Typical day for 517th anything but ordinary

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Amy Hansen
  • 3rd Wing Public Affairs
It was another typical day for aircrew members of the 517th Airlift Squadron. But a typical day for a 517th "Firebird" is anything but ordinary.

The day started in darkness as the aircrew entered their double doors. Patches of light on the flightline ramp surrounded the shadowy figures of parked C-130 Hercules in the distance.

Three ARCTEC Alaska contract employees who operate a radar site in Fort Yukon, Alaska, waited on one of the 517th's C-130s to deliver food and other essential supplies to the village's runway.

Eight miles north of the Arctic Circle, with a winter population of 700, there is no such thing as "a run to the store" in Fort Yukon.

With the mission briefing room full of aircrew members, aircraft commander Maj. "Wiley" Dickinson started his morning briefing. A video of the Indian Mountain radar site, the first stop on the flight schedule, played on a TV screen.

"The runway has a 6-percent grade," explained Dickinson. "This type of site is called a 'one-way site' because you can only land and take off in one direction."

He pointed out trees at the end of the runway and explained they have grown quite a bit since the video was made, so his crew would know what to expect upon arrival. He went over the plan for an assault-type landing and the fuel weight limits for the 4,100-foot runway.

"The max fuel we can land here with is 130,000 pounds," he explained to his attentive crew. Dickinson knows quite a bit about short landings, having once stopped a C-130 in less than 1,000 feet.

He continued the briefing, adding when Indian Mountain's runway is covered with snow, the workers paint a dye marking down the centerline to help the C-130s land.

He talked about how the ramp can get very icy; about the "commit-point," at which the pilot will land the plane even if an engine flames out; and about the improbability of a go-around after a certain point in the approach.

Making a little airplane with his hand, Dickinson demonstrated the unusual altitude the plane will be at in order to land uphill.

"We'll have to add power to get to the end of the runway," he joked.

After some guidance on the fairly standard landing at the Fort Yukon site, the crew moved into an adjacent room to check weather conditions.

Half an hour later, Tech. Sgt. Jeff Begley and Airman 1st Class Mike Eller, loadmasters, were out on the ramp, supervising the loading of four pallets into the belly of a C-130. Their breath lingered in the cold air. Maintenance personnel scurried around the four large propellers, disconnecting heaters used to keep the seals in each engine from cracking, according to Maj. Tom Cole, assistant director of operations.

In the cockpit, Capt. Sean Finnan, co-pilot; 2nd Lt. Michael Morris, navigator; and Chief Master Sgt. Robert Cummings, the flight engineer, strapped into their seats and began preliminary checklists. With the last pallet secured, the crew settled into their seats.

The C-130 Hercules rumbled down the runway, the passengers gripping whatever they could find to avoid being thrown out of their seats from the sudden power of the four propeller-driven engines. As the metal bird took to the air and gained altitude, violent vibration changed to the gentle pressure of gravity.

When the flight approached Indian Mountain, the crew received bad news: winds were gusting to 28 knots, out of safety limits for landing by eight knots.

Dickinson circled until the fuel he had available was just enough to get the plane to Fort Yukon and back to Elmendorf.

Obviously disappointed, Dickinson headed east toward Fort Yukon.

"We failed to complete the mission," Dickinson said. "The mission was to get that cargo to the site, and we couldn't do it."

The crew headed to Fort Yukon. Once there, the loadmasters rushed into action, pushing the first pallet off the C-130 and onto the prongs of a waiting forklift. This quick flight to interior Alaska and back to deliver radar parts and a month's worth of food might not seem like a big feat.

However, planning and orchestrating these trips is like choreographing a ballet. The 611th Air Support Group here re-supplies Fort Yukon, Indian Mountain, and the 16 other remote radar sites; King Salmon and Galena, forward operating bases; and Eareckson Air Station, located on Shemya Island.

To do this, the 611th coordinates with the 732nd Air Mobility Squadron here, which matches cargo with intended destinations. Then the 732nd AMS meets with the schedulers at the 517th to plan each week's flights.

The 611th Air Support Squadron's director of operations notifies the contractors at the radar sites of the scheduled supply missions. The contractors arrange to meet the flight when it lands, and to download their supplies. In addition, variables like weather, manning and maintenance influence the flight.

This complicated process is behind each pallet that arrives at a radar site, and it happens each day -- just another day in the life of a Firebird.