17th Tactical Airlift Squadron's Mission - 1967

1. MISSION. Flying the C-130D aircraft from Greenland to Vietnam, the air crews of the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron completed an accident free flying year in 1967. The mission of the 17th is to provide air logistical support for Dew Line East on the Greenland Ice Cap; air search, rescue, and aero-medical evacuation for Greenland and Alaska; tactically qualified air crews for Army-Air Force operations; special weapons movement; support of remote sites in Alaska; and special missions as directed by the Alaskan Air Command. The special missions included a project in the combat zone of Vietnam, and airlifting the Vice President of the United States and other dignitaries.

2. OPERATIONAL TASKS. The ski-equipped C-130D of the 17th TAS provides the only means of support for the radar sites on the Greenland Ice Cap. Ice fog, low clouds, and frequent high winds that constantly rearrange the landing surface are serious hazards to this operation. Normal ski take-off procedures require that lift-off be accomplished 15 knots below minimum control speed and 25 knots below power off stall speed. Therefore, the flight handbook states that normal safety factors must be disregarded and ski operations be considered a calculated risk. The only instrument approach available is a precision airborne radar approach. Adapting grid navigation procedures the navigator furnishes exact range, alignment, and altitude for landing with visibility's as low as one mile. This procedure is severely hampered because the radar altimeter penetrates the snow to varying depths during the approach, and accurate pressure altimeter settings are not available. Take-offs are even more critical. The aircraft frequently encounters 2 to 3 G forces during the take-off slide. Summer snow conditions create a cohesive bond and often require numerous take-off attempts, eventually with JATO, before becoming airborne. Further complications result from the loss of approximately 25% of the engines power at the 8,000 fool level altitude of these sites. Since July 1961, over 4,000 of these takeoffs and landings have been executed without a serious mishap.

The 17th TAS supports 13 Alaskan sites in mountainous areas with short gravel strips classified as marginal. Typical statements from the Alaskan Enroute Supplement stipulate go-around improbable for 8 sites, gradients of 4% to 11% for 4, serious turbulence when wind exceeds 15 knots at 6, and daylight operations only for all sites. During the severely cold Alaskan winters, take-off performance and instrumentation are drastically changed. In each case, extreme caution must be used during the critical maximum performance procedures required in these areas. The low powered radio ranges utilized for instrument approaches to the sites demand constant vigilance and perfect crew coordination.

A continuous search-rescue, and aero-medical evacuation capability is maintained in Alaska and Greenland. The terrain is these areas is extremely rugged and mountainous. Accurate maps are non-existent in many cases. This task was further complicated by night emergency evacuations. In 1967, the 17th flew 116 rescue sorties, many during the extremely hazardous arctic winter. The safe execution of these rescues required outstanding crew coordination, superior ability and professional execution.

Air crews of the 17th provide the only tactically qualified airlift crews within the Alaskan Air Command. Mountainous terrain borders all the low level routes and the available drop zones are extremely small. Chinook winds and unpredictable air currents caused by the nearby mountains add to the hazards involved in air drops. Yet, during the many training flights and joint operations, no accidents, injuries, or off drop zone incidents were reported. This outstanding success is attributed to the fact that the 17th is assigned its own Combat Control Team allowing more intensive training, closer coordination, and a self-sustaining operation between air crews and controllers.


Project Turnkey. In April 1967, Headquarters USAF directed Alaskan Air Command to furnish C-130 and 17th TAS crews to support Project Turnkey in Southeast Asia. Turnkey is a new concept whereby an Air Force contractor provides the design and engineering, mobilizes in the United States, and "goes over the beach" to build an Air Base. For the 17th crews, Turnkey combined the challenge of short field operations with the hazards of combat. The deployment from the arctic to the tropics truly tested the world-wide capability of the unit. The importance of this project and the excellent geographic transition of the crews made the safe and successful completion of this mission outstanding.

Ramp at Tuy Hoa AB, Republic of Viet Nam. The covering is rubber sheeting. Note the C-130A in the background that crash landed and was salvaged. (Photo courtesy of Kaye and Richard Tinney)

Ice Cap Rescues. In March, a civilian aircraft crash-landed 300 NM east of Sondrestom AB. The uninjured pilot was located after dark and supplies were air dropped for his survival. Returning the next day, the crew found that snow covered crevasses and deep drifts made the selection of a suitable landing area very difficult. A safe landing was accomplished, however, during taxi one of the main skis became wedged in a hidden crevasse. After a delay and conscientious recovery effort by the crew, the aircraft was freed and returned to Sondrestrom AB. A second civilian aircraft crashed and disintegrated in the same area in August. This accident resulted in one death and two seriously injured flyers. Following another successful rescue effort death appeared eminent for of the survivors. His injuries required immediate medical attention not available onboard the aircraft. Contact with a doctor was made via HF radio at Sondrestrom. Following the doctor's instructions, the crew administered oxygen which saved the man's life. The 17th TAS had again answered the call to save human life and responding with a rapid, professional, and safely executed mission.

Blue Ice. This seismic noise study was conducted approximately 400 NM east of Thule AB, Greenland. Cold temperatures and varying winds made snow evaluation and surface operations extremely difficult. The powdery, dry snow could not be packed and full engine power was frequently required for taxi operations. A series of open snow landings were required without previous surface survey and no targets for airborne radar returns. After careful airborne evaluation of the surface and a suitable landing area was selected, the aircraft was flown on the snow with a minimum rate of descent. This operation required the highest degree of pilot skill and judgment and was completed without incident.

Mt. McKinley Drop. On 29 July 1967, the 17th TAS accomplished the highest known PLADS drop in Air Force history. The task was to airdrop supplies to a mountain rescue party at the 19,000 foot level of Mt. McKinley. The job would be done by PLADS (Parachute Low Altitude Delivery System, but oxygen requirements, aircraft maneuverability, gusty winds, and keeping clear of the steep mountain walls greatly complicated the drop. Carefully rigging the load and planning the delivery, the crew knew that pinpoint accuracy would be required on the narrow pass where the team was camped. Three drops were made, and each one was on target for another unusual, life sustaining, and outstanding mission.

Fairbanks Flood. The city of Fairbanks, Alaska, was declared a national disaster area following the severe flood in August, 1967. All utilities were disrupted, most of the city was under water and completely isolated. The runway at the municipal airport remained above the flood waters and was the only link to the outside. The intensified rescue effort, crowded facilities, and marginal traffic control made operations particularly hazardous. In response to an emergency airlift request, the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron flew 112 sorties airlifting over one million pounds of urgently needed supplies in one week. These missions were completed without incident and the urgency, conditions, and results marked the operation as outstanding.

EDITOR'S NOTE: My last flight with the 17th TAS was made in support of this mission. Being the crew on alert, Harold Martin and I were called out late at night to fly the first load of materials into Fairbanks. Upon arrival and unloading, we asked the loadmaster to describe the cargo. He told us that we had brought a load of large water pumps. The conversation then centered around just where water could be pumped to, since everything appeared to be under water… Nolan Bailey.

4. INCIDENT REVIEW. In spite of the extremely hazardous flying conditions, complexity, and diversity of the mission, the 17th TAS has flown a total of 41,480 accident free hours in the past 6.5 years. The last major accident occurred on July 20, 1961, during a ski takeoff on the Greenland Ice Cap. In 1967, the 17th flew 5,040 hours and experienced only four incidents, all of which were attributed to material failure.

Flying experience is only one of several factors that unite to make the Flying Safety Record of the 17th TAS impressive. Seasoned crews plus Command supervision and a vitalized flying safety program are the winning combination that produces safety of operation and mission accomplishment.

5. UNIT FLYING SAFETY PROGRAM. The 17th Flying Safety Program is dynamic and pragmatic because it combines the strict adherence to established procedures and standards with a keen interest in new problems and their ultimate solution. Several unique features of the program are:

  1. Operation Look See, a combined pictorial briefing of each of the marginal gravel strips with individual route and field checks.
  2. An exchange briefing and inspection program with other flying organizations operating in the Alaskan area.
  3. Project Golden Nuggets, a quarterly publication that interprets technical material and procedures as applied to the 17th TAS mission.
  4. Dialogue method is introduced into Flying Safely meetings to insure the full participation of all crew members. Discussion, role playing, and mock Flight Evaluation Boards are effective tools that add meaning and urgency to our monthly flying safely meeting.

6. SUMMARY. The flying safety program of the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron works and the accident free record proves this statement. Encountering hazardous situations from Greenland to Vietnam, the crews applied safety and standardization procedures with outstanding success. The 17th flying safety program incorporates established methods and original thinking that meet not only the squadron needs but offer adaptable techniques to all USAF flying units. This combination of programs and personnel eminently qualifies the 17th TAS for the Flying Safety Award and nomination for the Columbian Trophy.

Article written by and courtesy of:

Edward M. "Ed" Holley
Firebird Pilot