Gardermoen Air Station is located about 50 km north of Oslo, Norway. The site was originally used by the Norwegian Army since 1740, when it was called Fredericksfeldt. The first flight there took place in 1912, and by 1920 there were multiple hangars at the airport.
During the World War II Nazi invation of Norway in April 1940, the luftwaffe bombed the airport, but once the occupation effort was completed, the installations of the airport were repaired and improved by the Germans with the addition of two 2000-meter runways, and several more hangars.
After the capitulation, the Norwegian Air Force took place and established a base, from which operated the 335 Squadron of air transport.
In 1946, the charter civilian airline Braathens SAFE established a technical base at Gardermoen and operated flying to destinations in the Far East and South America. In 1948, however the airline closed down the facility and moved to Oslo Airport, Fornebu starting regular scheduled flights to the Far East.
Althought, the United States showed interest since 1945 to establish a military airbase in Norway to ensure German compliance with the terms of surrender, it was not until the events of February and March 1948 in Czechoslovakia that the interest turned into a serious study about the use of bomber bases in Norway. Initially, the construction of USAF heavy bomber bases was ruled out as the proximity of Norwegian territory to Soviet air bases could lead to a preemptive Soviet attack against Norway. However, in October 1952, after prolonged negotiations, a secret "arrangement" was concluded whereby USAF's Strategic Air Command was allowed in the event of war to use the airfields of Sola and Gardermoen. In the case of Gardermoen, provisions were to be made for "emergency post-strike staging of approximately 60 medium bombers per month" but it did not involve the peacetime stationing of bombers or escort fighters on either airfield.
As a result of the agreement in 1953, 49 American military personnel were stationed at Sola and Gardermoen. These were primarily attached to "communication facilities" established close to the airports and designed to support SAC operations.
The GENETRIX program balloons
Around July 1955, members of the 1st. Air Division Survey Team of the United States Air Force (USAF), visited Gardermoen to verify that the facilities were adequate for one of the most secrets operations of the time. Code named "Grayback" and later re-denominated "Genetrix" the project's goal was to obtain photographic reconnaissance of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its satellites using stratospheric balloons carrying high resolution cameras. The platform -denominated Weapons System 119L or WS-119L- consisted basically of a polyethilene balloon, to which was attached through a special bar assembly a gondola containing an automatic photographic system, denominated DMQ-l, composed by a duplex camera which had two 6-inch lenses on opposite sides. The camera was capable of obtaining about 500 pictures, covering 50 miles on either side of the balloon path. On the bottom of the box a photo cell turned on and off the camera according to the illumination below. Additional items were a thermal box containing batteries and electronic gear, two ballast boxes and parachutes for descent and recovery.
After launched, the balloon would transit the target zone carried by eastward winds until exiting enemy territory where a signal would be transmited to terminate the flight. While the gondola would descent by parachute it would be catched in mid-air by a specially fitted C-119 plane, or if this failed, the package also could be snatched by that same plane from the water, or recovered later by boat.
In early stages of development of the project, it was considered that all balloons should be launched from Scotland, but three factors affected that initial scheme:
- A further study of meteorological data indicated that more complete coverage could be obtained if sites were wide dispersed in western Europe;
- Surface weather in Scotland was expected to be unsuitable for launch activities a large part of the time; and
- The distance from the target zone resulted in a day or so of balloon travel before the photographic mission could be started, an important factor when the criticality of balloon life expectancy is considered.
Thus, taken account of the factors mentioned above and based on studies of trajectory and surface weather, the general areas selected for the location of launch detachments for the project were Eastern Norway, West Germany, and Turkey. Then, under responsability of the Command in Chief of the United States Air Forces in Europe the specific sites were selected: besides Gardermoen, the other sites were Adana, Turkey, Evanton, Scotland and Giebelstadt and Oberpfaffenhofen both in Germany.
The unit assigned to Gardermoen was denominated Detachment 3, and unlike occured with the rest of the units deployed to the other launch sites, due to political implications certain restrictions were imposed by Norwegian officials. It was determined that:
- total Unites States Air Force military and civilian personnel would not exceed 100,
- that a roster, indicating individual names, would be provided three weeks prior to arrival of the unit and
- for security purposes, Detachment 3 would be deployed to Norway on 3d Air Force Headquarters orders.
These restrictions impossed a reduction of detachment strength from 128 to 100. Negotiations provided for a workable solution either by Norway providing qualified civilian replacements for the 28 personnel reduction or if qualified civilian replacements would not be provided then United States Air Force total personnel complement could be increased as applicable for operational support.
Coordination for resolving these issues delayed the on-site deployment for Detachment 3 for approximately two weeks. However, it arrived in time to meet a 1 December 1955 operational ready status. Unlike the spartans conditions the launch team suffered for example in Adana, Turkey, all the members of the launch team at Gardermoen lived in a former German two-story wooden barracks.
A month later than originally expected, on January 10, 1956 orders were cursed from the control center in High Wycombe, England, to start the balloon launches from all the sites at a maximum rate of ten by day. Several balloons were sent from Adana and Giebelstadt that day but none from Gardermoen due to bad weather. First three balloons were launched from the Norwegian site on January 13, and continued the following days with varying numbers: 5 more on 14th, three on the 15th, six on the 16th and eight on the 17th.
As occured in the rest of the sites, balloons from Gardermoen were launched using a 2 ton 6x6 heavy truck with a superimposed structure -denominated the fisher launcher- from which the gondola was suspended and released.
On January 18th were launched four more balloons, but then the operations were suspended at the request of the Norwegian government. This request was based in one hand on a Swedish protest of balloons constituting a hazard to air navigation, in reports of "free falling objects" reported from the vicinity of the launch site, and finally the injury of a Norwegian boy by the explosion of a squib on a downed gondola.
In fact, several balloons landed in Sweden, including one which received coverage from the Swedish press as we can see in the picture at left.
After lengthy investigations into failure cause factors, approval to resume operations at Gardermoen was granted on 31 January 1956, with launches permitted only under conditions most favorable to successful ascent and flight. Operations were resumed on 3 February when the required conditions existed. That day a balloon was launched which initially moved toward Oslo, making an spectacular apparition over the Norwegian capital. Also was sighted from Grorud, Holmestrand, Larvik and Porsgrumm before moving east to the target zone.
Meanwhile in February 4th, the Soviets strongly protested about the operation. As a result President Eisenhower decided to stop the launches and instructed accordingly to the Air Force to halt the operations. However, before arrival of the shutdown instructions the Gardermoen detachment was able to launch four more balloons from the site. Althought all these balloons succeded to enter Soviet Territory none reached the recovery zone.
Since February 6, the launch team at Gardermoen stood on alert in case orders could arrive to resume operations, but instead, informally on 29 February and by message on 1 March 1956, USAF directed termination of the operational phase of the project and on 26 March 1956, by Headquarters USAF directive, lst Air Division and Strategic Air Command relinquished operational control of operational units to parent commanders, thus starting the return of each detachment and disposition of surplus material.
An evaluation of the statistics from Gardermoen show a very poor performance: of the 34 balloons launched during the operation, 7 failed and 27 were able to enter Soviet Territory. Of the 27, only four arrived to the recovery zone, but where not recovered.
Gardermoen after the spy balloons
After the end of the Genetrix program, Gardermoen grew up as a training field for the commercial airlines and as local airport for general aviation. During the following decades it will see an steady increase of commercial traffic which would become critical in 1985 making evident the need for the construction of a new airport. After a long debate that would take the rest of the decade about the location and whom will pay for the new air station, Norwegian parliament passed legislation to build the new main airport at Gardermoen on 8 August 1992.
To minimize the effect of using state grants, parliament decided that the construction and operation of the airport was to be done by an independent limited company that would be wholly owned by the Civil Airport Administration. This company was founded in 1992 as Oslo Hovedflyplass AS, but changed its name in 1996 to Oslo Lufthavn.
Nowadays, Oslo Airport Gardermoen is the main international airport serving the Norwegian capital. Also has become the main domestic hub and international airport for the country, and the second-busiest airport in the Nordic countries, connecting 28 domestic and about 115 international destinations with an average of 25 million passengers each year.
List of all GENETRIX balloons launched from Gardermoen in 1956