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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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