Eyrún Sæmundsdóttir was knitting a wool sweater on a cold afternoon in 1973 when she looked out of her bedroom window and saw a US Navy plane crash behind a black sand dune right where her farmland met the Atlantic Ocean. Eyrún looked up at her husband, Einar, both unsure of what to do next. They remained suspended in time for a few seconds, bracing for a possible explosion that would never come. After a few moments, the couple slowly started trudging through the icy fog toward Sólheimasandur beach.
The crash site was over 5 km from the couple's farmhouse at the tongue of the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. By the time Einar and Eyrún hiked down to the plane, the 5 passengers on board had already been rescued and the US military was in the process of stripping the plane of any and all important documents and equipment. The control deck was being disassembled, the engines were being lifting out of the plane, and the wings were being sawed off. (All of this fueled rumors that this was a spy plane heading for Russia). After learning that everyone had survived, the couple decided to head back to their house and let the military continue the process of removing the plane.
But, the US abandoned the 10,000 lb plane shell leaving it littered on the privately owned beach. In fact, the US military never spoke to Eyrun and Einar again. This was common practice by the US military working in Iceland. From 1941-1973, due to extreme weather conditions, nearly 385 US military planes crashed on this Kentucky-sized island. If you do the math, that equates to roughly 1 US plane crash every single month for 33 years straight. Keep in mind that we have never been at war with Iceland and no countries have attacked Iceland for over 70 years. What's even more fascinating is that Iceland itself doesn't even have a military, and yet, 385 military planes crashed on this island in just 3 decades.
So what caused the plane to crash?
This US Navy plane was flying a routine mission to a US Naval Air station (or possible spy mission) when it suffered complete engine failure due to flying in frigid temperatures of -10 C. The weather turned quickly and arctic gusts were whipping the plane at 60 MPH. As the carburetor of this C-117 started to suck in ice, both engines froze solid and failed. Everything turned silent and the plane was literally just falling through the sky; and, it was heading straight for Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe.
The pilots on board knew that crashing into 5,000 foot jagged peaks would bring immediate death. In a quick instance, a 26 year old pilot-in-training grabbed the controls and veered the plane south toward the ocean. With the choice of crashing into the nearby glacier or the ocean, the pilot chose the water knowing it would give them roughly 15 seconds before hypothermia would set in. As the plane pierced through the thick fog, it suddenly became clear that a large, desolate swath of black beach laid below. The pilot later said, "It looked like the moon." It was here, on the moon-like beaches of Sólheimasandur, that the pilot successfully landed the plane with everyone on board surviving without a scratch.
The plane. The myth. The legend.
After being left on the shores of the North Atlantic, Einar and his wife used the fuselage to store drift wood for many years before completely forgetting about the aircraft and never returning to it again. But, the legend of the plane managed to live on. Decades after the crash, it received its first break out role in a Sigur Ros documentary which lead to widespread curiosity. Many photographers from around the world started to make their way to the crash site hoping to capture this apocalyptic grave. Ironically enough, the same search and rescue crew sent out that day in 1973, now rescues lost tourists trying to find the wreckage.
One person that did manage to find the plane was JB. Justin Bieber famously skateboarded across the roof of the fuselage in his latest music video, officially inducting this DC 3 plane into the pop culture hall of fame. The video was released after my trip to Iceland, hence, the lack of other tourists in my photos. My friends visited the site a year later (after JB's video released) and could not get a photo of the plane without a dozen tourists in the shot. Everyone there wanted to see where JB had skateboarded. Few realized that the real story to be found here was that of a young hero pilot who saved five people's lives and lived to tell us about it.