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Ski, not SKE . . The LC-130s of the NY Air Guard

by Capt Stephen Fifield, 139th Airlift Squadron sfifield@nysch.ang.af.mil

Stratton Air National Guard Base, Scotia, New York

I f you've ever had the desire to go places unbelievably cold and witness incredible scenery, maybe you should consider flying with the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing. We're in our third decade of supporting America's needs in the Arctic and Antarctic with the Air Force's only ski-equipped C-130s. The 109th is the only unit where you can visit both ends of the earth!

22 years ago we began our ski mission supporting the Distant Early Warning (DEW) radar sites along the Alaska-Canada-Greenland northern perimeter with ski-equipped C-130Ds. In the mid-1980s we upgraded to LC-130H-2s. with the "L" designating "ski birds" like the one pictured below. Today, the 109th has 11 aircraft, 7 LC-130s (4 H-2s and 3 H-3s) and 4 "slick" C-130H-2s. One of the H-3s is actually on loan from the National Science Foundation (NSF), our key customer. Eight aircraft have a wartime mission and are AMC-gained. By 2002, we will inherit three more Hercs from the Navy as their ski-equipped C-130 unit, VXE-6, closes its doors; these three C-130Rs will be rebuilt to the H-3 configuration. With a total of 14 planes, we'll be flying at least three variations of the C-130.

LC130H
LC-130H, Pride of Albany, in front of Mt Erebus, Antarctica

Flying these LC- and C-130s are a total of 26 crews: 14 crews fall under the "traditional guardsman" category, while the other 12 are full-time AGR crews dedicated to the United States Antarctica Program (USAP). The USAP initiative began in mid-1995 when it was announced that the 109 AW would assume the polar mission from VXE-6. We're still hiring new crew members for the USAP. All of the crews here in Schenectady are airland qualified. To meet the demands of our flying environment we have to stay proficient in NDB approaches, ARA approaches to ski landings (often practiced at DYE II, an abandoned DEW site on Greenland's icecap), and cold weather operations. Of course, we do the normal airlift thing, too: SAAMs, JA/AATs, Guard lift and the usual trash hauling. As a matter of fact, we even keep a quarter of the crews qualified to do single-ship visual airdrop operations, which has really paid off when we're asked to do polar airdrop missions (fuel caches for long range expeditions, etc.) at places where no one can land. For the most part, we look like other Guard units, except that we do ski and not SKE.

Our two prime polar missions are support of the NSF in Antarctica, and assorted national and international scientific activities in Greenland. For the first, we keep seven airplanes "down under" (New Zealand) from September through February to help the NSF as they conduct clean air and ozone experiments, polar astronomy, meteor research, cold water biology and the like, hauling anything and everything into and out of Antarctica during their "summer." We rotate crews in fairly regularly to keep the tour length down, and fly into places like McMurdo, South Pole station, and temporary surface camps with names like Byrd, Vostock (a Russian site), and Siple Dome. While some of these southern fields allow wheel (non-ski) landings, most call for ski operations that require some significant alterations to traditional C-130 ops. For example, when we land on skis, brakes are of little value, so we're pretty reliant on the simple drag of the snow and ice to help us slow down. While sliding the skis build heat so that care must be taken to avoid becoming frozen to the snow soon after you stop! Additionally, when taking off, we pull the nose ski off the snow at 65 KIAS to overcome surface tension and eliminate a lot of drag. At 85 knots, we're airborne and climbing out well below Vmca . If you lose an engine, you can pull back the symmetrical engine and land straight ahead (there's usually nothing to hit). Even so, takeoff runs commonly last 10,000 feet and sometimes go "open snow" for miles. We are still the only operational unit performing rocket assisted takeoffs-"burners now!" Most of the fly-days here are long - even within Antarctica, the distances between the sites are longer than you might think. Still, the view is often stunning: We overfly glaciers, mountains, penguins, walruses, and orcas.

On our northern tier (Greenland, mostly), we stage out of Thule and Sondrestrom (now called Kangerlussuaq) to support a wide variety of national requirements, including Navy underwater construction training and cold water experiments, NASA balloon flights into the troposphere, polar ice coring research and even the occasional search-and-rescue mission. These northern trips aren't usually as long as our southern excursions (we're closer to home), and, while they're in the midst of the dark winter in Antarctica, we stay proficient with our ski landings.

When you're a unique unit like ours, you often get asked to test things specific to your mission. We're working with Corning and the USAF to evaluate Serengheti sunglasses in the cockpit to enhance depth perception on the snow. We're also working with the 339th Test Squadron (Warner-Robins AFB) and the CADS on the new dual inertial navigation unit (DINU) modification (replacing our compasses and forever changing the nature of grid navigation!), and we're one of the testbed units for the new integrated SCNS-GPS software. We're even lending a hand to test new arctic survival suits and polar clothing, too.

If you're looking for a little more variety when it comes to flying the Herc, Schenectady is the place to be. We are the only unit where you have the opportunity to see the whole world:


Pole to Pole, we serve the world!

(note: this article first appeared in The Combat Airlift Review, June 1997)


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