Cold War

Why did that “DC-3” Crash on Iceland?

One of the most famous landmarks on Iceland isn’t a mountain, gorge or glacier, it is in fact the wreckage of an old DC-3 that crashed on the island decades ago. Once the center of a terrifying ordeal for those on board, it is now one of the most photographed wrecks on the entire planet.

Influencers, music videos, TV series, and even Justin Bieber have visited this old relic. It sits on one of Iceland’s black beaches, with its white aluminium skin contrasting against the sand, making it a favourite among photographers.

So what was this aircraft doing here? And what caused it to crash?


The DC-3 that Isn’t Actually a DC-3

This aircraft has reached world fame, having been visited by countless photographers, celebrities, and TV shows, with most referring to the wreckage as a DC-3. However it isn’t actually a DC-3, it is a Navy C-117, a much later modification introduced in the 1940s that greatly modernised the basic DC-3 design.

The R4D-9/C-117 had a larger fuselage, more powerful engines, new wings, and an enlarged dorsal fin to counter the increased torque of the new engines.

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In fact, it was so different to the original DC-3 that it is often considered an entirely different aircraft. The aircraft on Iceland was built in 1944.

The DC-3 is a beloved and famous aircraft, which is likely why people will continue to call the Iceland C-117 a DC-3.

C-117 after being retired.
A C-117, the same type as the one that crashed on Iceland.

The Sólheimasandur Crash

On a fateful day in late autumn, November 21, 1973, the tranquil landscapes of Iceland bore witness to an unexpected incident that would eventually inscribe itself into local lore. A United States Navy Douglas C-117D plane, on what should have been a routine flight, found itself in distress over the southern shores of Iceland.

This C-117, registration 17171, was supplying US radar stations on Iceland, which were used to detect aircraft and submarines passing nearby.

C-47J on Iceland.
A US Navy C-47J at Keflavik airport on Iceland. Iceland has long been used by NATO, and often sees military aircraft coming and going.

As the aircraft cruised through the skies, a rapid change in the weather saw winds increase and the temperature plummet into the minuses. The weather above Iceland is some of the most unpredictable in the world, and can change in an instant.

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The area has a remarkably high crash rate, with the US loosing an average of one aircraft per month between 1941 and 1973 – more than anywhere else.

The sudden cold temperatures caused severe icing on the C-117. The carburettors eventually froze over, and the engines stalled.

17171 crashed on Iceland.
C-117 17171 after its crash. It isn’t clear when this was taken, or who by, but it must have been within days of the crash.

The pilot decided to ditch the aircraft in the sea, rather than on Iceland’s snowy mountains, as he reasoned that this would give them a higher chance of resuce.

Some sources mention that either due to mechanical issues or the crew’s management, the aircraft ran out of fuel. However most credible sources state that freezing problems were the cause of the incident.

The weather was so bad that the crew were unable to see the aircraft’s wing tips, making finding a place to put the aircraft down virtually impossible. The pilot broadcast a mayday message before attempting the landing, which, fortunately, was picked up by nearby military aircraft.

The nose of C-117 17171 after it crashed.
Close up of 17171’s nose section. The aircraft looks to have come down very gently, considering the lack of damage.

As the aircraft came down, the crew were shocked to see that they were not over the sea, but over one of Iceland’s black volcanic beaches. The beach was open and level, making it one of safest places on the island to land.

The crew managed to touch down perfectly, without any injuries on board.

A search and rescue mission began as soon as the mayday message was picked up, and they were picked up by an American helicopter just an hour after the crash.

After the crash the plane was stripped for parts. The wings, engines, and electronics were removed, and the hundreds of litres of fuel left in the wreckage was given to the locals.

Soon all that remained was an empty fuselage. This was not taken from the site, as the US was not obliged to do so, and the local Icelandic popular have never needed to.

17171 crash site.
The wreckage was disassembled for its parts in the days after its crash, and left as an empty hulk.

Since its crash in the 1970s, the Sólheimasandur plane wreckage, emerging from Iceland’s haunting landscapes, has gradually woven itself into the island’s popular culture, capturing the imaginations of artists, photographers, filmmakers, and travelers from all corners of the globe.

The visual allure of the wreckage is undeniable. Photographers, both amateur and professional, have been captivated by the raw aesthetic of the decayed plane against the contrasting vastness of the black sands.

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The skeletal remains of the aircraft, weathered and stripped of its original identity, offer a dramatic subject. In different lights and seasons, the site tells different stories, making it a versatile subject.

The rear section of the Iceland C-117.
Today, the aircraft is literally an empty shell. Most items that can be removed, have been. Image courtesy of

Sunrises, midday hazes, twilight hues, or the ethereal dance of the Northern Lights — each setting conjures a unique portrait of the wreckage, allowing for diverse interpretations and narratives.

The film and music industry too has recognized the evocative power of the Sólheimasandur crash site. Filmmakers, in search of locales that exude a mix of raw nature and haunting post-human remnants, have found the crash site to be an ideal backdrop.

Inside the Iceland wreckage.
Even the aircraft’s interior has been striped. Image by Wendelin Jacober.

A number of celebrities have visited the site, including Justin Bieber and the presenters of Top Gear. This has transformed it into one of the most famous wrecks on the planet.

The digital age and the rise of social media have further amplified the site’s popularity. As travelers share their experiences and images of the crash site on platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, or TikTok, the site has gained a viral, self-sustaining cycle of intrigue and visitation.

Nose section of the Iceland C-117.
Little remains of the cockpit, aside from some frayed electrical cables. Image by Commonist. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Environmental And Tourism Impact

The Sólheimasandur plane wreckage, in its transformation from a forgotten remnant of the past to a globally recognized point of interest, has induced significant environmental and tourism-related ramifications.

From a tourism perspective, the wreckage site has undoubtedly bolstered Iceland’s appeal to international visitors.

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While the country is already famed for its geysers, waterfalls, and Northern Lights, unique attractions like the Sólheimasandur crash site add depth and variety to the tourist experience.

The influx of tourists has contributed to the local economy, aiding businesses like hotels, restaurants, and tour operators. Moreover, the site serves as a catalyst, enticing visitors to explore other lesser-known areas of Iceland, spreading the benefits of tourism more broadly.

However, the surge in visitors has not come without its set of challenges. The delicate ecosystem of the Sólheimasandur beach and its surroundings began showing signs of strain as the site’s popularity skyrocketed.

Vehicle tracks started scarring the pristine black sands, litter became an increasing concern, and the natural habitat of local fauna faced disruption.

 C-117 wreck car park.
The C-117 wreck became so popular that a car park was made, and shuttle services opened up. Image courtesy of

The footprint of thousands of daily visitors, while seemingly small in individual measures, cumulatively posed a significant threat to the fragile environment.

The wreck itself has been the victim of damage too, with many visitors marking it with graffiti, or removing parts as souvenirs.

But the site also risks a danger to those who visit it. Society has changed massively since 1973, but Iceland’s weather has not, and it can still catch people off guard. This fact proved fatal in 2020, when two tourists were caught in the elements while visiting the wreckage and died of hypothermia.

Markings still visible on the wreck in 2012.
The wreck in 2012. Here, some of the white paint from its “UNITED STATES NAVY” and star markings can be seen. Image by PeterRYV CC BY-SA 4.0.

Recognizing the potential long-term damages, local authorities took corrective measures. They prohibited vehicular access to the immediate vicinity of the wreckage, ensuring that the sands would no longer be marred by tire tracks.

Visitors now embark on a 4 km walk, a subtle yet effective way to reduce the site’s human footprint.

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Additionally, efforts have been made to educate visitors about the importance of responsible tourism, and the dangers the region’s weather poses. Signages have been erected, and tour guides emphasize the “leave no trace” principle, advocating for a collective responsibility to preserve the site for future generations.