Thompson isn't afraid of wild weather or lightning, but one thing does worry him: ice. "Tall icebergs scare me," he says. "If I'm descending out of a cloud and they're taller than 400 feet, they scare me." Not that fear has kept Lieutenant Commander Thompson from becoming the most experienced pilot assigned to fly the Coast Guard's International Ice Patrol, a 13-member unit based in Groton, Conn. Every other week from February until as late as July, Thompson or one of his fellow pilots flies north with a patrol crew. It includes four "ice picks"—patrol slang for ice observers—who use radar to locate up to 1,000 icebergs that float each year down Iceberg Alley between Greenland and Newfoundland, bound for the North Atlantic waters where the Titanic sank. The patrol monitors the potentially deadly drifting ice (some of it 3,000 years old)—and issues daily charts to vessels in the transatlantic shipping lane—until the icy hazards melt in the Gulf Stream.
It was the Titanic's sinking in 1912 that led immediately to the establishment of the ice patrol and six years ago helped persuade Thompson to take the job. "I wanted to see exactly what it was that crippled the Titanic," he says. Every April a patrol crew drops a wreath where the Titanic went down, leading Thompson to reflect on the passengers' fate. "No one there to help you, the water's cold, darkness coming in around you," he says. "It's very sad."
An Army brat born on a U.S. base in Bordeaux, France, Thompson was 15 when he looked skyward at his Fayetteville, N.C., home and glimpsed his future. "I saw an airliner flying by," says Thompson, the older of two sons raised by Army Sgt. James Thompson and Iya, a retail assistant. "I thought being a pilot was very prestigious—and adventurous."
His own flight path started out of high school in 1975, when he entered the Coast Guard. Shortly after joining, and years before he earned his wings, he was training as a seaman in Morehead City, N.C., when he got his first taste of disaster. On a search-and-rescue emergency, he and two others tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate a man and his young son who drowned in a boating accident. The episode taught Thompson one of life-saving's hardest lessons: "There will be days when I lose, and there will be days when I win." In recent years, when not hunting icebergs, he has had his fair share of excitement helping the Drug Enforcement Administration patrol Caribbean drug routes. He won't share details. "Classified," he says.
A stable home life provides the ballast for his risky profession. Kim Kirkpatrick, another Army brat, met Thompson as a kindergartner in Bordeaux; later they found themselves in the same seventh-grade class in Fayetteville. She took little notice of him at first. "He likes his privacy, his quiet time—even to this day," she says. They began dating after high school and wed in 1976, Bill proposing at the local airport restaurant with planes buzzing overhead. Today they live with their children, Joshua, 19, a college student, and Angela, 17, in Elizabeth City, N.C., their 14th home in 22 years.
Though confident of her husband's skills, Kim, 40, worries about his safety. "Things do go wrong," she says. Thompson concedes he's about ready to consider a less hazardous job with a commercial airline. In the meantime he's going to make the most of his adventures. "When I'm 80 and rocking in my chair," he says, "I want to be able to tell my grandchildren great stories."
Steve Tomajczyk in Newfoundland
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