New Yorks Skibirds

In the hills of central New York State, close to its capital Albany, lays Stratton Air National Guard Base. The base shares its runway with the Schenectady Regional Airport and is home to the 109th Air Wing of the New York Air National Guard.

The unit is unique within the USAF as it is equipped with Lockheed LC-130H Hercules Aircrafts. Out of the 10 aircraft on strength 8 are equipped with skis in addition to the normal landing gear. This enables the LC-130 to take off and land on snow or ice and thus fulfill the 109th missions to supply various polar camps or bases.

The LC-130 is not a young aircraft; most of the hulls were tested and built in the late 50´s and 60´s. To enhance the performance of the aircrafts, they will soon be fitted with an eight bladed propeller, similar to the US Navy´s C-2 and E-2 aircraft. This will give the LC-130 an increase of 25% in thrust.

 

During the northern hemispheres winter the unit operates to Antarctica from its base in Christchurch/ New Zealand. As you can imagine the transfer of personnel and equipment alone is not easy. The LC-130 has to fly a well planned route through various bases in the continental USA and the Pacific.

 

The mission changes in the northern summer. This time aircrafts are deployed to Kangerlussuaq, the former Sondrestromfjord in Greenland, to fly their missions to the northern polar region.

 

Just as a reminder, the 109th is an Air National guard unit, which means that only a small percentage of personnel is on full time duty. The remaining soldiers work in regular civilian jobs and are only with the Guard during one weekend per month and 15 additional days per year.

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In late June 2015 we were invited to Stratton ANGB and were ordered to arrive at a very early showtime of 04:45AM to begin our three day tour with the unit.

 

Our baggage was quickly loaded onto pallets and we were checked in for the flights. After a two hour waiting time we were brought to the flightline. With us was a group of scientists of the US National Science Foundation who were on their way to different sites in Greenland. Our aircraft was a regular dark USAF grey LC-130 (30487) without Skis, one of two of such aircrafts with the 109th.

We left Stratton in pouring rain as RCH811 to begin our flight to our planned fuel stop at Goose Bay in Canada. It took us close to three hours to get to Goose but we were greeted with warm temperatures. During our stop we had the chance to take pictures of the local gate guards like the Avro Vulcan or the Catalina air tanker.

The next leg brought us directly to Kangerlussuaq (BGSF) in another three hours of flying time. The weather was great and the cockpit crew decided to fly through the more than 150km long fjord at low level which offered us great views through the small windows of the cabin.

The city of „Kanger“ consists mainly out of purpose buildings of the former air base and is not a very welcoming place in my opinion. Here you will find a strange mix of locals, scientists a few tourists and soldiers.

Besides the small ANG deployment the airport is home to the Greenland Air System. You have to know that no two cities in Greenland are connected by road. You have to either take a ship or a plane. The normally quite airport gets a bit busier before and after the daily flight from Copenhagen arrives. The passengers will be transferred to smaller propeller driven aircrafts like the Dash-8 to continue their journey to their destinations.

On the next morning we were picked up early by our friendly ANG guides and were exited to fly to one of the science camps on the greenlandic ice shield. Our planned destination that day was Camp Summit, one of the larger science camps in the arctic. Our crew, leaded by mission commander “Yandik” – was already busy planning the flight which was calculated by two Hours.

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Camp Summit is situated on more than 10000ft of ice and snow. This elevation alone is challenging for the airplane and crews. The ice runway is a stunning 15000ft in length and this is badly needed during most of the missions. In the past the LC-130 often used the JATO (Jet Assisted Take Off). These are basically 8 rocket bottles which had been fitted to the rear fuselage and created additional thrust for take-off. As we understood the age of the LC-130 does not allow a regular use of the bottles any longer.

After a perfect landing we were greeted with unusually nice weather and relatively high temperatures of -12°C. We understood that it is usually significantly cooler during this time of the year. While on the ice the four engines are kept running to minimize the risk of icing or a technical failure which would be very complicated to repair.

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Several structures form the camp. Walking up a small hill of snow is the living house for the scientists spending a couple of months on the ice. Right next to it is a community house which houses the weather and radio communication facilities as well as the kitchen and dining hall. On the opposite site are the yellow tents for the other scientists who just spend a short period of time in the camp. The research areas are often further away from the main camp and are reached with the help of (snowmobiles.- Ski-Dos).

While we were exploring the Summit, our LC-130 refueled the local emergency jet fuel supply and cargo was loaded through the rear ramp onto the aircraft. The cargo load consisted of ice cores from nearby research sites which had to be brought to the United States. These ice cores come from up to 3000 meters depth and are highly interesting for science as they store small air bubbles inside which consist of several thousand years old atmosphere.

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After all cargo was loaded the boarding process for the flight back to “Kanger” began. We managed to board at the end of the aircraft to take a few more pictures and soon after that the Herc taxied to the end of the long runway. The engines were brought to full power and the seemingly endless take off „roll“ begun. It almost took 2 Minutes for the plane to lift off.

 

On the next day we were supposed to fly to Camp Raven, an old NATO radar site on the ice. Unfortunately this mission was cancelled and that left us with a lot of time to explore the area around the city and spend more time at the airport to photograph the activities there. The nicely painted fleet of Air Greenland was welcome (difference) to the „white“ airline fleets in Europe and the last De- Havilland Dash-7 was a nice surprise. While you read these lines it should be retired and replaced by a more modern Dash-8 aircraft.

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The ANG had planned to close its base in Greenland the next day for about two weeks and so all personnel and a lot of cargo had to be transferred back to New York. All three LC-130s were scheduled for this mission. The loading processes again began very early and it was planned that the planes leave Greenland in intervals of 30-45 minutes.

Together with 52 ANG soldiers, additional crew members and three pallets of cargo we lifted off the 2810m long runway of Kangerlussuaq at about 11 AM for the 6 1/2 hour nonstop flight to Stratton ANGB.

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About 30 minutes after take-off it became clear that we had to divert into Goose Bay again to assist the crew of one of the other LC-130 aircraft which had discovered a fuel leak on one of the engines which had consequently to be shut down. After 3 1/2 hours we touched down at Goose Bay and work on the damaged Herc began quickly. Unfortunately the Cargo load included the ice cores brought from the Camps so they had to be loaded into our aircraft which left quickly thereafter.

Stranded at the Canadian airport we took the chance to photograph the local air traffic while we waited for the scrambled Hercules which should pick us up. The aircraft finally arrived and after a long and exhausting day we deboarded with a delay of about 10 hours.

 

During this interesting and overwhelming experience we accumulated 6 flights on 4 different LC-130Hs and totaled more than 17 flight hours.

 

We´d like to thank all 109th AW members  of this deployment for their time and effort in assisting us during our time with the wing. In particular we´d like to thank TSgt Schmidt , Major Bucci and Sgt German for their support.

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