In September 2017, an Air France flight traveling west over the Greenland ice sheet experienced a failure in its 4th engine. All on board were unharmed, and the plane landed safely in Goose Bay, Canada. To figure out what exactly went wrong with the engine, a search for the missing engine parts was executed by the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) supported by Greenland Guidance.
The torn-away parts of the airplane engine dropped onto the ice sheet, but the heavy pieces of the fan hub – needed for the investigation – impacted into the snow surface and were lost from sight almost instantly, getting buried further with every subsequent snowfall event high on the ice sheet. The search for the largest and potentially most interesting part was difficult due to severe storms, snow-covered crevasses in the region, and the ever-present risk of polar bears passing by. Guided to a few promising sites by airplane-based radar measurements performed by ONERA (the French aerospace lab), the initial ground-based detection and therefore exact localisation was done by a radar-equipped robot (!) operated by Polar Research Equipment (PRE). The robot was crucial in regions too dangerous for people to tread unsecured, because of crevasses in excess of 10 m wide, yet invisible to the eye due to the snow cover. It wasn’t until the very end of the 3rd field campaign in spring 2019 that a metal detector custom-built by the Aarhus University HydroGeophysics Group clearly detected metal a few meters below the surface.
Greenland Guidance took part in the 4th recovery expedition to the ice sheet, bringing 3 experienced mountaineers from the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR) to the scene. The expedition commenced on 28 June 2019, transporting as many as would fit in an AS350 Air Greenland helicopter (5 people) to the dig site. In spite of all safety precautions (mostly related to digging in a crevassed region), we made good progress. By the end of the second afternoon, we struck titanium. Eager to liberate the part, we kept working until after midnight. But melting the engine part loose and lifting it to the ice sheet surface proved very difficult, as we wanted to avoid contact with the yet-to-be-investigated part as much as possible. On 30 June, after an estimated 20 hours of digging, melting and lifting, the job was done and all returned safely to Narsarsuaq, 100 km southeast of where the engine part had impacted.
Find the GEUS press release here.