Crews brave Greenland's snow and ice on ski-equipped LC-130s
by Master Sgt. Tammy Cournoyer, photos by Tech. Sgt. Jim Varhegyi
When members of the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing talk about going south during the winter, they don't discuss Mississippi, Louisiana or Florida. They talk about their own version of the "deep south" - Antarctica. And for them, the path south leads north through Greenland.
The unit maintains and flies the world's only fleet of LC-130 Hercules aircraft, specially equipped with permanently fixed skis to land at those off-the-beaten-path locations found in the polar regions. These skis are metal with Teflon coating and can support up to 155,000 pounds upon landing.
For an extra boost during lift-off from an icy runway, the LC-130 relies on auxiliary take off bottles full of solid fuel rocket propellant - mounted four on each side - that are armed and ignited by the flight engineer once the nose-ski gets up. They act as a fifth engine and give extra thrust on takeoff.
It's no wonder Lt. Col. Brian Gomula, operations group commander, calls the LC-130 the "world's biggest snowmobile."
Based at Stratton Air National Guard Base, N.Y., the unit began flying LC-130s in 1975, and in 1998 assumed sole responsibility for supporting National Science Foundation research in Antarctica. Prior to that, the Guard shared the chores with the Navy.
While in Greenland, the wing supports the science foundation's research by transporting scientists and supplies to Kangerlussuaq, the foundation's main hub on the island. The wing also carries scientists and cargo, including precious mail and produce, or "freshies," to research outposts on Greenland's ice cap, including the Summit Environmental Observatory.
The polar regions play a central role in environmental issues related to global climate and are vital to understanding past, present and future responses of Earth systems to natural and man-made changes.
Unit members spend March through September preparing for their Antarctic season which begins in October and runs until February - after that it's too cold and too dark to fly.
The unit's primary job in Antarctica for the next few years will involve supporting the rebuilding of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and the construction of East Camp, a new research facility on Antarctica.
"We're taking the construction equipment that's being used to build the [station] - the doors, the windows, the insulation, concrete, you name it," Gomula said. "Whatever they need to put that thing together, we haul out there. It's the only way it can get there."
It's a job that's not only keeping the unit busy, but helping set records.
"We had the best Antarctic season in history last year," Gomula said. "In 1998, the program moved 7 million pounds of cargo; in 1999 we moved 10.9 million pounds; and last year we moved 11.1 million pounds."
Gomula says if the curve keeps that momentum, the unit will move 13 million pounds of cargo in 2001 during it's five-month hauling season, using six to seven aircraft, flying around the clock six days a week.
Their hard work is not unappreciated.
"We really depend very much on the capacity they can bring into the field," said Dr. Konrad Steffen of the University of Colorado, a 26-year veteran to arctic science. "I've been in Antarctica and Greenland, and the 109th is the only means to get to these places if you do 'big' science. When we go for ice cores or for major atmospheric studies, we need huge instruments, and the 109th is the only way to go.
"The amazing thing is they come in when they say they will," Steffen said.
But equipment isn't all they haul.
Wing members became internationally known in October 1999 when they rescued Dr. Jerri Nielsen, suffering from breast cancer, from the South Pole Station. The National Science Foundation asked the wing for help evacuating Nielsen. Despite numerous weather delays, dangerously low temperatures and poor visibility, an all-volunteer crew handled the mission with aplomb.
The unit currently has seven "ski-birds" with three more coming soon from the Navy once they are refurbished. Each ski bird sports a bright orange tail so it stands out on snow and ice. There are also four "regular" C-130s that can be used for national emergencies or during war.
Today, Kangerlussuaq is home to roughly 350 people and serves as the primary international and domestic airport for the country that's about 14 times the size of England with a population of about 57,000 people.
Normally three LC-130s and the necessary aircrews, maintainers and support staffs travel to "Kanger" for training. Hauling scientists and supplies to the stations gives aircrews a chance to practice icy take-offs and landings and get a feel for being on the ice.
The training area the "skiers" use is about an hour's flight southeast from Kanger and rests atop nearly two miles of bright white snow and ice.
"There's nothing to catch your peripheral vision," said pilot Lt. Col. Jim Grupp, describing the austere ice cap. "If there's bad weather, it's like trying to land inside a golf ball. There's no horizon."
Landing on snow and ice is much different than landing on a normal runway with wheels. There are no lights, just bright red flags. There is no burning rubber, just a rooster tail-like arch of snow thrown up by the skis.
"The aircraft slides," said Gomula, who has been with the wing for 17 years. "You feel it slide just like a sled."
And there are no brakes.
"It stops itself with friction," Grupp said.
How far the aircraft slides before stopping depends on the surface conditions and temperature, but friction and weight tend to make it a straight slide.
And the aircraft can get stuck.
Unlike downhill skiers, pilots don't appreciate powder. The skis get hot, and when the aircraft stops the skis can stick to the ice.
"You have to get out and shovel an airplane out, which is unique," said Gomula, who also refers to the LC-130 as "the ninth wonder of the world."
Then there's the weather that can cause a change in plans.
"The biggest concern we have is weather," Gomula said. "We take it quite seriously. You can find yourself on a nice sunny day, and in the next minute, find yourself in a survival situation."
But warmth - anything above freezing - can also hinder an operation. There are times an aircraft and crew will get stuck at a location because the snow and ice become slush, making take-off impossible.
"You have to be flexible," Gomula said. "Our plans are not in concrete, but in Jell-O."
Grupp found this out the hard way in June when fresh snow and warm weather - minus 8 degrees Celsius - forced him and his crew to spend the night at Summit, a U.S. research station about a three-hour flight north of Kanger. Summit is a sparse outpost that sits at about 11,000 feet above sea level. Getting stranded on the ice cap was a new experience for Grupp.
"It was the first time in 11 years," said the pilot who flies the Caribbean route in a 737 for American Airlines when he's not "chasing snow" with the Guard.
The skiway was groomed by the station caretaker, and the crew waited for the temperature to drop so it would harden. The coldest temperatures hit Summit at about 4 a.m. The crew and 30 passengers - scientists and contract support personnel - were forced to sleep on the snow floor of a maintenance hut. They left by 6 a.m. the next morning for the two-hour flight back to Kanger-lussuaq.
Although the training in Greenland is mainly for the aircrews, the maintainers never know when they may have to go fix a "skier."
"It's an environment war that we fight out there," explains Master Sgt. Mike Brienza, supervisor of aerospace repair. "The cold affects fuel and the hydraulic systems. Everything - the plastic and metal - becomes very brittle."
There's no toasty hangar nearby when you make an "ice call" to fix a broken aircraft.
Master Sgt. Charlie Fox, an aircraft engine mechanic, remembered his first season in Greenland when an LC-130 got into some loose and uneven snow and dug one engine in.
"It needed a prop change and an engine change," Fox recalled. "We spent about a week out there. The cap is a whole different story. It adds a lot of time to everything you do. The altitude affects you. We were at 10,000 feet, and the altitude plays with your mind."
Kangerlussuaq is near sea level, and flying to the ice cap doesn't allow people the luxury of becoming acclimatized. At 10,000 feet, you're immediately affected by the lack of oxygen and can suffer shortness of breath, headache, lack of energy and dizziness.
"When you're on the cap, it easily doubles the time it takes to do something, and probably more," explained Fox, a veteran of "countless" trips to the ice. "Because of the cold, we go a little bit at a time and go slowly."
Maintainers wear heavily insulated gloves over the top of flight gloves. This makes using tools a chore.
"You take off the outer glove, do what you need to do, put it back on, let your hands warm up and take your time," Fox explained.
"The best part of the job is the people," Brienza said. "Some of us have known each other and worked together for more than 15 years."
Next to the people, it's the unique mission that keeps them going.
"We have the best mission in the world," Grupp said. He believes the one-of-a-kind unit adds to the enjoyment.
"We show accomplishment. It's not like we're just doing laps or marching in a field. We're actually helping science."
Fox, who worked on F-4s and F-15s while on active duty, finds it a lot more satisfying to go somewhere on an aircraft he's fixed, and he never tires of the work, despite the cold.
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