Transocean Air Lines 1946 - 1960
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
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
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bush planes for its shuttle operations between Barrow and the various oil camps.
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
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 of
the single-engined bush planes and several light planes for use on the Pet 4 project. C-46s and
DC-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 food
out to the scattered oil drilling camps-some of which lies hundreds of miles across the snowy
waste from Point Barrow. A twin-engine amphibious plane was also used for summer travel
between 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.