Tuesday, September 30, 2008
The 109th Airlift Wing pilots the world’s largest ski plane to the Greenland ice cap
|The 109th supports the National Science Foundation at remote outposts such as Camp Summit (left), where researchers live in tents on an ice depth of more than 10,000 feet. “Nemo the Blimp” (right) is a tethered balloon that makes a vertical profile of the atmosphere, collecting temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction.|
“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.
“Our mission requires teamwork and communication to flow smoothly,” says Maj. Falvo. “It’s great to see it all come together with the precision of a Swiss watch…like a well-oiled machine.” On downwind, landing gear is extended and massive skis are lowered below the wheels. Made of aluminum and steel, the main-gear skis are 20 feet long and 5 feet wide, and each weighs a ton; the nose ski is 10 by 5 feet.
“Camp Summit, Skier 71 left base Skiway 26,” radios Maj. Elsworth. I make out some dark specs below, like bugs on a windscreen. “300 feet,” calls out Novak, still glued to the radar altimeter, “100, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10.”
|First Lt. Kelly Williams navigates from New York to Kangerlussuaq|
Based at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, N.Y., the 109th Airlift Wing supports the National Science Foundation (NSF) on polar airlift missions and is the only unit in the world that flies the ski-equipped LC-130. From April to August, the unit transports supplies and scientists to research outposts in Greenland. From October to February, the 109th flies resupply missions from NSF’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica to the South Pole and other remote locations. (Visit www.goang.com and www.nsf.gov.)
"Although his trained eyes recognize the white-on-white skiway, all I still see is a lot of nothing. Pure white nothing."
|Thorough prebriefs are an important part of each mission. Maj. Frank Falvo, Maj. John “Omar” Bradley and Lt. Col. John Panoski meet in the early morning at base ops before a busy day of flying.|
“The LC-130 is like a giant floatplane,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mark Doll, a full-timer on a leave of absence from Northwest Airlines. “Not a high-power one like a Beaver, but more like a J-3 Cub. It requires finesse because you have barely enough power to get the airplane to fly.”
“It’s extremely versatile,” adds Lieutenant Colonel Mark Sakadolsky, who has been with the unit 22 years and flies up to 30 polar missions yearly. “We fly on snow, on paved runways and in the desert, and we perform air drops. The mission I do here is like being a bush pilot.”
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