NY’s 109th Airlift Wing: Home of the LC-130, World’s Largest Skiplane

June 26, 2023Jenna Biter
109th Airlift Wing LC-130

An airman assigned to the 109th Airlift Wing participates in training at Raven Camp, Greenland, on June 3, 2021. The New York Air National Guard uses Raven Camp to train service members in snow-runway landings, polar airdrops, and Arctic survival skills. US Air National Guard photo by Maj. David Price.

Boom. The plane jerked forward and up, finally lifting the tips of its skis off the snow runway. Grins spread across the chapped, red faces of the 20 or so US service members slouched against net-backed jump seats. Most of the Guardsmen clapped. One or two whooped. Others let out audible sighs of relief. After a failed takeoff attempt, the use of rockets gave the ski-equipped LC-130 cargo plane just enough power to leave the soft spring ice. 

Following days of Arctic survival training on Greenland’s ice cap — where nighttime temperatures can drop below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, even in May — the service members were more than ready to get back to New York. Within five minutes of the trip’s first leg, all the airmen had passed out, too exhausted to remove winter hats and parkas, let alone grasp that one of only 10 ski-equipped LC-130s in the world had just blasted them into the sky sci-fi style.

But then again, the Guardsmen are from New York’s 109th Airlift Wing, home of the LC-130 “Skibird.” The service members are used to ice sheets, frost-nipped toes, and sketchy takeoffs from snow runways. Even though the assisted-takeoff rocket boost marked a somewhat special occasion, that day in May was still just a day on the job for the Guardsmen.

Related: Inside the Belly of a C-17 Heading For Greenland

109th Airlift Wing LC-130

Royal Canadian Armed Forces soldiers board an LC-130 “Skibird” from the New York Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing at Resolute Bay in Nunavut, Canada, on March 15, 2023. The 109th Airlift Wing flew the soldiers to Templeton Bay for a ground forces exercise. US Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Madison Scaringe.

The 109th Airlift Wing Goes ‘Pole to Pole’

Since before the turn of the century, the 109th Airlift Wing has flown America’s missions to Greenland at the top of the globe and Antarctica at the bottom. At both poles, the Guardsmen resupply the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) coldest and most remote research camps, where experts gather valuable data on the world’s only ice sheets.

Because the NSF sites are far from civilization, the 109th airlifts in all the camps’ supplies. The deliveries usually include provisions, personnel, and high-tech science equipment, such as the components of IceCube, the world’s largest neutrino observatory, which was built near Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in the 2000s.

Perhaps most importantly, the aircrews offload fuel to keep the remote camps humming during the height of summer and even when the harsh, sunless winter rolls in. That is when most scientists — save for a brave few — head home, and the Guard’s support dwindles.

109th Airlift Wing LC-130

Maj. Chris Husher, an LC-130 pilot from the 109th Airlift Wing, conducts preflight measures at Templeton Bay in Nunavut, Canada, on March 15, 2023. The 109th Airlift Wing provided tactical airlift support for Guerrier Noridque 2023, transporting cargo and personnel to and from remote environments. US Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Madison Scaringe.

But the New York Air National Guard doesn’t rest for long. The 109th has no time for such luxury. Because of Earth’s tilt, when it is winter in Greenland, it is summer in Antarctica, and vice versa. As a result, the unit ping-pongs between locations, resupplying NSF camps using LC-130 cargo planes during each pole’s summer.

Related: Operation Deep Freeze: America’s Mission to Antarctica

The Mighty LC-130 ‘Skibird’

None of the NSF’s polar operations would be possible without the 109th’s 10 LC-130 Skibirds and the aircrews that operate them. Lockheed Martin started developing the lumbering penguin of an airplane in the late 1950s. All the polar planes eventually ended up at the 109th Airlift Wing at Stratton Air National Guard Base near Albany, New York. Though roughly half a century old and limited in numbers, the 109th’s LC-130 fleet is still the cornerstone of US polar transportation.

“This is the only LC-130 unit in the Department of Defense, and the LC-130 is the only ski-equipped medium-to-heavy airlifter in the world,” Maj. Nathan King, a pilot with the 109th, told Coffee or Die. “There’s no one else that has any capability like this.”

Royal Canadian Armed Forces

Royal Canadian Armed Forces soldiers board a Skibird from the 109th Airlift Wing at Resolute Bay in Nunavut, Canada, on March 15, 2023. US Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Madison Scaringe.

The LC-130 cargo plane is the polar version of the familiar C-130 Hercules. Like the C-130, the Skibird has a max payload upwards of 40,000 pounds. But in addition to wheels for landing on traditional, paved runways, the LC-130 has two main skis, 12 feet long by 5.5 feet wide, and one slightly smaller nose ski. Pilots alternate between landing gear, depending on the runway surface.

“Once you’re in the air, everything is basically the same … for the most part,” King said. Bad polar conditions can really differentiate the C-130 and LC-130 experiences. “One of the stranger things that you need to get used to is sometimes the horizon can be almost impossible to see — or completely impossible to see.

“Under certain sky conditions, you can’t really even make out what the surface of the snow looks like, the definition. It’ll look like you’re standing in the middle of a ping-pong ball.”

Read Next:  A Brief History of the US Military in Greenland, America’s Defense Bastion in the High North

Jenna Biter
Jenna Biter

Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Coffee Or Die Photo
From the Team Room to Team Room Design: An Operator’s Creative Journey

BRCC partners with Team Room Design for an exclusive T-shirt release!

Coffee Or Die Photo
Get Your Viking On: The Exclusive 30 Sec Out BRCC Shirt Club Design

Thirty Seconds Out has partnered with BRCC for an exclusive shirt design invoking the God of Winter.

Grizzly Forge BRCC shirt
Limited Edition: Grizzly Forge Blades on an Awesome BRCC Shirt

Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.

BRCC Limited Edition Josh Raulerson Blackbeard Skull Shirt
From Naval Service to Creative Canvas: BRCC Veteran Artist Josh Raulerson

Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.

Medal of Honor is held up.
Biden Will Award Medal of Honor to Army Helicopter Pilot Who Rescued Soldiers in Vietnam Firefight

Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.

dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2024 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved