for icebergs and logging those into BergTracker for entry into BAPS. The HC-130J is flying between 1000-5000 feet MSL at 180 knots during the search phase. The IRD operates between six and eight hours per day for nine days and then swaps with the next crew. 

Minotaur allows aircrews to gather and process surveillance information that can be transmitted to other platforms and units during flight. The system was developed initially by the Navy and is used across multiple Defense and Homeland Security department platforms. 

The US Coast Guard added the first Minotaur Mission System to its HC-130J fleet starting in 2013 with the retrofit of the first HC-130J CGNR 2004, a C-130 based out of Air Station Elizabeth City (CGNR 2004 Flew the 2019 IRD-3). The Minotaur system enables more efficient tracking of icebergs. IIP First used Minotaur in the 2017 Season.  

Minotaur employment is changing over time as the crew goes through a continuous improvement process utilizing lessons learned in actual iceberg hunting. In addition to the Minotaur system, the HC-130J is equipped with the Automatic Identification System (AIS). The AIS receives information transmitted by AIS-equipped ships for identification and is used to differentiate vessels from icebergs on the radar. 

Officially, an iceberg is a mass of freshwater ice floating in the ocean that extends at least five meters (16.4 feet) above the waterline. Anything smaller than this is classified as a “Bergy bit” or “Growler.” These icebergs are from tidewater glaciers found in Greenland. No Atlantic icebergs originate from North America. The Coast Guard gets sea ice data from Canadian Sea Ice Charts and Canadian Sea Ice limits for use in the daily Warning Products. Sea ice is frozen seawater. Generally, the presence of sea ice promotes the longevity of icebergs. 

Once an iceberg is sighted, it is logged into BAPS. The system then uses an algorithm to estimate and plot drift and deterioration. The icebergs in BAPS are tracked until they are no longer a threat to navigation. A buoy system is used and periodically deployed from HC-130J to monitor ocean currents, ensuring they are accurately depicted in BAPS.  

Mariners know IIP is tracking and reporting on icebergs and sea ice daily to ensure the safe passage of international maritime commerce and personnel to and from North America. It is in place to ensure the continued safety of marine traffic and to abide by the SOLAS treaty. The responsibilities of the IIP are outlined in US Code Title 46, section 80302 and the SOLAS (1974). 

The danger of iceberg collision is mitigated today due to the constant vigilance of the United States Coast Guard, the International Ice Patrol, and its member nations. It wasn’t always that way. While the story of the Titanic is well known, the work to avoid future accidents is mostly unknown.   

For the 2018 season, a total of 8,001 potential iceberg targets were reported. After validation, 6,248 targets were entered into the BAPS model. 

Although this is a mission that is over 100 years old, “It is an exciting time for the International Ice Patrol,” said IIP Commanding Officer CDR Kristen Serumgard. She went on to say the process of tracking icebergs is continually evolving. “We are refining the use of the Minotaur system, we are looking at new methods, and using new types of satellite data, new imaging analysis software, and iceberg Analysis and Prediction System (BAPS) upgrades. We are continually improving our warning products.”  

The critical iceberg line is an imaginary line of forty-eight degrees north latitude moving east from landfall out into the Atlantic Ocean. Forty-Eight degrees north latitude is considered the northernmost boundary of the transatlantic shipping lanes. Any iceberg below 48N is a hazard to Transatlantic navigation and is tracked and called out in the daily warning products sent to mariners.  

Glaciers have been forming icebergs for tens of thousands of years in a process called calving. The calving process and the subsequent icebergs creating hazards to navigation were mostly ignored before April 15, 1912. At approximately 2:20 AM on April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank 400 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada, after striking an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, resulting in the deaths of over 1500 people. The tragic events of Titanic led to the formation of the International Ice Patrol (IIP).  

Before the Titanic disaster, there were many recorded iceberg collisions in the same waters near the Grand Banks in which the Titanic sank. The Lady of the Lake sank in 1833 with a loss of 70 lives. In the latter part of the 19th century, at least 14 vessels were lost and 40 severely damaged due to ice. Many whaling and fishing vessels were lost or damaged by ice and icebergs, and the events were not recorded. The Titanic disaster pushed the international community to convene the first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention in 1914. 

The first SOLAS convention in 1914 set forth standards based on information gained from the Titanic disaster. SOLAS set forth standards like the number of lifeboats, a continuous radio watch, new construction standards, and global navigation standards. While the United States did not sign the 1914 document, the stage was set for future conventions, and the United States would eventually become a signatory of the SOLAS agreement.   

The IIP focuses on Iceberg Alley, the OPAREA (Operations Area) is an area off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. IIP is responsible for guarding the OPAREA in the vicinity of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland with its main partners, the North American Ice Service (NAIS), the Canadian Ice Service (CIS), the United States National Ice Center, and the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI). The icebergs that move through the OPAREA have originated from glaciers in Greenland. The icebergs follow a one to three-year voyage in the West Greenland Current to the Baffin Island Current and into the Davis Strait where the icebergs are picked up by the Labrador Current. 

Originating in the Davis Strait of the Labrador Sea, the Labrador Current is a cold-water current with low salinity. The Labrador Current flows south along the coast of Labrador Canada. The Labrador Current acts as the final iceberg conveyor moving icebergs from North to South and potentially into the transatlantic shipping channels. 

The OPAREA is a place where the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream meet; as a result, this area is subject to very unusual weather patterns as the warm water and cold water collide Southeast of Newfoundland. This collision causes fog, which at times makes it difficult to detect and track iceberg traffic. This foggy weather necessitates the use of several iceberg detection sources.  

The US Coast Guard gets iceberg sighting data using a layered approach from five primary sources. IIP Aerial Reconnaissance via Coast Guard HC-130J Aircraft (Most accurate and reliable), Canadian Government Reconnaissance, Commercial Aerial Reconnaissance, Satellite Reconnaissance including Open Source, ESA (EU) Sentinel 1A and 1B, CSA (Canada) Radar Sat, and lastly Merchant Ships. 

A perfect record. 

The IIP team is continually sorting through the various iceberg sighting data for adds and deletes, and they are always working to provide the most reliable and accurate warning products. Their hard work has been rewarded. The International Ice Patrol and the US Coast Guard have a perfect record. Since the creation of the International Ice Patrol in 1913, There have been no recorded collisions with any icebergs for vessels in the vicinity of the Grand Banks, which have heeded the published iceberg limits. Dedication, perseverance, and continuous improvement have kept transatlantic traffic safe from the hazards of iceberg collision for over 100 years.  

My five-year journey is over. My IIP story written it is now off to the next great adventure.