Edward C. Miller

Currently assigned for duty with the Alaskan Air Command (ACC) is perhaps one of the world's most unique aircraft. It is the ski-equipped Lockheed C-130D Hercules turbo-prop transport. Of the twelve originally converted from the "A" model (S/N 57-0484 to 0495) to the "D" variant, six have subsequently had the skis removed and are now referred to as "Wheel-Birds." One of the six remaining "Ski-Birds" was lost in a crash while attempting a landing on the treacherous Greenland Ice Cap. Of the last five Ski-Birds, two are normally stationed at the ADC base at Sondrestrom, Greenland, a joint-use military/civilian airport. Here they provide for the routine logistical support of the two Ice Cap Radar Stations that form part of the eastern extension of DEW Line. The Ski-Birds operate under the Project designation "Cool Dew."

The D model C-130 is powered by 3,750 shaft horsepower T56-A-1A Allison engines, and swings the three-bladed, 15 foot diameter Aeroproducts propellers that characterize its A model heritage. To augment their range, they carry 450-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks on pylons beneath each wing.

Field elevations from which they operate on the Greenland Ice Cap are generally between 6,000 to 9,000 feet. Combine this with the sticky nature of the soft, summer snow generated by the warmth of the continuous midnight sun at these latitudes, and the Ski-Birds are often forced to resort to the use of JATO-assistance provided by eight 1,000-pound thrust solid-propellant rockets attached to the fuselage. Operations procedures call for a 55 know minimum airspeed prior to ignition of the JATO bottles for takeoff, and it is sometimes more difficult than would seem. Often with throttles firewalled, the Ski-Bird screams and bounces over the snow, but can only reach 40 to 45 knots, the sticky surface snow clinging to the massive, Teflon-coated skis, holding the Ski-Bird locked in an icy grip. Then it's chop the throttles, slowly turn around, and waddle back to the end of the strip for another try. A personal record on a Ski-Bird is ten attempts before finally packing down the snow hard enough to break the surface friction for takeoff.

These aircraft in Greenland are flown and maintained by personnel of Detachment 1, 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron (TAS) of the 21st Composite Wing, AAC, from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. Their unit symbol is that of the legendary Firebird. In addition to the operational support of the two DEW line station, the 17th also supports research teams such as those of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) of Hanover, New Hampshire, during their temporary summer research projects on the Ice Cap.

At these somewhat less well-equipped and temporary camps, improvised procedures are common. Instead of the all-weather Thiokol Trackmasters, the off-the-shelf Ski-Doo snowmobiles are used for local transport. Rather than offloading the supply pallets onto sleds, the aft ramp on the Ski-Bird is dropped all the way down, and the pallets are unceremoniously dumped in rapid succession on the snow as the C-130 slowly taxies ahead. Returning ice core samples obtained by the research teams are individually loaded one at a time, a time-consuming task which is also quite a strenuous workout at the high altitude locations.

During the late Spring of each year, one extra Ski-Bird is temporarily staged to Sondrestrom. With these three aircraft, the 17th flies a grueling schedule of missions to accomplish the once annual airlift of DEW sites POL (Petroleum, Oil, and Lubricants) requirements. With internal 3,200 gallon tanks mounted in the cargo bays, the three Ski-Birds comprise a flying pipeline. Under ideal conditions, one aircraft is on the snow offloading, one enroute, and one is back at Sondrestrom reloading.

Under IFR conditions on the Ice Cap, the Ski-Birds fly an instrument approach based primarily on the use of their own airborne radar and radar altimeter. The snow strips are outlined with cloth day-marker panels mounted on bamboo sticks. A high approach and late touchdown ends with a Ski-Bird overrunning the strip, knocking down the markers as it skis off the far end of the strip in a flurry of swirling snow, props churning in reverse pitch.

Once successfully down on the surface of the Ice Cap, the C-130 slowly taxies on its skis over to the Radar Station. Waiting time there is a D-6 Cat with a special sled of the same height as the 130s aft ramp. The D-6 pushes the sled up to the ramp, and the incoming pallets, sliding on rollers on the sled, are offloaded. Retrograde cargo, if any, is then loaded for return to Sondrestrom. The entire operation is done in a swirl of blowing snow, as the Ski-Bird keeps its engines running all the time it is on the ground.

With reloading completed, the 130 taxies back to the strip, and starts the often repetitious takeoff procedure, until finally breaking free of the restraining surface of the Ice Cap.

The continuing, often tedious, routine, but also sometimes hazardous, logistical support of these Ice Cap Radar Stations is conducted month in and month out, in all seasons, and in all weather. An unheralded but also a mission of vital necessity, its performance is a tribute to the rugged dependability of the five remaining Air Force C-130D Ski-Birds that daily operate along the very frontiers of Man's existence in the Arctic. For theirs is an operational mission upon which ultimately depends the success of the Air Defense of the North American Continent, of even greater significance now in an era of emerging Soviet bombers with supersonic capability.

Reprinted from the following source:

Miller, Robert C., "Ski Hercules."
Air Classics, January 1975, 26-29.

Magazine courtesy of:

William J. "Bill" Heaphy
Firebird Navigator

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