Airmen bid farewell to Alaska's fleet of C-130s

March 25, 2007

By SHARON G. McBRIDE/Frontiersman

ELMENDORF AFB - It was a bittersweet joy ride. Three C-130 Hercules made a final flight over snowy terrain Friday, signaling the closing of a chapter in the Air Force's aviation history in Alaska.

The aircraft, which had been flying missions in Alaska for more than 40 years, are now being sent to the Lower 48 for other missions. The C-17 Globemaster III, the newest airlift aircraft to enter the Air Force's inventory, is now taking the place of these huge cargo planes.

But for many who have flown and maintained these huge warbirds, it was hard to let go of the mission in Alaska.

“We have loved our time here,” said Tech. Sgt. Dan Elliot, who lives in Wasilla. “This was a great assignment and a great base.”

Elliot moved to Wasilla with his wife, Melissa, and their 2-year-old, Nick, when he was assigned to Elmendorf seven years ago as part of the 517th Airlift Squadron “Firebirds.” But just like the C-130s, the Firebirds are being split up and reassigned to other units and other missions.

Past and present members of the unit came together during Friday's flight, to say goodbye to the mission in Alaska and goodbye to each other. Some returned from places as far as England; some took breaks from retirement in the Lower 48; and others, like Elliot, took a break from the day to day mission just to have that chance for one last, sweet ride.

“It was the best ride I ever had,” said Steve Leers, who came up from Florida.

Leers retired in the '70s after flying the C-130s for the Firebirds while stationed in Alaska.

“It was good to be a part of this unit, one last time.”

The Firebirds have flown some of the most demanding missions in Alaska and have recently completed a continuous two-year deployment in support of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, said Lt. Col. Gary Gottschall, 517th commander, at the flight ceremony.

Other missions have taken them closer to home. For example, since 1967, the unit has flown to Arctic Village to take Santa, food, clothing and school supplies to everyone who lives there for Christmas. The last trip was in 2006, but the tradition will continue with the Alaska Air National Guard, which has added Arctic Village to its list of destinations for Operation Santa Claus.

The C-17 is a four-engine turbofan aircraft capable of airlifting large payloads over intercontinental ranges without refueling. Its design is intended to allow delivery of outsized combat cargo and equipment directly into austere airfields, according to Air Force information.

The C-17 will deliver passengers and cargo over intercontinental distances, provide theater and strategic airlift in both airland and airdrop modes, and augment aeromedical evacuation and special operations missions. The C-17's biggest contribution to the present airlift system will be long-range direct delivery.

The C-17 is capable of rapid strategic delivery of troops and all types of cargo to main operating bases or directly to forward bases in the deployment area. The aircraft is also able to perform theater airlift missions when required.

Elmendorf has 18 C-130s that are being transferred to Yokota Air Base in Japan and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. Members of the Firebirds are being reassigned to other units scattered across the Lower 48.

“This was a tight-knit group,” Elliot said. “This is the best unit that I have been a part of because of that. I'll definitely miss it.”

Contact Sharon G. McBride at 352-2250 or sharon.mcbride@