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Proficiency is key when accessing Alaska’s remote locations

A C-12F Huron assigned to the 517th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, waits for passengers to arrive before taking off at Tatalina Air Force Station near McGrath, Alaska, Feb. 23, 2016. Tatalina is a long-range radar site and remains active as part of the Alaska North American Aerospace Defense Command Region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera)

A C-12F Huron assigned to the 517th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, waits for passengers to arrive before taking off at Tatalina Air Force Station near McGrath, Alaska, Feb. 23, 2016. Tatalina is a long-range radar site and remains active as part of the Alaska North American Aerospace Defense Command Region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera)

Maj. Ryan Wong, left, prepares to land at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Feb. 23, 2016, while Lt. Col. Blake Johnson watches as part of site pilot training. Wong and Johnson are both assigned to the 517th Airlift Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera)

Maj. Ryan Wong, left, prepares to land at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Feb. 23, 2016, while Lt. Col. Blake Johnson watches as part of site pilot training. Wong and Johnson are both assigned to the 517th Airlift Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera)

A C-12F Huron flies near Denali during a C-12 site pilot training mission visiting two remote locations in Alaska, Feb. 23, 2016. The pilots have to complete training which includes about 30 hours of flying, landing, training, and instructor-supervised landing at each of the seven remote long-range radar sites. The Huron is assigned to the 517th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera)

A C-12F Huron flies near Denali during a C-12 site pilot training mission visiting two remote locations in Alaska, Feb. 23, 2016. The pilots have to complete training which includes about 30 hours of flying, landing, training, and instructor-supervised landing at each of the seven remote long-range radar sites. The Huron is assigned to the 517th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera)

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AFNS) -- From the northernmost to the southernmost point, Alaska measures 1,420 miles -- the distance from Denver to Mexico City. Alaska has more than 600,000 square miles of land, and some locations are inaccessible, except by air.

C-12F Huron pilots assigned to the 517th Airlift Squadron provide air support for those locations. Currently, there are only two Hurons in the Air Force inventory, and both are at Elmendorf.

"The C-12 mission is unique because we are specifically here for the home defense mission; our main mission is to support the radar site to make sure it is up and running," said Capt. David Blessinger, a 517th AS C-12 pilot. "Without the site, we cannot track unauthorized aircraft in our national air space."

For quarterly inspections or emergency repairs, the pilots bring maintenance personnel to remote outposts and provide operational support airlift.

"We often get short-notice requests to get a crew out to these remote locations to replace parts that have failed," Blessinger said. "Some of these sites actually use the same radar that the (Federal Aviation Administration) uses for their air traffic control, so they're definitely time-critical."

Pilots require special qualifications to fly those remote locations, so they have to go through extensive site training.

Pilots have to complete the site upgrade syllabus which includes about 30 hours of flying, spot-landing training, and instructor-supervised landings at each of the seven remote long-range radar sites.

Many of the sites are one-way sites, meaning there is no ability to go around in the event the approach or landings are not flown correctly. This is usually because of an issue with the terrain or the other end of the runway is challenging.

"Additionally, because of the remote locations, weather forecasting capability is not as good, so the pilots have to juggle rapidly changing weather conditions, difficult runway conditions and challenging terrain, with little margin for error," said Lt. Col. Blake Johnson, the 517th AS C-12 director of operations.

The Huron allows a pilot to reach short, austere airfields. The aircraft can land on a runway 4,000 feet or less and on unprepared surfaces such as gravel. In some locations, the pilots also have to factor in uneven runways with a steep slope.

"There are numerous obstacles that present themselves," Blessinger added. "So we do this training to best prepare ourselves for anything that might arise, and to be acclimated to or familiar with those fields."

When training, the pilots are looking at many factors that will impact their mission.

Blessinger added they look for bigger picture factors like wind, possibility of snow or freezing precipitation, and how weather will affect their ability to take off again.

Often, they also have to think about their customers. If the customer needs to stay there for a few hours, they also have to look what the weather will be doing in that timeframe that might prevent them from taking off.

Other things they look for include wildlife; looking to see what are the birds doing, and if there are any moose on the runway.

"Before taking off, we look at the Bird Avoidance Model and (take) the BASH program into consideration," said Maj. Ryan Wong, a 517th AS C-12 pilot. "We also do our best to scan visually and avoid (mishaps)."

Most of these sites have ground personnel who monitor the runways and inform the pilots if there is any wildlife that would prevent them from landing.

"The ground personnel will do their best to scare them away so we can land," Wong said. "If nothing else (works), they will advise us to hold or try to land again, but (this scenario) rarely happens."

When a location such as a one-way will not allow the aircraft to land, the C-12s will return to Elmendorf and reschedule the mission.

Regardless of the hurdles the C-12 mission faces, it is the only active-duty Air Force aircraft and crew force currently qualified to perform the long-range radar site support mission.

"It has a pretty good range, carries a lot for the size that it is, and is able to operate in shorter field with less support," Wong said. "We need a versatile aircraft to get into these remote and austere locations, and the C-12 fits that."

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