109th Airlift Wing flies a cold-comfort mission to Antarctica
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
GLENVILLE, N.Y. — Two hulking ski-equipped planes, each carrying a crew of six, lifted off Tuesday from Stratton Air National Guard Base for the first leg of a five-day, 11,000-mile trip to the southern coast of Antarctica.
The aircraft, 45-ton LC-130 Hercules, or "Skibirds," are the latest to make the flight to support ice and climate studies by the National Science Foundation. The Glenville-based 109th Airlift Wing, which flies the only ski-outfitted aircraft in the U.S. military, has been flying missions to the South Pole for 24 years.
From the 109th's base just north of the Mohawk River, the planes will fly to California, then island-hop from Hawaii to the Samoan capital of Pago Pago to New Zealand, and then make their final descent on a wide-open stretch of arctic ice and snow. The planes will then be based at McMurdo Station, an Antarctic research center at the southern tip of Ross Island.
Deployed for one to two months at a time, the crew members — about 120 will make the trip this season as six planes will rotate crews every 30 to 60 days — will ferry fuel and supplies to scientists around the icy continent and maintain the only aircraft in the South Pole capable of reaching remote outposts.
But the crews also will help in case of a crisis, like they did in January when a plane from the 109th transported seven Vietnamese and Indonesian fishermen who were badly burned in a boat fire on the Ross Sea to a hospital in New Zealand.
An Air Force plane had been scheduled to pick up the fishermen but could not land due to bad weather. So a 109th Skibird was called on to make the 2,400-mile flight to Christchurch instead.
The 109th has aided in several other rescue missions, including a 2008 flight for an Australian researcher who suffered a broken leg. In 1999, Guard members carried out a risky mission to get a researcher back to civilization after she had treated herself for breast cancer for months at her outpost.
Most of the 109th members have made multiple trips to the South Pole. Lt. Colette Martin has been four times.
"It's an amazing experience," Martin said. "There's nothing else like it."
The Guard members will fly more than 350 missions across the continent, amassing more than 3,000 hours of flight time in 16 weeks. They'll work in 12-hour shifts, six days a week.
Parts of the South Pole where the crews will operate are high above sea level, and temperatures can dip well below minus-50 degrees, cold enough to freeze fuel.
McMurdo Station, however, was built on one of the lower, warmer portions of the continent. Monday's high there was 0 degrees Fahrenheit — minus 17 with the wind chill — according to weather.com.
"Sometimes it gets above freezing," Lt. Col. Cliff Souza said. "Maybe even around 40."