Operation BOXTOP: Sustaining the CAF’s most northern station

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Article / May 9, 2017

By: Kaitlin Buttrum, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs

Located on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island, about 800 km from the North Pole and over 2000 kilometers away from the nearest sizable grocery store, is the community of Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert, Nunavut.

There are no civilian communities within easy reach of this remote location, which is the most northern, permanently-inhabited settlement in the world.  Frequent deliveries of food and other necessities are needed to keep the population warm, fed, and entertained.

Operation BOXTOP is a resupply mission to CFS Alert that takes place twice per year. On this operation, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) flies aircraft full of supplies to sustain this community.

Called “wet BOXTOP” by military personnel, the springtime operation is carried out to deliver fuel. In the late summer, RCAF aircraft deliver goods such as dry or non-perishable rations, general stores, construction materials and other cargo to CFS Alert.

“Fuel is our livelihood here in Alert,” says Major Erik Rozema-Seaton, Commanding Officer of CFS Alert. The station’s heat, power, and transportation all rely on this resource.  Further, the community needs the shipment of dry goods in the fall to carry out research, maintenance and other projects at the station. The only other supplies that come in are on sustainment flights from Trenton, which primarily ship routine and priority items.

One of the greatest challenges of life at CFS Alert is the climate. During the winter, the temperature gets as low as -50° Celsius. Severe storms can appear on short notice, and when this happens, visibility quickly deteriorates to zero because of blowing snow.

For those living at the station, the cold winter months are dark, the weather unpredictable, and excursions from the station infrequent. “Personnel safety is paramount,” says Major Rozema-Seaton.  He explains that when troops do venture out, they must take extra precautions to stay safe, such as using a buddy system and radio.

By the time Operation BOXTOP takes place in the spring, the extreme cold temperature has lifted. From early April to early September, there is no nighttime in CFS Alert, only a constant state of sunshine. By May, the temperature has reached a balmy -15° Celsius. While most would not consider -15° warm, the temperature is elevated enough for aircraft to easily operate.

However, Operation BOXTOP flight schedules can be delayed occasionally due to the inclement weather. Hoping that the weather cooperates and that the aircraft are always serviceable is the primary concern for those involved in the operation.

For those living at CFS Alert, the springtime BOXTOP flights mark an exciting change. Sunlight has returned, summer is on its way, and the troops get ready for an increased operation tempo over the warmer months.  “BOXTOP brings an influx of activity to the station,” says Major Rozema-Seaton. “It is a kickoff to a busy time of year for us, and it is also a morale boost. It really gets the station ready for what is coming up in the summer. It is a good way to shake everything out from the dark period and the winter months.” Further, the supplies themselves are a source of excitement, as staff can pick up where they left off with projects that had been put on hold while waiting for the right materials.

The RCAF completed spring BOXTOP flights on May 5, 2017. Using CC-130J Hercules and CC-177 Globemaster III aircraft, the RCAF delivered approximately  561,700 litres of fuel to CFS Alert throughout the day and night. In total, there were 28 flights.

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