CAMP SUMMIT, Greenland — The gray and orange LC-130 Hercules, one of the world’s largest cargo aircraft with skis, touched down 10,600 feet above sea level onto the frozen ice sheet here July 24, continuing an airlift mission that serves as the only supply line for some of the world’s leading scientists studying our planet.
After circling the Arctic outpost to view the airfield’s conditions, the aircraft landed inside a row of bamboo poles with black nylon flags that marked a “ski-way” and gently slid to a stop like an overloaded dump truck hydroplaning down an icy highway.
At the controls was an aircrew from the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, who kept the engines running in the thin air while nearly 30,000 pounds of cargo was offloaded: 2,100 gallons of fuel, three pallets of supplies and 13 passengers.
The wing’s airlift missions in Greenland are not only essential for the scientists camped out here, but its training on the ice sheet is a key factor to its readiness for airlift missions to the South Pole, where a demanding schedule and deadly environment leave little opportunity for training.
With these missions, plus roles in natural disaster relief and deployments in a war on terrorism, the wing’s Airmen have groomed themselves as members of an Air Guard unit with a full-time schedule. They have earned four Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards for their efforts and received a grade of excellent on their last Air Force operational readiness inspection.
Between late March and mid-August, the wing deploys several aircraft along with nearly 60 Airmen to an operations center and flight line at Greenland’s Kangerlussuaq Airport. They rotate in on five-day deployments with everything that encompasses a functioning wing. All the various shops are located inside an old firehouse south of the runway.
From there, the wing dispatches flights and trains aircrews in polar airlift, which is one of its main tasks. They use a training ski-way called “Raven,” which is about a 20-minute flight east where they conduct aircrew upgrades and check rides on the LC-130s as well as practice air drops and host a barren land arctic survival school called “Kool School.”
“This week is a combination of training out at Raven and conducting several airlift missions in support of the National Science Foundation,” said Lt. Col. Mark Doll, an aircraft commander. Colonel Doll is also the chief pilot for the wing’s 139th Airlift Squadron and evaluates and instructs “ski-bird” pilots.
The Air Guard members say they “serve pole-to-pole.” Airlifts for the NSF are a seasonal mission that alternates between summers inside the Arctic Circle with the austral summer of the Antarctic Circle and their better-known airlift missions in Antarctica, which occur from October to February.
They have owned and honed the Arctic mission since 1975, much longer than the Antarctic mission, which they acquired from the Navy in the ’90s. Trial and error, calculated risk, sheer will and clever thinking have made them the world’s experts of polar airlift, they say.
Their flights from Stratton Air National Guard Base in Schenectady, N.Y., to Kangerlussuaq take nearly seven hours. “Kanger,” as it’s commonly called, was once the U.S.-Danish Sondre Stromfjord Air Base. The base served as a World War II northern air route for aircrews ferrying planes from the U.S. to Britain.
Today’s missions take Airmen over a gateway of muddy brown glacial waters and granite mountains that mark the boundary between Greenland’s coastline and its inland Arctic desert of ice.
The ice sheet is about two miles thick at its deepest, and scientists drill into it to retrieve deep core samples that reveal the Earth’s past climate. There is a host of other small- and large-scale science projects that occur here including studies on glacial melting and possible environmental impacts with far-reaching effects for the planet.
More than two-thirds of Greenland’s 836,000 square miles are inside the Arctic Circle.
It’s so close to the magnetic pole that a compass might point down at your feet if it could, Airmen say.
Pilots say there are few visual reference points on the horizon. Aircraft navigators use an “old-school” sextant to line up with the sun and stars and calculate positions on aeronautical charts. Weather conditions can blend a cloudy sky with the ice sheet to create a “flying inside a Ping-Pong ball” effect, which is a highly dangerous situation, pilots said, especially when trying to find remote landing sites inside thousands of miles of nowhere.
There are more than seven unimproved ski-way landing sites as well as concrete and dirt runways the Airmen fly to, and they are spread out across the island’s eastern and western coastline and its interior ice sheet. Some dirt, coastal runways are comparable to assault landing strips. When exploring the unknown, missions sometimes call for the Air Guard members to land on the barren ice where they are the first to put skis and feet.
Despite a clear sky and their success in landing at Camp Summit, the aircrew said returning home is often the larger challenge with ski-bird missions.
“There are days when the snow’s so bad that physics takes over, and you can’t take off no matter what you do,” Colonel Doll said. When temperatures are relatively warm, often in July, the snow gets soft and sticky, which creates a drag on the aircraft’s Teflon-coated skis. The drag can keep the aircraft from gaining enough ground-speed to takeoff.
Colonel Doll said pilots can reduce the drag on the skis by varying the flap settings, which can make the difference between getting airborne and waiting for better conditions, called getting “stuck-out.”
“We (also) can go up and down the ski-way a couple times and find some spots that are faster than others and try to gain speed by getting to them,” Colonel Doll said.
They can also lighten the aircraft by offloading any cargo they are attempting to airlift out of a camp.
Their last resort is the jet-assisted takeoff or JATO, bottles bolted to the side of the fuselage. A thrust of JATO is an extra push that can provide a few extra knots of ski-way speed to pull the aircraft’s nose up. The only other aircraft in the world using JATO is the Navy Blue Angels’ C-130, called Fat Albert, which performs rocket takeoffs at air shows.
Inventiveness, creativity and a shared feeling of being part of something important seem to run through the Air Guard members in Greenland. Master Sgt. Keith Audrey, a flight engineer, likes to tell of the time he fixed a broken aircraft’s auxiliary power unit out on the ice sheet with a soup can, which got the engines started and everybody back to base.
“You are out there, and you don’t have any help,” Sergeant Audrey said. “So you’ve got to have a ‘MacGyver’ in you.”
Soup cans aside, Airmen said they often cook meals in the barracks’ kitchen to ensure everyone eats what is close to a home-cooked meal. What free time they have is spent cooking, watching movies in a common room or trying to sleep in the 24-hour daylight.
Maintenance personnel work under the weather at Kangerlussuaq’s flight line, and the wing’s aerial port personnel and loadmasters work in direct contact with logistics contractors for the NSF. They said their challenge is to properly handle odd-sized cargo including ice core samples, delicate scientific equipment, and supplies.
“We are moving a lot of cargo and doing it efficiently and getting the cargo to the right places in a timely fashion,” said Ed Stockard, a civilian cargo coordinator from the NSF’s Arctic program.
Mr. Stockard is one of many civilians who deal daily with the Air Guard to schedule science support.
“They are the only ones with the skier-Hercs, and we have projects on the ice sheet, so we are wedded in that way,” Mr. Stockard said. “We have a great working relationship.”
Loading and unloading cargo out on the ice sheet has its own challenges. The forklifts roll across the hard-packed snow on treads, and they don’t have traditional cargo loaders.
“We have a sled that we slide across the snow, and it has one level,” said Senior Airmen Corey Grey. “We align it by raising and lowering the skis, then we winch the load on and off.”
With aircraft engines running, flight engineers offload fuel that powers the scientists’ equipment at remote camps. Outside, the arctic brew of engine exhaust and high altitude air can cause blackouts, so they breathe through oxygen masks.
“The exhaust, it burns your eyes, and you are already above 10,000 feet, so think about breathing in the exhaust at 10,000 feet, you’re going to get quite dizzy and disoriented,” Sergeant Audrey said. “We have to be able to react in an emergency.”
Not every one of the wing’s more than 1,200 Airmen can experience the rigors of a Greenland deployment. Deployments are limited to essential personnel, like Airman Grey, a young-faced aircraft loadmaster, who has made the trip seven times.
“Last time I was up here we took ice core samples back to the states,” Grey said. “It required a ‘cold-deck’ flight, so we kept [the cargo bay] at a really low temperature, but it’s nice to be part of something like that and help the research.”
As polar air-lifters, if they don’t get it right, they said it can be weeks before the schedule and weather conditions permit another flight.
“We are impacting the science and the infrastructure given whatever that flight may be,” Mr. Stockard said. “I believe whatever science you do is important whether you get the right answer or not — it’s money and time well spent to further our knowledge.”