This is the 25th entry in the Armed with Science series, Dispatches from Antarctica. The series features Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan’s first-hand experiences on OPERATION: DEEP FREEZE, the Defense Department’s support of National Science Foundation research in Antarctica.
26 Oct, McMurdo Station, Antarctica: All Hail the Ski-Bird
The stadium is packed. Thousands of cheering fans rise to their feet. The cacophonous roar is deafening. Striped officials wait patiently at midfield. Trumpets blare announcing the arrival of the home team. Then, out of the access tunnel, the starting lineup hustles on to the field, led by the team’s MVP.
I’ve waited weeks for this moment. And this is not to take away from the tremendous contributions of the other team players. The C-17 is arguably the master of heavy Antarctic inter-continental airlift, with the C-5 making a cameo appearance in New Zealand at the front and back of the season. The Australian A319 and Kiwi 757 provide world class passenger and cargo lift at crunch times. KBA’s Baslers (still über cool) and Twin Otters seem to fearlessly go anywhere at anytime. And PHI’s polar helicopters get the scientists to inaccessible sites and open up regions served by no other asset.
Ah, but the LC-130 is all heart…and a lot of muscle. Only the LC-130 can project such mighty feats of daring-do out to the remote corners of the world’s coldest, windiest, and highest continent. And then do it all over again on the polar opposite side of the world. Need 5 pallets slung together with telescope parts delivered to the South Pole? Call the Skibirds. What about some big tractor dropped off in the middle of nowhere with no time to drive there? How about drift off-loading of fuel bladders, followed by airdrop, followed by an open snow landing from the navigator’s airborne radar approach. There’s only one option.
Lumbering from New Zealand to Antarctica at roughly half the airspeed of its gigantic wheels-only US Air Force cousin, this most muscular of the world’s ski-planes holds its own on the snow and ice. If Antarctic aviation is a full-contact team sport, then the LC-130 makes a good case to be its most valuable player at McMurdo. And the men and women who fly, maintain, and enable this science support mission live up to that challenge each and every season.
The 109th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard, has been maintaining and flying LC-130s in Antarctica since 1988. They’ve been operating ski-planes on the Arctic and Greenlandic icecaps since 1975. Since the Naval Aviation left Operation Deep Freeze in the late 1990s, no other flying organization has maintained the continuity, skilled workforce, safety record, and sheer ability to survive and operate in polar regions as have the ‘Raven Gang’ of the 109th.
Many long-time McMurdo participants view the arrival of this first of many LC-130s, as the sentimental start of the 2010-2011 US Antarctic Program austral summer season. Several of my dispatches over the next couple of weeks here will be dedicated to telling this story.
This is a story of men and women from small towns in upstate New York. Of Total Force Airmen who serve in uniform, sometimes daily, sometimes monthly, but always with pride and distinction. Of Warfighters, who like their brothers and sisters in the C-17, train, prepare, and deploy for combat when they’re not here plying their snow trade.
Yet, this is a story of how this same small community in upstate New York, leveraged its unique expertise to become one of the most effective inter-agency partners in executing the National Science Foundation’s polar mission. Though it is but one part of the Joint Task Force – Support Forces Antarctica logistics team, the LC-130 holds a special place in the lineup. I only hope I can adequately convey the sights, sounds, and feelings of this operation to those of you who read this from afar.
Many thanks to Major David Panzera, 109AW Plans Office, for providing video footage of the LC-130.