Coalville Navy Vet. recalls Antarctic exploits
November 8, 2013
Veteran’s Day prompts many emotions among those who have served in the military. For some, the memories have faded into the distant past, rarely recalled. That’s the case for Coalville resident and Navy veteran Richard Springgate. In 1968, at age 25, he was flying missions over one of the most dangerous places in the world.
No, his enemy wasn’t the Viet Cong and he wasn’t dropping bombs on North Vietnam. His enemy was severe weather in one of the harshest environments on the planet — the frozen wasteland of Antarctica. The challenge wasn’t dodging surface-to-air missiles, but landing huge cargo planes safely on the treacherous, crevasse-strewn Antarctic ice.
Though not a combat veteran of Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, Springgate faced danger nevertheless. "I don’t talk about this stuff much anymore, it was so long ago," says Springgate who, at age 70, is still hard at work in a profession he still loves. He’s highly regarded as one of the best architectural photographers in the country. His spectacular photos of a multimillion dollar home in prestigious Tuhaye, a gated community above Jordanelle Reservoir, made the cover and merited a feature spread in this fall’s issue of Western Art & Architecture magazine, on the stands now.
Pressed, Springgate shares distant memories of his polar adventures almost half-a-century ago. Those were the draft years, the war years, and thousands of young Americans opted to join the military rather than be drafted into the Army. A product of the University of Washington’s Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC), Springgate joined the Navy Reserve immediately after college. Denied pilot training for his less-than-perfect eyesight, he trained to be a navigator and bombardier. "They called us 90-day wonders because that’s how long it took to get through Officer Candidate School and be commissioned," he grins. Though fully expecting deployment to Vietnam, the fledgling ensign was instead offered an opportunity to join Squadron VXE-Six, an elite group of airmen, flying a fleet of C-130 cargo aircraft and assigned to support the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic research program.
Springgate’s squadron was charged with transporting scientists to and from multiple research sights and bases scattered across the frozen continent. The massive cargo planes, equipped with 40-foots skis, also conducted aerial mapping and ice depth sounding surveys. "We were the first to accurately map the land mass under the ice of western Antarctica. It was kind of like finding the cone under a big scoop of ice cream," he says.
He recounts harrowing flights during those early years of polar aviation. Radio communication was non-existent over nearly all of the continent, available only within 30 miles of a few permanent bases on the ice. His flight crew, and the scientists who flew with them, risked disaster on a regular basis. "Our mission was to land anywhere the scientist wanted to land. That meant setting down in some areas that were heavily crevassed," he explains. Sometimes we had to make emergency landings and wait it out literally in the middle of nowhere due to severe weather or freezing fuel and hydraulic lines. You could crash an aircraft down there any day of the week. Navigation was a real challenge at the South Pole and you could get lost real easy. Running out of fuel was not an option."
Recommended Stories For You
Springgate was flying at the bottom of the world long before the days of GPS or inertial navigation. "After we were about 30 miles out of McMurdoe Station, we were on our own. We had no automatic direction finders and compasses didn’t work very well so near the pole. If we couldn’t see the sun or stars, navigation was a crap shoot. If we went down, no one was coming to rescue us."
Survivors would have stared death in the face on a continent where temperatures can drop to well-below minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit and winds have been measured at almost 200 miles an hour. "Blizzards came out of nowhere in an instant," Springgate says.
One of his most memorable flights took Springgate, his crew and a team of scientists west to study one of the largest colonies of Adelie penguins in the world. He describes the perilous flight back to McMurdoe Station. "Forecasting wasn’t always accurate, so whatever the weather was, that’s what you flew in. We flew above the clouds most of the way home, but a storm came in and we had to descend into zero-zero conditions.
"You couldn’t see a thing, couldn’t tell ice from sky, continues Springgate. "We had about a seventy mile-an-hour crosswind and we were bouncing up and down like a cork. The pilot turned the aircraft over to me and I brought us in using radar navigation. Trouble was, radar actually penetrated the ice sometimes and surface measurements could vary by about 40 feet. Standard procedure was to set up a five degree descent rate and when you hit the ice you were down. We got a downdraft, dropped about 30 feet right at touchdown and hit really, really hard. The plane’s skis left about a six-foot hole in the ice on the first bounce. That was one we were lucky to walk away from. The aircraft was out of commission for about two months and I couldn’t pry the seat cushion off my butt for about a week," he chuckles.
Springgate was stationed in Antarctica from 1968 to 1970, the last two years of his Navy enlistment. He says his years there left him a changed man. "I came out of that experience with a lot more self confidence. I felt like I could do anything," he says. Soon after returning to civilian life, he got his private pilot’s license and flew small planes for many years. He continued his adventurous lifestyle, taking on high-risk sports like mountaineering and whitewater kayaking. He twice climbed Mt. McKinley, Alaska’s highest peak at over 20,000 feet.
The military also gave Springgate a leg-up on his lifelong career as a photographer. While stationed there, he took a correspondence course in photography and traded "booze" from the commissary for photography lessons from official Navy photographers. "Springgate Photography" has been among the go-to agencies for Park City custom-home architects for many years.
Springgate says the world and the military have changed dramatically since he served. "I have such respect for the military people coming back home from Iraq and Afghanistan wounded. I see them all the time at the Veteran’s Hospital in Salt Lake City," he says. The aging Navy veteran was himself the recipient of two artificial hips courtesy of the VA a few years ago.
"I am so impressed by the character of those guys,’ he continues. I think their sacrifice is even more significant in this age of an all-volunteer military. They didn’t have to go. Don’t get me wrong, these guys weren’t out there trying to make heroes of themselves. But when they come back so torn up, you just really have to feel for them."
Springgate hesitates for a moment, a far-off glint in his eye, then speaks softly. "I still think about those years, especially around Veteran’s Day," he admits. "You’re proud to be a veteran you know, proud that you did things that other people chose not to do. There’s a certain camaraderie among veterans, a shared experience. Even though I was never in combat, I feel like I did my duty for my country. I did what I was asked to do."
- Favorite activities: mountain biking, skiing, camping, "travel to anywhere new"
- Favorite foods: Thai food at Bangkok Thai, Mexican
- Favorite reading/authors: techno-thrillers; Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Steven Coonts
- Favorite music: classical, opera, jazz
- Bucket list: Travel to Thailand, Cambodia, Western Europe
Steve Phillips is a Park City-based writer and actor. Send your profile comments and suggestions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org