Minus 20-degree temperatures makes unloading tough enough in itself. But add to it a 35-knot, snow-whipping prop wash and the "loads" are forced to empty the cargo hold in a virtual blizzard,
Extremely low temperatures play havoc on engine starts, so the engines are kept running at ground idle. The chill factor within the prop wash at the aircraft's rear can tumble to -75 degrees. Working frantically to unfasten the cargo chains, Phillips' fingers began to stiffen almost immediately in his thin flight gloves, his ears and nose to deaden. You just can't unfasten flesh-stinging tiedown chains while wearing bulky insulated gloves. Under these conditions, any unprotected extremity can freeze in a matter of minutes- The physical pain is easily replaced by the mental frustration. The colder Phillips' hands became, the more they wouldn't function.
The 8,000-foot altitude also took its toll. Breathing grew difficult and laborious. It would take a little longer than usual today, but the cargo would be delivered as promised.
During the bone-chilling offloading, Captain Stephens, the copilot, made the lonely trek to the radar site building to sweet-talk the chef out of some of his famous ham sandwiches smothered in butter. The hardworking crew still out in the cold would be hungry. The crisp Arctic air did wonders for appetites.
Fenimore stayed at the controls. With four giant turboprops constantly churning the frigid air, you don't leave the flight deck unattended.
After more than two hours, Phillips and McKnight reported that the cargo was on the sledge and on its way. Phillips made his last-minute checks and sealed the crew entrance door just after Stephens trudged up the steps with a box full of sandwiches. They were a feast.
Fenimore was soon inching the throttles forward. The aircraft surged and strained and creaked and groaned, but little else. He tried again, but was met with an instant replay, "We're stuck," he cursed. The glacier's icy grip had clamped onto the skis. The ski pressure against the snow had raised the snow temperature above the freezing point. Refreezing caused a sheet of sticky ice to weld the aircraft to the snow.
Pilots have more than one way to get out of such a predicament, Fenimore prefers to lower the high flotation tires to break the seal. Free in a matter of seconds, the "ski bird" was off and sliding toward takeoff position. Getting stuck is more of a minor irritant than a major problem.
Soon, Raven 91 skimmed down the skiway in a cloud of blowing snow. Ron Gignac's eyes were glued to the speed indicator.
"Forty knots!" he bellowed, then "forty-five!" The C-130 suddenly began sliding sideways
down the skiway. The faster it went, the nearer it slid toward the metal runway flags. It one of the prop blades hit a pole, it could destroy itself first, and the aircraft second. Fenimore, with Stephen's help, applied full right rudder. Nothing. The aircraft continued its graceful slide to the skiway's edge. Fenimore yanked back on the throttles and fought for control, using differential power. Still moving dangerously toward the flags, the C-130 slowly yielded itself back into the pilot's firm control. There was no takeoff this time, but Raven 91 was still in one piece,
Flight engineer Gignac, the more experienced member of the crew, realized what had happened immediately. He had seen it before.
"The last time I saw a C-130 try to take off with a tailwind component," he said, "the exact same thing happened,"
Where the tailwind came from was anybody's guess.
Fenimore told his crew Just why he did what he did. "Sometimes they'll [C-130s] start wallowing like that, and if you let it go too far, you'll completely lose control of the airplane. You can actually do a 180 [degree turn] right on the skiway, but before it does, a ski will dig in and break off." The only thing for him to do, he said, was to maintain control and abort the takeoff.
He added that the wind turned into a crosswind at about the same time he decided to abort the takeoff. He was forced to throttle Numbers One and Two engines into full takeoff power while keeping Three and Four in ground idle just to keep the aircraft straight.
It was one of those instances that Arctic sages talk about. The fickleness of the Arctic was coldly apparent, but had relented and shown a meager tolerance of the outsiders.
Countering the crosswind that eventually moved around to blow on the aircraft's tail, Fenimore taxied his four-engine skimobile.to the opposite end of the skiway, hoping the wind would remain stable for a minute or so. Once again, he applied full takeoff power, and off they moved, this time with the nose into the wind.
All was normal. Then halfway down the skiway, the curse of the North struck again. This time it was the terrifying condition that blends sky and ground into a continuous white mass—a "whiteout,"
Out of the snow had crept a thick ice fog that
threatened to engulf the skiway and the crew's vision. Some liken it to flying in a ping pong ball or through the center of a marshmallow.
Arctic weather can go from VFR (Visual Flight Rules) with not a cloud in the sky to completely zero-zero visibility in less than 15 minutes—with absolutely no warning whatsoever. This time the minute had changed to mere seconds.