Hercules Christmas

A Special C-130H Operation In Alaska
By Jeff Rhodes




The list was made. It was checked twice. Everything was ready: the soft drinks, the candy, the games, the MP3 players, and, just as importantly, the flashlights, the turkeys and hams, the washing machine, and the 500 pounds of dog food. Santa Claus was, indeed, coming to town. He just happened to be coming in a C-130.

Last December, the residents of Arctic Village, Alaska, a remote community of 150 people living 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, received the gifts, needed supplies, and a visit from Santa courtesy of the 517th Airlift Squadron at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. This marked the fortieth consecutive year that Arctic Village's Christmas celebration came via Hercules.


"The villagers love having us there," says Capt. Jerry Mish, a 517th AS instructor pilot who was in the left seat on the 2006 Santa flight. "The kids in the village recognize the C-130. The Hercules is the one aircraft they know. We look forward to this flight every year."


The catalyst for the squadron's unique friendship with the Gwich'in Tribe of the Athabaskan people of the village was a 1967 forest fire that forced the caribou herd, the primary source of food for the villagers, to alter its migration route. Airmen from the 517th AS—then known as the 17th Airlift Squadron—volunteered to fly the villagers to the relocated herd to hunt and then back home again with their game. Christmas that year was sustenance. The next year the squadron continued the friendship by flying gifts and supplies to Arctic Village. Santa started flying with the Hercules crews in 1970.




Planning for the annual Christmas airlift begins in late August or early September. In November, the Firebirds, as the 517th AS is known, hold a fund-raising auction. Bid items range from a framed C-130 print to a week's use of the squadron commander's parking spot.


Beesley's initial reaction to the F-35 cockpit is shared by many other seasoned pilots who see the cockpit for the first time. "Pilots are most impressed by the minimal number of hard switches in the F-35 cockpit," he explains. "The most prominent portion of the cockpit is the eight- by twenty-inch LCD controlled primarily using finger-on-glass technology that has matured tremendously over the last several years. In the pursuit of easing pilot workload, advanced technology takes care of what pilots refer to as housekeeping chores."


"The squadron spouses, who did the shopping and gift wrapping, spent about $4,000 for the sixty children in the village," says Capt. Darian Baker, 517th AS navigator flight commander and organizer of this year's airlift. "The adults usually get gifts of food, which they always share with one another." Needed supplies, like a community washing machine and the dog food, are also packed.

Arctic Village is a place of contrasts. Many homes don't have running water and are heated by firewood. But Arctic Village is a part of the Global Village, and the children e-mail their wish lists from the community center to Elmendorf. "The kids ask for very specific things," notes Baker. "We received a lot of requests for twelve-packs of Pepsi. MP3 players were very popular. One kid asked for Yu-Gi-Oh! game cards and gummi bears." The young boy got the cards—and a twenty-pound box of candy.


The two-hour flight from Elmendorf is fairly involved. "We fly north and shoot an instrument approach at Fort Yukon and then go under the weather to get to Arctic Village," notes Mish. “We follow the Shanlan River below the cloud deck to a 4,500- by 70-foot packed snow strip that has lights only on one end. Surprisingly, that is actually one of the bigger strips you'll find up there." The flight is conducted under visual flight rules. Being that far north in December, it is civil twilight all the time. "The snow on the ground helps with illumination," adds Mish.

"This is a major operation," notes Baker. "The temperature is sometimes fifty degrees below zero on the ground in Arctic Village. We carry two heaters with us to warm the props, and we usually take six maintainers. It is an honor for the maintainers to go, but they are sometimes necessary. We also launch a backup aircraft that carries a work stand and deicing equipment. The backup won't land unless it is absolutely necessary. We don't want to have a C-130 stuck there." The crew spends about three hours on the ground.


Once the villagers know the C-130 is close, they make the two-mile trek to the airport. After landing, the Hercules is unloaded by hand, as they have no forklifts or mechanical loaders. A lone snow machine, a truck-like vehicle that is Arctic Village's primary means of transportation, is used to haul the gifts and supplies to the settlement. "We are treated like rock stars up there," observes MSgt. B. A. Lund, chief loadmaster for the squadron, who has played Santa for the past three years. "I make sure I get to ride in the cab of the snow machine going back to the village. The Santa suit isn't that warm."





"The kids always perform a skit in the community center for us," says Baker. "Then we do Santa Claus and hand out the gifts. After that, they prepare a meal for us, usually caribou meat, salmon, or something we don't normally eat. The flight is really a cultural exchange program between the squadron and the village." The villagers also make small souvenirs out of caribou antlers and present them to the squadron guests.


Crystal Frank grew up in Arctic Village and is now a college student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. In an e-mail to the squadron, she summed up what the flight means to the villagers. "I remember when I was a child, Santa and his airmen would come to visit. We would be so excited that we would dress warm and wait outside until the plane flew over. I remember jumping on the sled on the back of a snow machine and making the long trip to the airport, despite how cold it was. It didn't matter what Santa brought me. What mattered most was that he came to visit again."

Baker agreed. "This mission is one of the most meaningful things we do."

Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One

Editor's Note:

The annual Christmas airlift will change somewhat in 2007. The 517th Airlift Squadron is converting from the C-130H to the larger C-17, making landing at the short, narrow strip at Arctic Village problematic. The 176th Wing, the Alaska Air National Guard C-130 unit at nearby Kulis ANGB in Anchorage, makes Christmas flights to several other Alaskan villages and will now take on the yearly flight to Arctic Village as well.