The author, Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith, photojournalist for the National Guard Bureau, embeds with the Missouri Air National Guard during airlift operations at Kulusuk Airport, Greenland, July 25, 2007.
They have deployed and airlifted cargo around the world, but never above the Arctic Circle. This was the farthest north they had ever flown, they said.
Airmen from the Missouri Air National Guard’s 139th Airlift Wing deployed to the world’s largest island — Greenland — from July 23 to 27 to support airlift missions for the National Science Foundation and the New York Air Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing.
A Missouri HC-130 Hercules cargo aircraft and aircrew departed their base at Rosecrans Memorial Airport, St. Joseph, Mo., and landed at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Schenectady, N.Y., before pushing on to Greenland’s Kangerlussuaq Airport.
Stratton is home to the world’s largest ski-equipped aircraft, the LC-130 Hercules “ski-bird,” which lands on snow runways in Greenland and Antarctica, including remote landing sites on the Greenland ice sheet between late March and August.
The 109th deploys here with several aircraft and nearly 60 Airmen to an operations center located in an old firehouse south of the runway. From there, the wing dispatches NSF logistical support flights and trains its aircrews in the polar airlift.
The Missouri Air Guard provided direct support to the NSF’s missions near concrete and dirt runways. The aircrew included Capt. Eric Rawlings, Lt. Col. Jeff Jones, Capt. Jason Lehman, Tech. Sgt. Chuck O’Rear, Master Sgt. Robert Tanner and Master Sgt. Rodney McIntosh. Together, they loaded cargo and passengers at Stratton and flew for seven hours to reach Kangerlussuaq, or “Kanger” as it’s commonly called.
From Kanger, they flew several airlift missions to landing areas to the east and north. Their missions provided an extra wheeled aircraft for the 109th, whose non-ski equipped aircraft are currently on other missions and deployments for the global war on terror.
“Because we have aircraft deployed to other parts of the world, we have a smaller number of wheeled aircraft than normal,” said Lt. Col. Bruce Jones, the 109th’s deployment commander that week. “Our ski airplanes are great for ski operations and landing on improved runways, but the amount of damage that can occur to the skis from landing on a [gravel and dirt] runway is something that we really don’t want to do unless we have to.”
Jones said the benefit for the Missouri aircrew was the additional training obtained by flying into new areas while also gaining knowledge of polar airlift. “So they were able to do that, and we provided someone with expertise to ride on those missions and ensure they were safe and answer any questions,” said Jones.
On July 26, the aircrew airlifted cargo to Thule Air Base, which is the northern-most U.S. base. Prior to that, the Missouri aircrew loaded cargo here July 25 and took off for a 340-mile round trip mission to Kulusuk Airport. The one-building airport has a 3,900-foot dirt landing strip on Greenland’s east coast. It is Greenland’s only eastern international airport, and it lies in a valley surround by granite mountains, coastal waters, and icebergs.
The landing strip is rough and gravely, so the pilots said the braking action was not as good as it would be on a normal runway.
“You’re pretty much spot-on when you put the aircraft down there,” said Jones, “and you get on the breaks and stop the airplane, but that’s all the procedures the Missouri guys have learned over their years of flying C-130s.”
They airlifted about 17,000 pounds of science cargo there. “They had been waiting awhile for it,” said Jones, “and finally we were able to drop it off.”
“We did a couple of engine running offloads with palletized crates,” said Master Sgt. Rodney McIntosh, a Missouri loadmaster. “It’s good to practice with these missions because we do similar stuff overseas … in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
According to the 139th, the wing sent 200 Airmen to Operation Desert Shield and later deployed to several forward bases in the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm. The wing has also deployed for operations in Bosnia, Africa, and Europe. In 2002, more than 100 Airmen deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. One year later, hundreds of the wing’s Airmen deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom, where the unit was activated for three years. Another deployment to Afghanistan is scheduled for the fall.
The aircrew said the landing was very similar to the dirt strips in Afghanistan, which has similar terrain. At their home base, they also have a practice area where they upkeep their assault landing qualifications. But there was one major difference at Kulusuk for McIntosh.
“Flying out and seeing all those icebergs was just incredible. I felt very fortunate to see that,” he said.
“We had a pretty hectic week,” Jones said. “A lot of science missions went out and a lot of training was accomplished. The Missouri aircrew did a great job.”