Code One Magazine On-line — Second Quarter 2003





This article appeared in the 3rd Quarter 2003 issue.


Top To Bottom

By Jeff Rhodes
Photos By John Rossino


“We do whatever has to be done—mostly under abominable conditions—to complete our mission,” says Col. Max Della Pia, the commander of the 109th Airlift Wing, the only Hercules unit in the world that flies the ski-equipped LC-130. “The alternative is we freeze.”

The 109th AW, an Air National Guard wing based in Scotia, New York, has a two-season job. From late March to August in the Northern Hemisphere, the wing carries supplies and scientists to National Science Foundation and European research stations in Greenland. During the summer in the Southern Hemisphere—from October to February—109th AW crews fly resupply missions from McMurdo Station on the edge of Antarctica inland to the NSF’s domed research facility at the South Pole and to remote locations throughout the Antarctic continent. TSgt. Maurice Huard, a Ski-Hercules flight engineer, sums up the unit’s mission: “Basically, we chase the cold for a living.”

The essentials of that mission—delivering food, fuel, vehicles, supplies, and equipment—may be the same as for other airlift units, but the 109th is unlike any other C-130 wing anywhere. Tactical C-130 aircrews often fly at night in blackout conditions. The aircrews of the 109th AW’s flying unit, the 139th Airlift Squadron, operate only during daylight but often in whiteout conditions so severe that one pilot refers to it as, “Flying by the seat of our pants inside a ping-pong ball.” Tactical Hercules crews love to land on unprepared dirt strips. On a good day, a Ski-Herc crew lands on a groomed skyway. But often snow landings involve searching for a place to land and avoiding berms and crevasses. On hot days, takeoff runs for a standard C-130 crew can go for several thousand feet. An LC-130 crew often has takeoff slides of several miles before the aircraft gets airborne.

“One difference between what we do and what other C-130 units do is the distance we have to go and the conditions we have to work in,” adds Della Pia. “Like many other C-130 units, we just haul stuff. But where and how we haul it makes for some interesting stories.”

Hercs On Ice

The Ski-Herc, or Ski-Bird as the snow-going Hercules is sometimes called, was actually the first C-130 derivative. During the Cold War, the Distant Early Warning Line, built in the 1950s, was a chain of manned radar sites spanning the Arctic from Alaska to Greenland. The sites were built to serve as North America’s first line of defense against a Soviet attack from over the North Pole. The Air Force’s Tactical Air Command needed an aircraft with the ability to land on snow-covered strips to resupply the radars.

The Air Force opted to have skis attached to the normal landing gear on a Hercules. The forty-eighth C-130A was modified in late 1956, and the first flight of a Ski-Herc followed in January 1957. Successful tests in Bemidji, Minnesota, and in Greenland confirmed the Hercules could be adapted for missions on the snow.

The C-130 production contract was modified and a dozen C-130As came off the assembly line as C-130Ds. The first production Ski-Herc, assigned to the 61st Troop Carrier Squadron at Sewart AFB, Tennessee, landed in the Arctic in January 1959. Eventually two more aircraft were modified. Later, eight of the D-models were converted to standard Hercs. The six remaining aircraft were assigned to the 17th Airlift Squadron at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, from 1964 to 1975, when the Arctic resupply mission was shifted to the 109th Airlift Wing, and the aircraft moved to upstate New York. The D-model aircraft were retired in 1984.

While the Air Force Ski-Herc crews toiled in relative anonymity at the top of the world, the crews flying the Navy’s ski-equipped aircraft were gaining a measure of fame at the bottom. NSF’s United States Antarctic Program, a veritable invasion of scientists to the ice continent, began in 1954 along with Operation Deep Freeze, the US military’s program to support the scientific research. The International Geophysical Year, or IGY as it is commonly known, in 1959 led to an explosion of interest in Antarctica that continues today.

The Air Force C-130Ds supported the scientists in Antarctica during the summer of 1960 as the Navy’s VXE-6, which was the primary Antarctic aviation support unit for the United States, converted from R4D-5/6Ls (C-47 “Gooney Birds” on skis) to what were later designated LC-130Fs (basically C-130Bs). The Ski-Hercs of the Ice Pirates, as the squadron was known, were seen for years in magazines and on television documentaries landing on the ice. All of the LC-130Fs are now retired.

In the late 1990s, the Navy decided to get out of the business of flying C-130s. After a three-season transition, the Antarctic resupply mission was turned over in its entirety to the Air Force and the 109th AW in 1999.

Unique Fleet

Most Air National Guard C-130 units have eight aircraft. The New York Guardsmen now have fourteen—four C-130Hs with wheels that are used for training and land-based operations and ten LC-130 Ski-Hercs. The extra aircraft crowd the ramp at Stratton ANGB, the wing’s home near Schenectady. “We have to perform yearly, detailed inspections on our aircraft from June to October,” says Della Pia. “With the extra aircraft and our busy flying schedule, we have to cut ten days out of what is normally a sixty-day inspection in order to get them all done.”

The “wheelies,” as non-ski aircraft are called, and four of the Ski-Hercs are 1983-vintage C/LC-130H2 aircraft. Three are 1992-93 model LC-130H3s. All have ice-operation-specific items that the wing’s maintainers and pilots helped define before the aircraft were built. To handle the increased cold weather workload, the 109th will augment its fleet by picking up three former Navy LC-130Rs (a batch of six new build aircraft was added to the Navy’s fleet starting in 1968) that are being refitted with Air Force-specific equipment. These aircraft are now called “LC-130H21/2s” because of the mixture of equipment on board.

“It must be the shoes,” a tagline from an old Nike commercial, is an apt description of how the LC-130s operate on the ice. The largest ski system ever incorporated into an aircraft enables the crew to take off or land with either the skis or the wheels, which extend about three inches below the bottom of the skis. The main gear skis are twenty feet long and weigh a ton apiece. The nose skis are ten feet long and weigh nearly 1,000 pounds. Both types have an eight-degree nose up and fifteen-degree nose down capability to allow them to travel over uneven terrain. Both are five feet, six inches wide and are heavily coated with a Teflon-based paint that keeps the skis slippery.

The basic design of the skis, which are made of aluminum and steel, dates back to the 1950s. Improvements have been made to the design to simplify maintenance. Spare skis are kept in New York, New Zealand (the wing stages from Christchurch to go to Antarctica), and at McMurdo Station. Another set goes to Greenland at the start of the season there. “The skis are very strong,” notes SMSgt. Charlie Weissend, a 109th maintenance supervisor. “Occasionally, the skin gets dented, but they are very beefy.”

While the Teflon coating keeps the bottom of the ski slick, the friction upon landing creates enough heat to melt the surrounding ice if the aircraft is stopped for any length of time. When the ice refreezes, the aircraft gets stuck. Skis can be retracted individually and together are designed to support the weight of the aircraft. The crew can rock the aircraft back and forth to get it to break free when it gets stuck.

The skis also produce considerable drag. The LC-130s have a +48 drag count with the skis retracted, which reduces airspeed by about twenty knots. The LC-130s cruise between 270 and 290 knots while the wheelies cruise at between 290 and 310 knots. The drag count goes above 100 with the skis deployed.

Cold Classes

Everyone in the 109th who deploys has to go through survival training. “We go to the regular Air Force cold-weather survival school, but it doesn’t completely meet our needs,” observes Huard. “Alaska has trees, and there aren’t any in Greenland or Antarctica. We can’t snare a rabbit for dinner. The only food we have is what we bring on board the aircraft.”

The wing’s life support section runs its own survival training course, called Kool School, which is sanctioned by the Air Force. Kool School starts with a day of academics in New York. Once at Raven Skiway, the 109th’s training area in the interior of Greenland, instructors teach new personnel how to build a snow shelter (the instructors live in a wooden hut, however), how to generate drinking water, how to use survival gear, and how to live and work in extreme conditions. Adds Huard: “After three days of that, an LC-130 with its skis down coming to pick you up is a happy sight.”

“The aircrew qualification training for the LC starts with all the normal training at Little Rock,” says Capt. Carlyle Norman, one of the unit’s aircraft commanders, referring to the C-130 schoolhouse at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas. “Everybody goes through basic copilot qualification. However, our course is much simpler since we train only for single-ship airdrops in clear visibility.”

The copilots then go through C-130E-model to H-model conversion in New York by flying with an instructor in the 109th’s wheeled aircraft. Next up is the LC-130 differences class. (One copilot wryly describes the class as, “Here is the ski-up, ski-down lever.”) This class is followed by a check ride in the Ski-Bird in New York.

Learning how to use the LC-130 operationally takes place in either Greenland or Antarctica. Copilots fly with an instructor for two or three weeks practicing airborne radar approaches critical to landing on the ice and actual landings in the weather. The final exam comes in two parts. Copilots first fly to one of the outlying camps and land on the ice. They then use the Assisted Takeoff, or ATO, rocket bottles hung on the aircraft to get airborne. It takes roughly twice as long for an LC-130 copilot to become fully qualified as it does for a copilot flying a standard C-130.

Getting Down
And Getting Back Up Again

The extra training is essential. Landing and taking off from the snow is a science, and crew coordination is paramount. For the first part of the landing, getting close to the skiway or the snowfield where the crew is going to land, the navigator runs the show. During the final approach, the copilot gets the aircraft lined up, finds the landing area, and continuously checks and announces the current speed. The flight engineer calls the altitude, and the pilot lands the plane.

Capt. Norman describes a typical landing: “The aircraft commander sets up for a ten-mile final approach. The navigator gives the brief for known skiways and gives specifics for weather as well as details, like ‘the camp is off to the left.’ The navigator will bring us down to 300 feet above ground level and one mile distance. Meanwhile the copilot will look out and find the skiway. The copilot has to be confident. The other crewmembers need to help, but not too much. The copilot has to be the loudest voice the pilot hears. The key is to find the second set of flags, pairs of bamboo poles with colored material strung between them that mark the boundaries of the runway. If the second set is in the right place, the third set will be there. In weather, the loadmasters lie on their bellies on the cockpit floor helping to look for the flags through the floor windows.

“Once the flags are located, the copilot will take over from the navigator and set 100 percent flaps. The pilot calls that he has the skiway in sight at 100 feet. The flight engineer starts to call altitudes at 100 feet, then fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, ten, touchdown. The copilot calls the vertical velocity and the drift. It is hard to tell the difference between the horizon and the surface at these low altitudes.”

The pilots generally land on instruments, but the ice, weather, and proximity to the Earth’s magnetic poles can play havoc with them. “The radar altimeter is less accurate on snow or ice,” notes Della Pia. “On one landing, the radar indicated 150 feet altitude when we hit the snow.”

When the crews make open snow landings or when they go into an unfamiliar camp, they take a known altitude setting and go to 1,000 feet above ground level to set up for landing. They survey the area and look for berms. Then the pilot picks a point and lands into the wind. The ATO rockets are always attached to the aircraft before they go to unfamiliar areas. “On a hard-packed snow runway, we keep the nose high to slow down. On a new runway, the nose ski goes down immediately,” says Della Pia. “We want to stop as soon as we can.”

Once on the ground, the aircraft’s engines are kept running. In the cold, they might not start again. The crew needs to keep moving to prevent the aircraft from getting stuck. Ground times are minimal.

“The loadmasters really earn their money,” says Huard. “As soon as we stop, often at places that may be at 10,000 feet above sea level, they are out there in minus forty degrees Fahrenheit with all four engines running. They are offloading JP-8 [fuel to run the vehicles at the camps], unloading cargo manually, or using tracked vehicles to pull the load off. They work hard.”

Takeoffs from the snow are triumphs of hope over physics. The object is simple—get to sixty-five knots and get the nose up off the snow. “Once we get the nose up, it will fly,” says Capt. Norman. “Getting to that point is the trick.”

The combination of the cold, the parasite drag (interaction between the skis and the snow), the winds, and the weight of the cargo on the aircraft all have an effect on getting airborne. Takeoff slides using the skis on open snow are routinely five to eight miles long and often go as far as twenty miles. Remaining fuel then becomes a critical item.

“We have no Golden Rule for takeoffs,” observes Norman. “We can try different flap settings, move the cargo to the back of the aircraft to change our center of gravity, or stop and unload some of the cargo. We have left scientific equipment on the ice in order to get up. We try to put things in our favor.”

The 109th Airlift Wing is one of only two Hercules operators that use the ATO rocket bottles. Unlike Fat Albert, the support aircraft for the Navy’s Blue Angels aerial demonstration team that uses the bottles for show, the 109th crews actually need them. Otherwise, they will spend the night on the ice because they couldn’t get airborne.

The bottles are about four feet in length and weigh 140 pounds each. Eight are needed for each takeoff. Hung at the back of the main landing gear fairings, the bottles equate to the power of an additional engine for about fifteen to twenty seconds. The flight engineer fires the bottles by pushing a button in the cockpit when the aircraft commander calls for them. Timing is critical. Firing the bottles too early doesn’t give the aircraft the boost needed to get the nose ski up and the aircraft airborne.

The wing has two problems with the ATO bottles. They were all manufactured in 1954, and the unit is running out of them. “We are pursuing a re-placement,” notes Della Pia. “Without them, we either can’t go into some of our sites in the future, or we will have to do something else.” Two things that might help include the increased use of airdrops and the wider use of hard-packed snow technology—currently used at McMurdo—at other strips to allow wheeled aircraft to land more easily.

Up North

The NSF acts as the clearinghouse for Greenland scientific research. While not unusual, it is a little odd to see civilians from the Falcon Fund, or a magnetic field study group, or college students ready to do a climatic study waiting at the 109th Aerial Port Flight building in New York before boarding a departing LC-130. The 109th makes six-day rotational deployments to Greenland.

The Kangerlussuaq (kang-er-loose-whack) Airport sits at the head of the 105-mile long Søndre Strømfjord on the west coast of Greenland. The location provides the perfect base for the 109th AW’s operations all over the ice-covered island. Originally known as Bluie West 8 when it was opened as a refueling point for aircraft ferried to Europe in 1942, the United States occupied the base (later named Sondrestrom AB) until 1991 when control was turned over to Denmark. Greenland is a Danish protectorate, and the Greenlandic home rule government now runs the field.

The village of Kangerlussuaq exists to support the airport. One of the daily social highlights is the arrival of the Scandinavian Airlines System 767 on its Copenhagen-to-New York flight. Former base barracks buildings house some of the townspeople as well as the deployed crews. The 109th uses the former base fire station for mission planning, maintenance control, spare parts storage, and as an aerial port facility.

A thirty-minute flight from Kangerlussuaq gets the crews into the interior of Greenland and Raven Training Skiway. This field, where the 109th crews practice airdrops and make skiway and open snow landings, is the middle of nowhere, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Lt. Col. Nils Grier, Denmark’s deputy defense attaché to the United States, describes being at Raven as “standing in the middle of the ocean.” He’s close—the ice is 7,000 feet thick there. Snow and ice fill the horizon.

The area is dominated by the Dye 2 radar site, which was abandoned in place—equipment, books, beds, tables, and chairs—in 1992 when the DEW Line system was shut down. The four-story building with attached radome was built on stilts. The entire facility had to be jacked up periodically to stay above the ice. The door to the facility, which isn’t even locked, now sits just above the snow level.

The small camp of Mark and Lou Albershardt is the only other structure at Raven, which rarely sees high temperatures above the teens. The couple maintains the skiway for nearly five months of the year, makes weather observations, and provides communications for the 109th. Lou also likes to bake cookies for the crews. “We’re not necessarily hermits, but it’s peaceful and quiet. We really like this setting and enjoy the arctic wonders,” notes Mark Albershardt. “I also happen to have an unnatural fascination with Hercs.”

Maintenance at Kangerlussuaq is everything maintenance in Antarctica is not. The weather is better for the sixteen maintainers who deploy. Daytime highs reach the sixties during summer days. The base has a hard runway and a nose dock hangar. Parts not in the supply kit are easy to get, since home is only a six-hour flight away. And most of the Greenland deployments involve only two or three aircraft.

Down South

“The cold in Antarctica creates its own challenges,” understates Sgt. Weissend. “We had a rear bearing support come apart at the Pole. We had no hangars to work in, so we had to work out on the ice. We put up a tent for the maintainers. But in minus thirty to forty degree temperatures, we can spend only fifteen minutes working. Then we have to spend fifteen minutes in a tent with the heater. And sometimes we have to take off our gloves to be able to turn a wrench.”

In the cold, rubber seals harden. Parts contract. Systems leak. Propellers and engines have to be preheated. Prior to a mission, the maintainers have to heat the cargo hold first. Putting a heater hose in a cold cockpit can crack the windows. “We have to start about four hours ahead of time to get the aircraft ready,” adds Weissend. Since most flights are scheduled for eight a.m. departures, the maintainers have a four a.m. start time.

The 109th sends seven aircraft at a time to the Southern Hemisphere. Six go to the ice, and one remains in New Zealand as a spare. An aircraft needing heavy maintenance, which is done at the Air New Zealand facility in Christchurch, rotates off the ice to New Zealand and the spare is called up. The aircraft are also thoroughly washed away from McMurdo, which has a high sea salt content in the air. If a necessary spare part is not in New Zealand, the nearest parts bin is 13,000 miles away.

The deployed maintainers are in Antarctica for a total of about twelve weeks. Aircrews and maintainers rotate in and out for six- to eight-week assignments, flying commercially to and from New York unless they are changing out a deployed LC-130.

Weekly rotations for maintenance personnel typically feature six or seven consecutive twelve-hour days in the twenty-four hour flying operation, with days for most spent at Williams Field or Pegasus ice runway, both of which are on the sea ice.

The aircrews have six consecutive twelve-hour days, most of which are spent flying to the South Pole to provide material and equipment for the ongoing South Pole reconstruction project. “One day is no different from another,” notes Carlyle. “It’s just like the movie Groundhog Day.”

“We are living in a minus forty-degree environment,” explains Huard. “Antarctica offers little in the form of entertainment. We eat, drink, go to the gym, and watch lots of television. There is a bowling alley. The Coast Guard runs morale tours to see huts left by famous explorers like Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. But LC-130 crews tend to miss most of them, since we have to fly six or seven lines a day Monday through Saturday.”

The weather changes quickly at the South Pole and crews frequently have to turn back. If the weather is bad at McMurdo Station, they head to a nearby landing site that has been fully mapped and determined to be free of crevasses. Crews check the navigation system data, head into the wind, and descend until they are able to land. The downside to this emergency site is a fifteen-mile taxi back to Williams Field.

Unique Mission

The 109th Airlift Wing is a unique organization with a unique mission. It has state and federal commitments like any other ANG unit. It works with the Navy’s underwater construction program. The wing’s personnel have to be diplomats, dealing with the governments of both Denmark and Greenland. They have to work with a civilian organization, the NSF, and meet their needs. In fact, the NSF pays for much of the wing’s yearly operations. They also have to fly and fix their aircraft in conditions that often exceed the listed operating limits. The 109th has accomplished that last task without a Class A mishap in twenty-seven years.

“There is not a cookbook for what we do,” concludes Col. Della Pia. “We always face different situations—jacking an aircraft with skis on it in the snow, transferring fuel with engines running, and working in temperatures so cold we are making our own contrails on the ground. We have to be innovative to come up with solutions to these challenges. But it’s the challenges that keep people doing this.”

Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.