17th Tactical Airlift Squadron in 1972


The purpose of this pamphlet is to familiarize you with the unique mission and a few of the many accomplishments of the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron. Men of the Firebird squadron daily traverse the skies over the frozen wastelands of Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland, providing a lifeline between these remote radar sites and the outside world. The operational and environment conditions are some of the most hazardous in the world and the official technical publications list each takeoff on the ice cap as a calculated risk. Yet, since, 1961, they have maintained a blemish free flying safety record and are recipients of the USAF flying safety award for 1966 and 1967. The following pages present a brief synopsis of their daily missions.



The 17th has a diversified mission utilizing both its tactical airlift qualification and its broad background in Arctic operations. Specifically the squadron is charged with the following:


Support the intra-theater airlift requirements of the Alaska Air Command.


Provide airlift support to Distant Early Warning sites on the Greenland Ice Cap.


Maintain tactical airlift qualifications.


Provide aircrews for maintaining a wartime readiness capability.

In addition to these requirements the 17th is called upon to provide trained aircrews to accomplish missions involving:


Special weapons movements


Classified cargo


Maintenance support


Aero-Med evacuations


Search and rescue


Stan/Eval check flights


Staff visit/inspections


General space available transportation of cargo and personnel



The 17th is equipped with twelve C-130 turboprop aircraft. Six have skis installed for landing on snow. The remaining aircraft can readily be configured with skis. The ski, of "D Model," aircraft is used for operation on the Greenland Ice Cap. The wheel "D-6 Model," aircraft is used for intra-Alaska support. The aircraft can carry 92 ground troops, 64 fully equipped paratrooper or 74 litter patients. Payloads of 35,000 pounds can be airlifted and up to 25,000 pounds of cargo can be airdropped.


Search and Rescue

Search and rescue missions are flown throughout the Arctic by crews of the 17th. The area of coverage includes all of Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland, and the Arctic Ocean. This requires flights over some of the most unforgiving terrain in the world where temperatures can be below -70F with winds in excess of 100 knots. The example shown illustrates a winter search for climbers on Mt. McKinley.


Tactical Operations

Tactical proficiency is maintained by the 17th to provide the capability of aerial delivery of troops and equipment in support of the U.S. Army Alaska. This picture shows a paratrooper exiting the C-130.




Greenland Operations



The 17th is the only squadron in the Air Force equipped with ski equipped aircraft. The support of the Greenland Ice Cap mission requires operation where normal procedures are defined as a calculated risk. The 17th maintains at least two aircraft at Sondrestrom AB, Greenland at all times.


The Distant Early Warning sites on the Ice Cap have been constructed and maintained utilizing 17th TAS aircraft. Every piece of equipment from steel girders to radio tubes have been airlifted to these sites.


This photo shows one of our aircraft arriving at the site. The elevation is approximately 8,000 feet. This altitude robs the engines of almost half of the power they produce at sea level. There are no ground approach aids at the sites and all approaches must be made using the airborne radar equipment in the aircraft.  


A closer view of one of the two radar sites located on the Greenland Ice Cap.


A large sled pushed by a bulldozer is used to on and off load the C-130.



POL Resupply

The annual POL resupply of the sites requires the airlift of 650,000 gallons of diesel fuel for two sites. The diesel fuel is transported to the sites in 3320 gallon tanks installed in the aircraft. When the aircraft arrives at the POL storage area, the engines are left running, and off loading is started. The only work involved is the joining of hose connections from the aircraft to the storage tank.


The average turnaround for this operation is twenty-three minutes.



Alaska Airfields

Intra-Alaska missions require flying in some of the most rugged terrain in the world. The following three airfields are illustrated to show some of the problems encountered in this theater of operations.

Indian Mountain AFS 4,100 foot gravel runway on slope of mountain; gradient varies to 12%; successful go-around improbable.


Sparrevohn AFS 4,100 foot gravel runway on slope of 3,200 foot mountain; gradient to 7%; successful go-around improbable; wind information unreliable; winds in excess of twenty knots may produce severe turbulence.


Driftwood Bay AFS 3,500 foot runway surrounded by mountains; winds in excess of five knots may produce severe turbulence. Go-around requires a high degree of pilot proficiency.




Now that you have had a brief glimpse of the mission and activities of the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron, we hope that you will stop by for a visit. We would like to meet you personally and answer any of your questions.


Source: 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron Briefing Manual, 1972

Courtesy of Mearl A. "Bert" Nichols, Firebird Navigator


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