These are the airmen who fly to the coldest places on Earth
“Pole to pole.”
These three words are the motto of the 109th Airlift Wing – at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, New York – and though short, it is an accurate synopsis of the unit’s mission.
“We fly missions to Greenland, which is near the North Pole, and Antarctica, which is the South Pole,” said Maj. Emery Jankford, the wing’s chief of training. “So, we literally fly pole to pole.”
During the spring and summer months, the 109th AW operates out of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and flies scientific researchers with the National Science Foundation and their materiel to remote field camps across the Arctic Ice Cap. In the fall and winter months, the unit conducts similar missions out of McMurdo Station, Antarctica, as part of Operation Deep Freeze.
Antarctica and Greenland are among the coldest, windiest, and most inhospitable places on the globe and they provide a challenging opportunity to demonstrate the reach and flexibility of airpower, the capabilities of the joint force, and the integrated support of active-duty, Guard, and Reserve military personnel.
“Basically, we go from cold to really cold,” Jankford said. “The Greenland operating season helps us train and prepare for when we operate in Antarctica.”
Each year, the 109th AW flies more than 800 hours during the Greenland support season and transports 2.1 million pounds of cargo, 49,000 pounds of fuel, and nearly 2,000 passengers.
“If it got there, we brought it,” said Maj. Justin Garren, the wing’s chief of Greenland Operations.
To accomplish this, the unit flies the world’s only ski-equipped LC-130s, called “skibirds,” which allows the planes to land on and take off from ice and compacted snow runways.
“We do have some traditional “wheelbirds” in our unit, but the LC-130s give us the unique capability of being able to land in snowy arctic areas,” Garren said.
While the LC-130s are able to operate without a traditional runway, the arctic environment does present challenges the crews must overcome long before the planes’ skis touch down on the ice.
“Our biggest challenges are weather and navigation,” said Capt. Zach McCreary, a C-130 pilot with the 109th AW.
Because most of Greenland is within the Arctic Circle near the North Pole and Antarctica surrounds the South Pole, there is a lot of magnetic interference when flying in these areas. This interference makes GPS navigation difficult, so the aircrews have to resort to old-school tactics.
“Our navigators are some of the only ones in the military who still use celestial navigation,” Jankford said. “We still break out the charts and formulas to determine our positions and headings.”
Weather is another challenge. It can change quickly and it can get nasty, so aircrews try to stay as up to date as possible when flying missions.
“We receive regular weather briefings, before we leave and while we’re in the air,” McCreary said. “But there are times the weather changes quickly and you have to react and adapt to it on the fly.”
In some cases, usually with cloud cover, this means landing with limited to no visibility. At times the land and sky blend together with no visible horizon line.
“It’s like flying inside of a ping pong ball,” McCreary said. “Everything is white and it all looks the same.”Capt. Zach McCreary, C-130 pilot, 109th AW
In these situations, the aircrew uses a spotting technique where the copilot and loadmasters will look for flags lining the runway and help the pilot line up the aircraft during its approach.
“It’s a very unique airlift wing,” Garren said. “We’re landing on snow and ice, we’re using the sun and stars to navigate, and we’re using our eyeballs to land – I’m not sure there’s another unit that flies like this.”
Because the 109th AW operates in such unique environments, utilizing dated techniques, effective training is only possible within the areas of operation.
“We can only train for these missions when we’re in Greenland and Antarctica,” Garren said. “We can’t train at home, so new crewmembers are learning and being signed off on tasks while they’re landing and taking off from the ice.”
The uniqueness of the polar mission is one reason it was given to the 109th AW. Being a guard unit, its members stay in place longer and are able to train, develop, and enhance their skills and experience without having to move or relocate every few years like their active duty counterparts.
“We have guys here who have been flying this mission for 30 years,” Garren said. “That amount of experience is invaluable and the knowledge they pass on to the junior guys is irreplaceable.”
Also irreplaceable are the capabilities of the wing’s unique “skibirds.”
“We can fly into an austere area and land with our skis with no runway somewhere no one has ever been,” Garren said. “That’s why we’re here and that’s what we train to do.”