Tuesday, September 30, 2008
The 109th Airlift Wing pilots the world’s largest ski plane to the Greenland ice cap
The 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard trains for polar missions in an LC-130 on the remote 6,251-foot skiway at Camp Raven, in the vastness of the Greenland ice cap. The DYE-2 radar site was part of the Distant Early Warning Line built during the Cold War to protect the United States against an attack. It was evacuated overnight in 1987; all equipment, books and furniture still remain inside the abandoned structure.
The horizon is overrated," quips Major Bryan Elsworth from the right seat of the LC-130. I think he's joking, but I'm not positive. As we descend through an overcast layer at 1,000 feet AGL, the sapphire Arctic sky pales to white. Below, the ice sheet that covers more than 80% of Greenland is featureless and so white that I'm unable to discern when we've emerged below the clouds. Visibility is actually two miles, but the view out the cockpit is that of near whiteout conditions due to the void of visual references and poor surface definition. "It's like night flying when it's hazy, and you can see a few stars above, a few lights below, but almost no horizon," says Major Frank Falvo. "The difference is everything is white instead of black. It's what we call flying inside of a ping-pong ball."
Camp Raven appears as a tiny black speck barely perceptible on the immense ice cap. Lacking any other visual ground references, depth and distance perception can be deceiving. A typical Greenland season for the 109th averages 850 flight hours, 1.4 million pounds of cargo, 60,000 gallons of fuel delivered and 1,500 passengers.
"The most important responsibility of the navigator is to get the aircraft in a safe position to land," says First Lieutenant Kelly Williams. While Maj. Falvo continuously scans the instruments, Capt. Novak instructs directional changes based on an interpretation of the onboard radar scope. "There's a precise ballet that goes on between the navigator and pilot," describes Major John "Omar" Bradley. As the newest pilot in the unit, he's flying his first trip to Greenland, but it doesn't show: "The pilot is super-concentrated on airspeed and sink rate, not even looking outside. And the navigator is looking at the radar altimeter, so the job of the copilot is to visually acquire the skiway."
"Pilot, I need a heading of 258," Capt. Novak requests, giving corrections each mile. "I need a heading of 259."
And then Maj. Elsworth spots the flags that mark the skiway: "Copilot has the approach. Pilot, you can transfer your attention to the windscreen." Maj. Falvo raises his gaze from the panel, and although his trained eyes recognize the white-on-white skiway, all I still see is a lot of nothing. Pure white nothing.
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