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Traffic On The 69th

Traffic On The 69th

Playing Santa on the Distant Early Warning Line
By Katie Weaver
Sep 13
2016
From the August/September 2016 Issue

The Cold War left a scar through the North. The DEW Line, or Distant Early Warning Line, was a 10,000-kilometre span of radar hubs mostly along the 69th parallel, built to shore up Arctic defenses. Once completed, it was intended to buy the United States two extra hours of warning should the Soviets send a bomber attack over the North Pole.

Most stations were abandoned, though many still stand today and some are now part of the North Warning System. Construction of the stations was instrumental to some communities in Nunavut, like Cambridge Bay, and provided jobs for some Inuit coming off the land.

This 1954 Arctic endeavour wouldn’t have been possible without airplanes. More than 100,000 tonnes were transported by aircraft alone to DEW Line sites, requiring the biggest commercial airlift operation to date in North American history with 45,000 commercial flights in 32 months, involving 81 different airlines from Canada and the United States. 

If it sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. But pilots and DEW Line workers still found time to have fun. During Christmas, pilots would play Santa and drop off Christmas trees and gift baskets to isolated stations. This included cheap rye they’d picked up from Greenland, which they snuck into parcels that would parachute down from the airplane. A gift from the heavens for a lonely station operator, to be sure.