Their planes had skis and they flew out of Dyess Air Force Base in the early 1960s to land on floating islands of ice when the weather was too poor to land "legally." But somehow, day after day, the men of the 17th Troop Carrier Squadron, with their ski-equipped C-130D Hercules aircraft, kept going through the snow and ice to bring relief and lifeline supplies to the Americans on the frigid fringes of allied territory.
Today, they are gathering in Abilene from as far away as England for their second annual reunion since those harrowing days in Alaska, Greenland, and near the North Pole. Approximately 70 of the men and their wives are expected this year, 50 of them new to the reunion, said retired Col. Walter Ott, a former pilot with the organization. Their numbers include retired Tech. Sgt. Mike Ashcraft, who had a tour with the Air Force "Thunderbirds" and now says his travel trailer's sign expresses his philosophy: "Home is where you park it." And there's Mike Nash of Handcross in Sussex, near London, England, the unit's first foreign exchange officer pilot, who is now flying with an airline after retiring from the Royal Air Force in 1976. Then there's Chief Master Sgt. Sam Arnold of Dyess, who's still on active duty after nearly 30 years.
Each has a story to tell, but the men say it's hard to imagine the conditions without having experienced them. "Word's won't do it," said Ott, who can tell of landing in such minimal visibility that when the aircraft was parked 150 feet from the people it had come to help, they still couldn't see it.
We have more than 1,000 years of military service represented here," said Ott..."and that's dedication to our country." He said the unit is credited with saving at least 100 lives, from Eskimo children to American volunteers, on the Greenland ice cap alone.
Ott said it was brought home to him one day how much the people at far-flung outposts appreciated their efforts, when he--as aircraft commander--decided they just had to get out to one group to bring them their letters, newspapers, movies, and to airlift out several people whose tours of duty had expired. He said that after the mission, during which his navigator guided them in by a tricky radar approach where a fix was made on metal flags on the ground, one of the men they had airlifted out expressed his gratitude by saying, "Your drinks, your food are all paid for tonight...."
Ott also landed on Ice Island T-3, which happens to float around close to the Arctic Circle, sometimes into Soviet territory. A sensitive mission once required Ott and his crew to land on it and bring the Americans back to friendly territory. Ott said the difference in the northern missions and those normally flown by the C-130 "is like the difference between driving on Highway 80 and in the Indy 500 race." Arnold smiled, "The book says that all ski landings are a calculated risk."
Nash, the Englishman, told one story on himself, after Ashcraft recalled it. "Oh, yes!" he said, "It was during the spring months, when the weather is good enough on the ice cap that you bring in all their oil and fuel supplies to last the whole year. "The fuel is in large rubber bladders, which are on pallets on rollers. And, when you taxied into a site, they backed up big sleds and rolled the pallets out the back of the aircraft onto the sleds, then slide in the empty bladders. "So the loadmaster, when you landed, would have all but his last chain undone, ready to offload the pallets. "Once, said Nash, "just after we landed, another aircraft was taxing out and someone said wouldn't it be great to take a picture of it taking off? So I taxied beside it so we could take the pictures. The loadmaster, meanwhile, had his headsets off and took off the last chain, not knowing what I was doing. So when I pushed it forward, 25,000 pounds of diesel fuel went sliding right out the back onto the snow. And that meant the guys from the site had to come out and tow it in. I think that cost me a case of beer."
Nash and the others said it's the closest unit they had ever been in. Sharing danger was a big part of it, but Nash said also it was that no new personnel moved in or out during approximately two years of their two-and-a half years in Alaska.
Abilene Reporter News
June 10, 1983