-From Schenectady to the Poles-

The 109th Airlift Wing, New York ANG


 The New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing is unique among other transport units in the USAF due to the type of aircraft it operates and the mission it has to fulfill. From its base at Stratton ANGB/Schenectady County Airport in Scotia, New York, the 109th AW and its flying component the 139th Airlift Squadron, flies the only ski-equipped aircraft in the Air Force inventory; the Lockheed LC-130H "HERCULES." The 109th AW has been assisting the US Navy for more than ten years in support of the National Science Foundation's Antarctic research program and when the Navy decided to relinquish the mission in 1993, the 109th Airlift Wing was a logical choice to take over full responsibility for Antarctic air support.


Following World War II, the 139th was established at Schenectady as the 139th Fighter squadron and received Federal recognition on 18 November 1948. Its first assigned aircraft was the Republic F-47 D "Thunderbolt." In 1950, the squadron moved across the runway to its present location and received F-51H "Mustang." The 139th was one of 17 squadrons not activated during the Korean War. In 1952, the 139th was assigned to the Air Defense Command as a Fighter Interceptor Squadron. After the runway at Schenectady was lengthened to 7,000 feet, the squadron received its first jets in the form of the Lockheed F-94B "Starfire" in 1954. "Starfire" operations continued until 1957 when the North American F-86H began arriving. Receipt of the Sabre saw the squadron and group loose their Fighter Interceptor prefixes and gain that of Tactical Fighter. In 1960, the unit joined the Military Air Transport Service as the 139th Air Transport Squadron. The mission of worldwide transport was assigned along with the Boeing C-97A "Stratocruiser," the first four-engined transport to be used by the Guard. The 139th ATS was activated for the Berlin Airlift in October 1961, augmenting MATS airlift by flying worldwide missions. The unit returned to State control on 31 August 1962. On 1 January 1966, the Military Air Transport Service was reorganized and renamed Military Airlift Command. Following this reorganization, the 139th was redesignated a Military Airlift Squadron and as such, made deployments worldwide during the Vietnam war. The unit converted to the Lockheed C-130A in early 1971, and now under Tactical Air Command, was designated the 139th Tactical Airlift Squadron. The 109th TAG converted to C-130D and D-6s models in the summer of 1975, assuming responsibilities for the Volant DEW resupply mission on the Greenland ice cap. Ten years later, the unit converted to the LC-130H and has been flying the HERCULES to the north and south pole and everywhere in between since.  





The 109th's association with the Hercules dates back to March 1971, when it was assigned the first version, the C-130A. Under Tactical Air Command, the Group's mission at the time was the support of ground operations trough airlift and drop. From March 1971 until December 1974, the 109th's C-130A wore the tail code "SG" and were in the SEA camo. In 1975, the 109th TAG was given the Polar Ice Cap mission to support Distant Early Warning (DEW) stations to Greenland. For the new mission, the 109th replaced its C-130A for a more appropriate version, the C-130D.

An aircraft with a larger cargo capability and longer range than the C-123J was required for the airlift of material and equipment on the Greenland ice cap for the construction of two DYE sites. During 1957, the Air Force conducted extensive testing of a ski-wheel configured C-130A (55-0021) and the tests proved that the aircraft could successfully do what other ski-wheeled aircraft had already done. The first ski-equipped C-130 made its initial flight on 29 January 1957, and during February of the same year, evaluations took place at Bemidji Lake in Minnesota. Following the successful conclusion of the test, Lockheed was requested by the Air Force to modify twelve C-130As (57-0484 to 0495) to C-130Ds. The modified aircraft were delivered to the Air Force between February and April 1959.

The C-130D's were delivered to the 61st Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS) at Sewart AFB, Tennessee, which flew its first mission on 23 March 1959. The airlift to build DYE II and DYE III begun on 1st April 1959 and the 61st maintained a two aircraft detachment at Sondrestrom AB, Greenland, in support of the construction. By the end of December 1960, the entire DYE site was completed and the 61st TCS returned to Sewart AFB. The C-130Ds were transferred to the 17th Troop Carrier Squadron at Dyess AFB, Texas, which was activated on 1 October 1960. The squadron became operational by February 1961, and was given responsibility for the DYE sites. During 1962 and 1963, when support of the DEW line required far fewer ski-equipped aircraft than the initial construction project, the Tactical Air Command made the decision to reconfigure six of the C-130D's to their original configuration by removing their skis. These demodified aircraft were designated C-130D-6, but had their hydraulic system left in place in case the skis would be required in the future. Beginning on April 1, 1964, the first flight crew of the 17th TCS was transferred to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, and the squadron was reassigned to the Alaskan Air Command on 1 July 1964. The 17thTCSFirebirds flew DEW line support missions from Elmendorf AFB until 1975, when the mission was transferred to the 109th Tactical Airlift Group from the New York Air National Guard. The 17th then transitioned to the C-130E. The day-to-day support of the radar sites in Greenland had been contracted out in 1972, and the 17th was relegated to the annual resupply and delivery of outsize cargo to the sites. In more than ten years of ski operations, the 17th TAS lost a single aircraft on 5 June 1972 which was 70-495.

In addition to the five C-130D's, the 109th TAG received six C-130D-6's during 1975. Two of these aircraft were removed from service and placed in storage in 1976. The unit's 25 year old C-130Ds and D-6s were replaced, beginning in 1984, by factory fresh C-130H-2 and LC-130H-2 aircraft, four of each type being assigned to the Group. The last C-130D left the 109th on 4 April 1985. With an increase in its missions to support the National Science Foundation, the 109th AW received 3 additional LC-130H-3. Two of which were accepted from Lockheed in November and December 1995, while the third aircraft was accepted in March 1996.

The principal changes to the standard C-130H included modifications to the landing gear to accommodate the skis and fairings, which allow them to be partially retracted. The skis surround around the wheel hubs, and are hydraulically activated. Each ski has an 8-degree nose-up and 15 degree nose down pitch which allows them to follow uneven surfaces. For a snow landing, following landing gear extension, the skis are lowered below the wheels. This process is reversed for retraction. Both nose and main skis are 5.5 feet wide while the mains are 20.5 feet in length and the nose is 10.3 feet long. Weights are 1,000 pounds for the nose ski and 2,000 pounds for each main ski. The lower portion of each ski is Teflon coated to reduce friction on the snow. The weight and the drag caused by the skis and fairings reduce the normal cruising speed on the LC-130H by 10 knots. Very few problems exist with the main gear skis but the nose ski is less rugged and more complicated. The nose ski should always be tilted upwards, and if a malfunction causes the ski to droop the nose down, the aircraft could not land because the tip of the ski would catch with dangerous results. Before every ski landing, a crewmember must assure that the nose ski is in the right position. The skis are put trough intermediate maintenance checks every two years and receive a complete overhaul every five years.

One interesting facts is that the LC-130Hs are equipped for Assisted Take-Off (ATO) which is the right term to employ, not JATO, which stands for Jet Assisted Take Off and implies the use of a small jet engine to augment the power of the aircraft--like the C-123J. An Assisted Take-Off (ATO) is always impressive to see and this option is often used to assist during take-off from short and unprepared snow-covered airstrips. Four solid propellant bottles are mounted on hard points on the blast deflectors on each side of the fuselage and each bottle provides 1,000 pounds of thrust for 15 seconds. These bottles are installed on the ground prior to the mission and cannot be jettisoned, they remain attached until removed on the ground and changed for the next mission. Following a series of accidents in the Antarctic, the Navy abandoned ATO but the method was successfully reintroduced by the Guard, based on it s success in the Arctic. ATO gives the aircraft a safety factor in particular when flights are made to sites at higher elevation and is a definitive plus to lift any significant cargo from certain locations in the Antarctic, as well as in the Arctic.

The 109th's C-130D's were painted in light gray with red panels added for high visibility, which was called the arctic scheme. When the unit received its C-130Hs and LC-130Hs, all wore the European I camouflage scheme until 1992, when they reverted to a new arctic scheme very similar to the original one. It is interesting to note that contrary to the US Navy, the Air Force owns all its ski-birds except for 91-0496, which is owned by the NSF, but operated by the 109th AW on its behalf. The NSF also owned the US Navy LC-130s and arrangements are being finalized between the Air Force and the Foundation to modify 3 ex-Navy LC-130R.  





The Mission

Since 1986, the 109th has played an important role in support of the NSF's research expeditions in the Arctic. Food, fuel and other equipment are delivered as far North as Thule Air Base in Greenland by normal air transport. From there, these supplies are flown by the LC-130H of the 109th. In addition to the polar missions, the 109th AW has other airlift responsibilities in support of Air Mobility Command and will use its C-130H as tactical transports and for aeromedical evacuations. The unit has participated in operations such as "Just Cause" in Panama and "Desert Shield/Desert Storm" in 1991. 

Starting with the 1998-99 austral summer, the 109th AW is assuming responsibility for air support in Antarctica in support of the National Science Foundation. On 18 February 1998, Navy's Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VXE-6) officially passed responsibility for the mission to the Guard's unit. The Navy will fly its LC-130s for the last time next to the 109th's ski-birds in the Antarctic before being disestablished in the spring of 1999. The 109th AW will be the only organization left in the world flying the ski-equipped LC-130s. The Guardsmen are very experimented and the NSF calculated that using a single LC-130 unit will produce savings of $25 million between 1998 and 2002. The biggest saving will come from the differences in operation of an active duty squadron and the Guard. The Navy squadron used to deploy for five months as a relatively self-contained unit with about 350 people and it is estimated that the Guard will do the same job with 268 less people at any time.  


Getting scientists and supplies to the principal U.S. base at McMurdo Station requires a 2,100 nautical miles flight from Christchurch, New Zealand. McMurdo Station, the largest of the three permanent U.S. research stations is built on the bare volcanic rock of Ross Island's Hut Point Peninsula and is the headquarters for flight and U.S. logistics support. Nearby are Williams Field with its "skiway" and the Pegasus site with its permanent ice runway for wheeled landings which allow C-141s and C-5s to land during the austral summer within a mile of McMurdo. It took three years for the National Science Foundation to build this runway and need constant maintenance to stay operational, but this is all worth it when it takes three to four C-141s to equal what six to twelve LC-130s can take in cargo from New Zealand. From the Pegasus site, the LC-130s carry scientists and supplies to into the heart of the frozen continent at remote sites.

Flying in Antarctica can be very hazardous and it takes very experimented flight crews to fly such missions. Flight crews face unpredictable weather and have virtually no assistance from navigation aids or en-route radar. Survival is a key word in this kind of inhospitable terrain and every member of the flight crew plus every passenger aboard the LC-130 carries a bag of specially issued "extreme cold weather" clothing. Additionally, the aircraft carries survival equipment for a week, including water and food, sleeping bags, tents, shovels and two sleds for travel if necessary.  



Flight operations are a lot different in Antarctic. For example, aircraft are not tied down even though winds can get very strong. When the LC-130 comes to a stop after taxiing, the heat caused by friction of the skis melts the snow before freezing again and holding the aircraft in place. When the aircraft is ready to "slide," the wheels are lowered through the skis to break the ice and after the wheels are raised up; the aircraft can slide forward to taxi. Takeoff from a skiway usually doesn't cause problems, but on unprepared snow, it's another story. Snow and wind conditions are always different and pilots have to experiment. The aircraft needs a lot more distance to get airborne due to the friction of the skis slowing the LC-130 on soft snow. Air National Guard pilots will start with 100% flaps for maximum lift to reduce weight on the skis and then return to 50% flaps before liftoff. When one technique doesn't work, the pilot will try different flap configurations and look for better snow. Landings in unprepared snow at remote sites also pose a challenge to flight crew who doesn't have information on the conditions of the surface. A technique developed by VXE-6 to assess the conditions of the surface before landing requires the aircraft to fly a series of ski-drags. During this tricky procedure, the aircraft will be skimming the surface with only its main skis touching the snow in the proposed landing area followed by a climb to altitude to observe the area and look for any hints of crevasses. Three to four passes are normally made before the crew will risk a full-stop landing.  





The actual transition of program responsibility for LC-130 airlift will take place with the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement between the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation at the Pentagon in March 1999. With its unique aircraft, the 109th will continue to support missions to both the northern and southern arctic regions, echoing the motto of Air Mobility Command, the Wing's Hercs will keep providing "Global Reach for America".

--Special thanks to Maj. R. Bullock

December 1998 






View Hercules of the 109th:

C-130A, 56-0517 "SG" in SEA camo.(photo by T.Hildreth)

C-130D, 57-0492. (photo by T.Hildreth)

C-130D, 57-0490 preserved at Stratton ANGB.

LC-130H, 83-0490 in Euro 1 camo.

LC-130H, 83-0493 "Pride of Scotia".

 109th AW's Hercules.



"Pride of Rotterdam"



"City of Troy"



"City of Saratoga Springs"



"City of Schenectady"



"Pride of Clifton Park"



"City of Albany"



"City of Amsterdam"



"Pride of Scotia"



"Pride of Glenville"



"City of Cohoes"



"City of Christchurch, NZ"


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