Air National Guard aircrews fuel polar research

  • Published
  • By Fred W. Baker III
  • American Forces Press Service
Standing on the crunchy snow at this remote camp 11 degrees latitude north of the Arctic Circle, all that crosses the horizon in every direction is only more snow.

A brilliant blue sky meets the blinding white at the curve of the Earth, halting the view of the barren ice sheet that stretches for hundreds of miles. Beneath the surface, the ice dives more than one and a half miles, coming to rest on bedrock that has not seen the sun for hundreds of thousands of years.

On July 27, a team of scientists here for the first time reached the bedrock, and polar researchers around the world celebrated the historic occasion that brings with it the hopes of insight into future weather and climate change for the globe.

But, if not for the specialized skills of a relatively small group of pilots and their crews, the secrets hidden in the DNA of the bedrock debris may well have remained undiscovered.

The 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard, based out of Scotia, N.Y., is the only military unit in the world that flies heavy cargo planes equipped with specialized hydraulic ski kits designed to allow for landing and take-off in the polar regions. Their ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules cargo planes go where others cannot, delivering millions of pounds of fuel, food, people and equipment annually to research sites in both polar regions.

"Without the 109th (AW), we simply wouldn't have a project," said Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, a professor from Denmark and the northern Greenland camp project leader. "The amount of the equipment we need to move into the deep ice would only happen with the (LC-130) Hercules with skis. No other capacity in the world would be able to lift such a mission.

"It's everything for us that they can fly for us," she added.

Unit members have flown missions to Greenland since 1975, initially to supply the distant early warning radar sites. That mission ended as the Cold War was winding down in 1989, but the unit continued to support science missions there.

In 1988, members of the 109th AW began helping the Navy support the National Science Foundation's efforts in Antarctica. In 1998, the unit officially took over the job from the Navy, as it was restructuring some of its missions.

It's a duty that often pits man and machine against the harshest elements, pushing the pilots, crews and the planes to their limits. Weather conditions in the polar regions can change rapidly, leaving the pilots no easy choices -- forge on in unforgiving conditions or land the plane blind in the middle of nowhere with no prepared surface.

Pilots describe the experience as "flying in a pingpong ball."

"If you're (flying over) open snow, you have nothing but white, so it's very challenging to tell how far away from the runway you are or how high above the snow you are," said Col. Timothy J. LaBarge.

Combine that with an obscured view of the horizon or decreased visibility, and "you have no idea if you're left, right, up, down," he said.

Colonel LaBarge is the airlift wing's commander and is an experienced ski-pilot. He recently traveled to Greenland to keep his ski skills current.

"There is a completely different way of flying the airplane in a polar environment," Colonel La Barge said. "And you can't just take anybody and stick them up there and say, 'Go and do that mission.'"

Looking at the horizon allows the pilots to maintain roll control, meaning they can tell if they are going up and down. Even if they can orient themselves on the horizon, there are no markers to tell them how high or far they are away from the runway.

There are no lighted landing strips, and no buildings, trees or hills to give the pilots a sense of distance and depth. It takes the entire crew to land the plane, Colonel LaBarge said. Navigators, copilots, loadmasters and crew members all scan the landscape looking for clues that will help to put the plane down safely.

In a total white-out, the pilots basically have to put the plane into a controlled decent, and wait to touch down.

"This is as close as you're going to get to being a bush pilot in the military," Colonel LaBarge said. "So you kind of have a little bit of a bush pilot mentality combined with the rigors and discipline of being a military pilot."

The difference is that bush pilots typically fly two-seat, single engine planes weighing less than 2,000 pounds. An LC-130 Hercules weighs about 155,000 pounds fully loaded.

Years of experience and training allow the unit to fly the missions safely, Colonel LaBarge said.

In fact, the unit has not had a major accident since it began the ski missions.

The unit has about 65 pilots, many with more than two decades of experience flying the polar missions. There are about 1,200 Airmen in the unit, including maintainers, logisticians and administration support staff members, as well as specialty skills such as medical professionals and firefighters. It has 10 ski-equipped planes, and four wheel-based C-130s.

The unit deploys crews in rotations annually to Antarctica from October to February and to Greenland from April to mid-August. Rotations to Antarctica are at least a month long, while the Greenland rotations last two weeks. The unit is on its final rotation in Greenland now.

Three ski-equipped planes usually deploy on each rotation, allowing for two planes to be out flying missions, and one in the rear on the ready in case it's necessary to recover one of the other crews.

The unit's planes are the older "H" models, with some built in the 1970s. As the equipment gets older, the aircraft become more maintenance-intensive and costly.

Landing on the open snow is incredibly hard on the planes, Colonel LaBarge said.

"The first couple of times I did it, I was wondering if the fillings were going to stay in my teeth," he said. "It's rough."

The planes are not about to fall apart tomorrow, the colonel said, but the wing life on some is getting a bit old.

In fact, next to the unpredictable weather, keeping the planes running is the unit's biggest challenge, said Maj. Carlyle Norman, a pilot.

Major Norman deployed to Greenland on this past rotation as the mission commander. It's his job to keep things moving, managing crew rest, maintenance, customer demands and working with the local airport to accommodate the unit's off-hours flying.

"I'm juggling a lot of balls," he said. "If the weather goes down or that airplane breaks, everything goes (badly)."

In his two weeks, the unit flew more than 200,000 pounds of cargo, fuel and people to the remote camps.

Major Norman has flown to Greenland a couple of times a year since 1995.

He said on a clear day with a groomed skiway, life is good. But add poor weather or a rough skiway, and protecting the plane becomes a challenge.

"If you break a hydraulic line at one of those out camps, that plane could end up being out there for weeks on end," he said.

To minimize the potential for damage, the pilots schedule lighter loads for the first time they land at a camp. Once the path is tested, they will increase the loads if the conditions allow. This puts the onus on the camps to improve their surfaces as much as possible, because the heavier the plane can land, the more cargo and fuel it can deliver.

Colonel LaBarge said he would like to start replacing the planes with the newer "J" model. It is a little larger and has more thrust, using a six-bladed propeller. He said he hopes to begin budgeting the replacements in the next six years.

Besides the unit's polar mission, it also retains a combat mission. Using its four wheel-based planes, the unit's crews have flown missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1990, its members were called on to support operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

In October 1999, the unit aided the rescue of Dr. Jerri Nielsen, a doctor with breast cancer symptoms based at the isolated Amusden-Scott Research Center in Antarctica. And in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the unit provided 50 of its engineers and others to the support efforts at ground zero.

Since then, the unit has continued to deploy its Airmen to support military operations around the world.

Colonel LaBarge's unit now is ramping up for the 11,000-mile trip to Antarctica, where it will continue the bread and butter of its mission: ferrying scientists, anthropologists, physicists and others to the remote polar regions to continue their studies of climatology, seismology, atmospherics and global warming.

It's the perfect marriage of brains and brawn, combining to piece together what Colonel LaBarge called "a very complex and dynamic puzzle."

"We're glad to be a part of it," he said. "We're glad to provide the logistical support. We get the smart people where they've got to go so they can figure it out."

But for camp director Dahl-Jenson, and the hundreds of scientists and others who make their annual treks alongside the servicemembers, the unit is more than logistical support.

"They're not just professionals; they're our friends," she said. "It's the same group of people that come here every year, and we get to know them. They just go out of their way to support us and do everything to get the camps to function.

"They're ... a true part of the project going on here," Ms. Dahl-Jensen said.