Anchorage Daily News


Elmendorf bids farewell to C-130
Admirers of the military workhorse take a final sentimental journey story photo
Elmendorf's 517th Airlift Squadron bade farewell to the C-130 with a heritage celebration that culminated with a farewell flight, Mar. 23, 2007. (Photos by STEPHEN NOWERS / Anchorage Daily News)


(Published: March 26, 2007)



Going on 43 years after the first C-130 Hercules took to the skies from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Lt. Col. Gary Gottschall finished what Lt. Sammie Hunter started in June of 1964.

On a breezy, mildly snowy Friday afternoon, Gottschall piloted Firebird I on a low-level, mountain-scraping, moose-viewing tour of Southcentral Alaska. Over Sleeping Lady, the Skwentna River basin, Hayes Glacier, Mount Spurr, and points in between and all around, Gottschall flew one of the last two C-130 flights out of Elmendorf for the 517th Airlift Squadron, known as the Firebirds.




His passengers? A couple or three dozen spouses and crew of the thousands who stepped aboard C-130s assigned to the 517th or its predecessors over the last four-plus decades. Hunter was one of them.


"Around for the beginning and the end," he said over the roar inside the no-frills cargo plane. Hunter was grinning and hanging on to keep his balance as Gottschall, up above, took the C-130 through a mountain pass or two at 800 feet, maybe a little less.


Hunter was 26 years old when he flew the first training flight on a C-130 here, right after what was then the 17th Troop Carrier Squadron was reassigned to Elmendorf from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.


In the years since, Elmendorf's C-130s have supplied science stations on the Arctic ice pack, Cold War DEW Line outposts on Greenland, radar stations on rocky Aleutian islands where landing strips ran uphill and stopped suddenly. More recently, they've delivered disaster relief to earthquake victims in Pakistan and tsunami victims in Indonesia and combat support to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kuwait, Qatar and Kazakstan.


Since January, they've been shifting out to Japan, and back to Dyess in Texas. They're being replaced with C-17s, a newer cargo ship that requires smaller crews.


"I hate to see them go," said Doug Houpt, who flew C-130s up here for two tours, 1986 to 1989 and 1996 to 2001. "They are workhorses."


And sure-footed ones. Navigator Terry Huff, standing beside Houpt, remembered landings on "one-way" strips where pilots put down on icy runways and brought the plane to a stop wide enough for a turnaround, then took off the same way out they had just come in.


The landing strip at Sparrevohn Air Station, he said, "would be a good beginner's ski hill." Once on Cape Romanzof, the small parking area for the airplane was so slippery that it slid three feet downhill, unassisted.


Another navigator, Bruce Headle, flew out of Elmendorf from 1972 to 1975. He recalled missions to Greenland DEW stations, places so cold you never shut down the engines because they wouldn't start again. Places where, sometimes, a pilot needed a little extra kick to get off the ground again.


"Sometimes the top (of the ice runway) gets a little damp, a little sticky," Headle said. "You'd get up to 40, 45 knots, that might be all you could get and you'd turn around and try it the other direction."


If that didn't work, there were JATOs -- for Jet Assisted Take Off, little rockets that could be mounted, four on a side, on the back of the C-130s. When the C-130 would get up to speed, a little blast from the rockets might be "enough to kick it out of the snow," he said.


That blazing red glare against white snow and ice is where the Firebirds got their name, Headle said.


Friday's flight was a long and emotional journey for many of the squadron's old crew members.


Former loadmaster Tommy Freeman served more than 30 years and retired from the Air Force with the 517th in 1992. He made the most of his two hours or so aboard the second C-130 on Friday's farewell tour. The soon to arrive C-17s didn't seem to hold much promise for him.


"There'll never be another airplane take its place," he said of the Hercules.


"I flew almost 8,000-something hours on this airplane. It's always brought me home. I love it. I love it. I love the squadron."



Daily News reporter Don Hunter can be reached at or 257-4349.

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