NOWHERE AT ALL, Greenland--The northern ice cap of Greenland, where I spent a few days with scientists collecting ice cores, is perfectly flat, brilliant white and inaccessible except by ski-equipped airplanes. In a little while, two C-130s of the New York Air National Guard would be landing to drop off cargo for the scientists and to pick me up. It promised to be interesting.
A C-130 is a large, four-engine turboprop built by Lockheed, and it threatens to rank with the DC-3 as an indestructible plane that will do anything. These C-130s, owned by the 109th Tactical Airlift Group, have skis with slots in them so that, when the planes are landing on runways, their wheels can be lowered through the skis. The planes are intended for Arctic work in time of war. To do something useful while training, they are used to resupply the ice-boring operations.
Soon a fierce roar came from the low clouds and a stubby green airplane dropped into view. A C-130 has the lines of a whale and does not look as if it should be able to fly. It landed in the distance and howled along, prop wash kicking up great clouds of snow behind it. Stopping a cargo-heavy bird is not smart because the weight can cause the plane to sink in the snow. The tail ramp gaped like a jaw as the craft taxied, and massive pallets slid out onto the snow. Back and forth the plane went, as if laying eggs, and, with much noise not much acceleration, took off. My plane was the second, which came in a few minutes later.
For some reason it stopped, and got stuck. One of the scientists ran me out on a snow cart, and I climbed up onto the flight deck and put on headphones to hear what was happening. What was happening was that the crew was going to full power, which is a lot of power in C-130, to try to break loose. Nothing. The snow was fresh and sticky. The plane shuddered and howled, but nothing happened.
"OK, let's try cycling the gear," said the pilot laconically. This means forcing the wheels down through the skis in the hope that they will hit solid ice and cause the skis to lift clear of the entrapping snow. It's an odd thing to do. We sat there, surrounded by dials and switches, peering into the pure featureless white of the ice cap, while the cockpit slowly rose and fell like a bowing sumo wrestler. "Ain't working," said someone correctly. These guys do not perturb easily.
We tried putting timbers--the scientists have a few of them--under the wheels. They snapped like straws. A C-130 is a bit much for 2-by-4s. We dropped the tail ramp and kicked off the cargo, which the scientists dragged away with Arctic tractors. No go.
Just as we were about to give up, the engines blasted the plane loose. OK. Maybe there was hope. We aimed out across the snow and went to full power for takeoff. The ugly green beast tried,. Unfortunately, the snow was very sticky. We surfed along--the snow is perfectly flat, but undulates slightly--but could not get above 40 knots. A 130 needs better than 80 knots to take off. These planes have been known to taxi for 50 miles and more before being able to take off.
What now? Try to taxi back to Sondrestrom, hundreds of miles away? No good: We'd fall off the glacier on the way. "Let's try to take off over the same snow again. Maybe we packed it down on the first run," said the pilot, a crafty fellow. We taxied back and tried again. The snow was indeed packed down. Just before the weather closed down completely, we got the snow off and climbed.
We spent the return trip admiring the glaciers and talking about nothing in particular. Just another day.
Fred Reed, a Marine veteran,
is a syndicated columnist
based in Washington, D.C.
The Shreveport Times
September 21, 1989