Tuesday, September 30, 2008
From The Arctic To The Tropics
Flying the Greenland ice cap
|It’s cold. It’s white. And it’s north. (Very north.) Underneath us is 10,000 feet of ice. Surrounding us is an additional 1.7 million square kilometers of ice, and not much else. Looking out the cockpit window, I can’t tell the difference between 1,000 feet and 10 miles, vertically or horizontally. For me, this is the middle of nowhere. For the researchers we’re bringing to their frozen summer home, this is where it all happens. |
|For me, this is the middle of nowhere. For the researchers we’re bringing to their frozen summer home, this is where it all happens. |
It’s cold. It’s white. And it’s north. (Very north.) Underneath us is 10,000 feet of ice. Surrounding us is an additional 1.7 million square kilometers of ice, and not much else. Looking out the cockpit window, I can’t tell the difference between 1,000 feet and 10 miles, vertically or horizontally. For me, this is the middle of nowhere. For the researchers we’re bringing to their frozen summer home, this is where it all happens.
Our airborne sleigh, an LC-130, is the world’s largest ski plane. This season’s Santa is the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard, which supports the National Science Foundation by delivering scientists and equipment to research outposts in Greenland and Antarctica. There, layers of ice provide a natural laboratory for the study of global climate change. But operating aircraft in such austere conditions is risky business, and anything can happen. Once, an LC-130’s left ski dropped into a deep crevasse that was hidden by a thin layer of snow, and two engines were badly damaged. The 109th flew in a bulldozer, groomed a skiway and was able to replace the engines and props and fly out safely. Another time, years earlier, conditions necessitated an extended 20-mile takeoff roll on the open snow before getting airborne.
It’s my first time on the ice cap, but it’s Lieutenant Colonel John Panoski’s last. After more than 700 polar missions, he’s set to retire from the guard to work full time as a 767 pilot for Continental Airlines. I join him and the crew in the cockpit on our bittersweet flight home from Kangerlussuaq to New York. “I’ll definitely miss the people,” he tells me. “We experienced a lot of hard work, difficulty and accomplishment, and to be able to fly with them meant something special. Even though I’m retiring, I will still be an ambassador of the National Guard. It’s not a weekend flying club like most people imagine. We’re doing something good, allowing the National Science Foundation to conduct their research.”
Also in the issue, we visit a much warmer latitude, where Jim Froneberger flies by spectacular 10,000-foot volcanoes and over posh golf courses on the Hawaiian island of Maui. He tells us where to rent an airplane and suggests routes for an unforgettable self-flown flight-seeing tour, including a hop across the 10-mile Pailolo Channel to the neighboring island of Molokai, home to some of the world’s tallest sea cliffs. Although the winter months from November to February tend to have a bit more rain than summertime, compared to what we’re used to on the mainland, the weather in Hawaii is great for flying just about any time. But before you launch, brush up on crosswind landings and be prepared to contend with strong winds.
Closer to home, we go mountain flying in the rugged Idaho backcountry. Each year, the perfectly manicured 3,400-foot grass strip at Johnson Creek Airport in Yellow Pine, Idaho, is taken over by a popular Super Cub fly-in. There’s camping (on-site barbecue pits and hot showers are available), fishing (a stream runs alongside the tiedown area) and hiking (a one-hour trek leads to an unusual hot spring–fed bathtub). But what seems to attract pilots the most is the chance to check out other airplane modifications. Large tundra tires, vortex generators and high-power engines are common, and some pilots even change the thrust angle of their engines—anything to squeeze out a little more performance. To lighten their taildraggers for maximum performance, some remove avionics, install ultralight doors and windows, and use dry-cell batteries. They’ll remove every ounce of unnecessary gear, including vacuum systems, starters and alternators. Photographer Dave Stoecklein immerses us in this Super Cub extravaganza with a colorful photo essay.—Jessica Ambats, Editor