Ground, air crews keep goods moving in polar mission

  • Published
  • By Fred W. Baker III
  • American Forces Press Service
It takes more than a skilled pilot, experienced in flying in polar conditions, to deliver millions of tons of fuel, food, people and cargo to the remote science outposts both here and in Antarctica.

The Airmen of the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing deliver that annually as they support the National Science Foundation's research efforts in both polar regions.

The polar pilots face some of the harshest weather conditions on Earth as they travel to places where no other pilots have gone, taking off and landing in planes equipped with skis instead of wheels. But they acknowledge that while they guide the nose of the plane, it takes a team to deliver the goods. It's up to the crews to get the cargo on, off and keep the planes flying.

It's a mission that nearly always puts the plane at maximum load, and the weather conditions place a heavy strain on its components. Crew chiefs, avionics specialists, electricians, engine and hydraulic mechanics, loadmasters and engineers, to name just a few, all work in sync to keep the planes flying.

Many of the skills are passed down from the older crewmembers who have decades of experience. Some have spent more than 25 years working on the same aircraft.

"It's a constant passing down of experience and knowledge," said Senior Master Sgt. Brian Bik, the supervisor of maintenance on a recent rotation to Greenland.

The crews learn each aircraft's personalities, Sergeant Bik said. They know what to look for based on their years of experience with the craft.

Sergeant Bik has been going on rotations to Greenland since the early 1990s, and said he can't remember how many trips he's actually made to the Arctic Circle.

On a two-week rotation, there are more than 20 maintenance troops on the ground, working two shifts to accommodate the planes coming and going. They bring all of their own parts, and are sometimes forced to fix the planes in the harshest conditions. There are no heated hangars to work out of. All work is done outdoors, sometimes in temperatures that drop well below zero. They are taught how to survive on the ice sheet if they have to recover a stranded plane.

The cold weather strains the planes' components, Sergeant Bik said, and the open snow landings beat up the skis' hydraulics. The unit keeps desk-sized heaters to warm the plane's parts to allow crews to work on them.

The crews don't put special emphasis on the planes because of the dangerous mission; they do it because of their routine high standards, resulting in their impeccable safety record, Sergeant Bik said. 

"It's just the norm; it's just the way we do it," Sergeant Bik said. "I never want it on my conscience that my lack of doing my job correctly caused the airplane to go down or the loss of a crewmember."

In the air, the loadmasters and crew members provide extra eyes to help in talking the pilot down when visibility is poor.

"It's almost kind of like an orchestra when you hear our approach to landings," said Senior Master Sgt. Shad Gray, a flight engineer who has been flying here with the unit since 1985.

On approach, everyone in the crew is scanning for signs of the runway and chiming in on altitude, glide path and wing level, he said.

Sergeant Gray compared working in the icy environment to the "wild west."

"We're up here on our own, so everything we do, we have to do with what we have in our backpack, what we have on the airplane," he said. "There are times when we're out on the ice cap and something goes wrong and we have to fix it. You don't call in a specialized team to come in and take care of it."

On the ground, almost all loading and unloading is done with the plane's engines running. This makes a dangerous job a little more chaotic. Because of the deafening roar of the engines, all communication is through hand signals.

Leaders attribute the unit's experience to the ability to get the job done safely and quickly.

"After time, you know what needs to be done," said Master Sgt. Carmelo Modesto, a loadmaster who has been flying missions to Greenland since 1998.

On the ice, at thousands of feet above sea level, hypoxia becomes the enemy. The crew exerts energy just to stay warm, and when loading the planes, the problem is exacerbated. Before the servicemembers know it, they are turning gray because of the lack of oxygen flowing through their veins.

"You're in the moment, so there's a lot of adrenaline," Sergeant Modesto said. "Sometimes you have to tap your buddy on the shoulder and say, 'Your lips are purple, you're gray, go get some oxygen.' You just don't realize it. You start to gray out."

Sergeant Modesto said the crews enjoy the freedom of their job, traveling to places where they have only their skills to rely on.

"Normally, you're in the 'system' (and) there's support everywhere," he said. "Things are just a radio call away. When we come up here, we come up with everything we need."

Because of their experience, the crews know what things they need to bring to them through a mission. For example, they keep kits on the planes with nearly every size of hydraulic line that fit the plane. But sometimes, they have to create fixes.

Tin cans stripped of the top and bottom can be used to seal damaged ductwork, Sergeant Modesto said.

"You're only relying on yourself," Sergeant Modesto said. "It's very infectious. You don't see a lot of people leaving here and going to other missions. It's part of our life."

A good day on the job ends "sleeping in your own bed -- not on the ice cap in a tent in a bag somewhere," Sergeant Modesto said. 

But that speaks more to the crew's desire to see each mission through. Nothing is more disappointing for them than going through all of the efforts to drop supplies and fuel at a remote outpost and having to turn back because of weather.

"That's definitely one of the bummers," he said. "If we go out to do a mission and we can't do it, they're not calling somebody else. It's us or it's nobody."