Polar mission pushes crews, planes to limits

  • Published
  • By Fred W. Baker III
  • American Forces Press Service
A packed LC-130 Hercules cargo plane lurches forward across the snowy ice sheet here, struggling to gain lift.

Its four engines work to overcome the friction building up under the plane's specially designed Teflon-coated skis that weigh a ton apiece. The pilot and crew work in a synchronized effort that pits their decades of polar flying experience against everything opposing them -- wind, weight, weather, terrain and time.

On the first attempt, the nose is up for a few seconds, but then drops back down, and the plane continues to bob through the snow.

The pilot works the flaps and the thrust on the second pass, with no luck.

Nearing the end of the third try, almost unbelievably, the heavy plane lifts off the ice, cruising barely above idle speed, and a cheer erupts from the crew and passengers.

It's a good day.

Some such attempts have gone on for as many as a dozen tries, said the pilots with the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing. Sometimes they aren't met with the same success.

"You're a physics experiment each time," said Maj. Roger Shapiro, a 17-year pilot with the unit. "There's no technical data to tell you how long it's going to take you to take off, if you can even get airborne."

Major Shapiro averages 500 flying hours annually in the icy environments, shuttling food, fuel, people and equipment to both polar regions.

"It's a thinking man's game -- analyzing the conditions, the altitudes, the snow conditions," he said. "There's no two takeoffs and landings alike, ever."

The National Guard unit, based out of Scotia, N.Y., is the only military unit in the world to fly the large cargo planes equipped with hydraulic skis for landing and taking off in snow and ice. The unit has flown missions to Greenland since 1975, first to supply the distant early warning radar sites. In 1988, 109th AW members began helping the Navy support the National Science Foundation's efforts in Antarctica. In 1998, the unit officially took over the job.

It's a duty that pushes the pilots, crews and planes to their limits, unit members said.

Weather conditions in the polar regions change rapidly, sometimes leaving the pilots flying blind in unforgiving conditions with no place to land except the middle of nowhere.

But it's the challenge, danger and the uniqueness of the mission that draws these crews to the job and keeps them coming back for decades.

"It's not an everyday 'vanilla' flying operation," said Lt. Col. Mike Steindl, the 139th Airlift Squadron commander.

Colonel Steindl has flown with the unit since 1991, and he flew for a major airline for eight years.

"You've got to think on your feet a lot," he said. "You really have to flex all of your pilot skills doing this mission."

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, and specialty skills such as medical and firefighters. The unit has 10 ski-equipped planes and four wheel-based C-130s.

The pilots and crews rotate their time between the Greenland and Antarctica missions, the latter claiming the lion's share of the millions of tons of people and cargo shipped every year. The unit typically deploys three of its ski-equipped planes on each rotation.

Greenland rotations start in April and run into August. Antarctica missions start in October and last until February.

When it comes to weather, both destinations have nasty reputations for their blasting, unpredictable storms and unforgiving elements. In fact, both hold world records that represent the worst of the flying conditions there.

Greenland holds the record for the fastest recorded sea-level wind speed in the world, clocking in at more than 200 miles per hour. Antarctica holds the world's record for coldest recorded temperature: minus 129 degrees Fahrenheit.

The unit's rotations are during the regions' summer or warmer seasons, but that's deceptive. In parts of both regions during the rotations, temperatures can range from below zero to just above freezing.

And despite the barren, icy appearance, the landscape is ever-changing, keeping the crews on their toes and constantly testing their experience.

"You can go to the same place three days in a row and have three different conditions for takeoffs and landings," said Lt. Col. Paul Breton, a pilot who has flown with the unit for 14 years. "Just because it worked yesterday doesn't mean it's going to work today."

The crews credit their unit's heritage and decades of experience for their impeccable safety record. The unit hasn't had a major accident in Greenland since they assumed the mission from the Navy.

Older crews, with 20 to 30 years of experience, pass their knowledge down. It's not uncommon for a pilot to fly a couple of years or more in the co-pilot's seat before taking command of the ski-equipped plane. A junior aircraft commander typically has three deployments to Antarctica and more than 1,000 hours of flying in polar conditions before taking the helm of the plane.

Because of this, the National Guard is uniquely suited for this mission, officials said. Active-duty units rotate their pilots out every three years or so for new missions. In the National Guard, it's not uncommon for pilots to spend their entire career in one unit.

Maj. Frank Mendicino has flown with the unit since 1999. Before that, he flew the same mission for the Navy before the National Guard assumed the role.

In the Navy, by the time the pilot had earned the time to take command of the plane, they had barely a year left on the assignment, he said.

"You never had anybody with more than three years of experience," Major Mendicino said. "I think it's really valuable, that longevity and continuity. You can't get that in the active-duty (force)."

That depth of experience extends beyond the cockpit to operations, maintenance and supply, he said.

Ask any unit member how they know what to do, what to take and how to survive, and they will tell you they were schooled by the "old timers," he said. Some formal education, such as cold weather survival, exists within the unit, but the veterans take the newbies under their wings, passing on tips, tricks and trade secrets that have evolved over nearly 50 years.

Maintenance crews learn the personalities of the planes, just as they do their own vehicles. Loadmasters learn how to get by without dozers and other equipment typically used. On the ice, they sometimes load from sleds.

It takes more than just skilled pilots to land the planes, Major Mendicino said.

Both pilots and crews describe the experience as working in "four-part harmony."

"We're up in the front seats driving," Major Mendicino said. "But there are three other positions on that airplane, and we need them all to make that tough landing. To move this airplane in that environment, we need our engineers, we need our navigators, loadmasters, and everybody's in on it. We all make that landing."

Eyes peer from every window, scanning for landing markers or visual cues as the crew calls out drift, altitude, speed and glide path, talking the pilot down.

The planes are equipped with radar and global positioning systems that help to guide the crews when visibility is low. But those instruments aren't perfect. On one flight, the radar shot through the ice, delivering a reading that put the plane's altitude higher than it actually was. A hard landing left the crew sleeping on the ice for the night until the plane could be fixed and flown out.

Besides the weather, fuel is the next biggest concern for the pilots. There are few alternate landing options. Once they turn their nose toward some of the remote polar science camps, there's no turning back.

"There comes a point where you no longer have the fuel to go anywhere else," Major Mendicino said. "You've got to go to the place where the weather's awful. You're committed. You've just got to go. That's the most dangerous part."

The crews said they hate to abandon a mission, or "boomerang" back to their temporary base on southwest Greenland's more temperate coast. The planes carry much-needed supplies and fuel, the lifeblood of the remote science camps. All of the planning, maintenance and logistics are invested into the mission.

They don't mind the long hours, they said. They don't mind the freezing temperatures. They don't mind the risks.

It's the challenge that drives them, they said. And all they want is to return with that day's mission complete, because they know if they can't do it, it can't be done.

"Those are the really satisfying days when you come back and you're exhausted, but you've done something that hasn't been done before," Colonel Steindl said.

The mission gets in the blood of the crews, several said. Year after year they keep coming back. When they're back at their armory nestled in the rolling green hills of upstate New York, they look forward to the next trip to the barren white ice sheets.

They describe their awe in seeing a part of the world that few have seen, stepping on snow with no other footprints.

They take in the fresh air. They admire the vast emptiness. It's clean and primitive.

It has become their second home, they said.

"I don't know what it's like to see autumn start (in New York) and not think about going all the way across the world," Major Mendicino said. "They always told me to go south for the winter. I always take things to the extreme."