Wheels up: 109th Airlift Wing begins latest Antarctica mission

Glenville-based unit heads there as part of Operation Deep Freeze
An airmen walks to one of the LC-130 airplanes on Tuesday at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Glenville.
An airmen walks to one of the LC-130 airplanes on Tuesday at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Glenville.

Snow and wind are in the forecast for Major Suzy Nielson, and that’s OK; Nielson and her friends packed winter coats — and their skis.

“We’re the largest, ski-equipped aircraft in the Air Force,” said Nielson, flight commander on one of two massive LC-130 airplanes that left the 109th Airlift Wing in Glenville on Tuesday morning.

The aircraft — with crew, equipment and supplies aboard — are bound for McMurdo Station Antarctica in support of the 109th’s 30th season of Operation Deep Freeze. The mission lends military support to the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program.

“This will be my sixth season going out to the South Pole, taking scientists and cargo to these outcamps and even farther away from the South Pole,” Nielson said. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere, and the skis allow us to pretty much land anywhere.”

It’s cold country. According to NASA, Antarctica is nearly covered in ice. The Earth’s fifth-largest continent is the coldest place on the planet, with Wednesday temperatures expected to be around 40 below zero.

November and December are considered Antarctica’s spring and early summer. January and February are summer months, with daytime high temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula reaching around 50 degrees.

The 109th’s mission in Antarctica — the 109th is the only branch of the U.S. military that makes the trip — begins Oct. 25 and runs through February.

A total of 500 men and women will participate in between 200 and 250 missions, with about 120 airmen stationed on the ice at any given time during the season.

The Airlift’s chief mission in the region is to fly scientists, support, fuel, supplies and medical supplies from McMurdo to various remote locations. The numbers add up: During the 2016-17 season, the 109th flew an estimated 2,550 researchers and support staff — along with about 3 million pounds of cargo and 2 million pounds of fuel — to research stations across the continent.

Nielson, whose father was a Navy pilot, said Antarctic snow can present a challenge for LC-130 operation.

“On a day like this, when the weather’s beautiful, no,” she said, referring to Tuesday’s sunny skies and clear conditions. “But when the weather is not so great and you have to land in a camp in the middle of nowhere, a lot of times there’s a stickiness to the snow, and the skis stick to that snow.”

And that causes the trouble.

“Breaking that friction can take a lot of effort, can take a lot of muscle,” Nielson said. “In addition, that’s when you get those really bumpy days when you’re trying and you can’t even get the air speed up to 50 knots. It’s amazing, to have four big engines like this and not even be able to get to 50 knots.”

Col. Michele L. Kilgore, who became the first female commander of the 109th on Sunday, will be on the ice in January and February. She said she has enjoyed her first days in Glenville.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “The hospitality has been warm, and everyone has been so welcoming to me and my family.”

Kilgore, a command pilot with more than 3,500 hours in various aircraft, said the Airlift Wing has been busy this summer.

“The best part of any job is obviously the people,” she said. “We bounce from one mission to the other. We were fresh off hurricane support to Puerto Rico — taking on people and supplies and assistance down there to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico — then we’re right back into: Repack your bags and get ready to go to Antarctica.”

Men and women from the Wing are ready to travel.

“This is really what we’re here for,” said Col. Chris Sander, commander of the 109th Operations Group. “We anticipate it, we talk about it, we plan it to the Nth degree, and now it’s time to execute, so we’re all looking forward to it.”

While warmer weather will come to Antarctica, Sander said personnel are ready for the cold.

“When we first get down there, it really takes a little time for the airplanes to acclimate, as well as the people,” he said. “The people are a little quicker to acclimate, I think. The planes kind of have a little rougher time.

“The toughest part of the mission is really getting it all rolling — getting it all started,” Sander added.

Before anything starts rolling, Airlift Wing officials talk to scientists about their plans for Deep Freeze.

“From an airman’s point of view, it’s great hearing about that,” said Col. Robert Donaldson, commander of the 109th Maintenance Group. “It’s great understanding the larger picture, so it’s not just what the airplane can do for them, but really, what’s the end result of what they’re all trying to do.

“The National Science Foundation is doing some terrific work and is able to accomplish the big picture for the greater good of America and the rest of the world.”

The trip to Antarctica includes a stop in California, at Point Mugu. That is the home of the California Air National Guard. Then, there is a stop in Hawaii, at Hickam Air Force Base; and then American Samoa.

While crews are rotated in and out of Antarctica, men and women do spend plenty of time together in the chilly place.

“There are plenty of little hikes you can do — walks you can do,” Sander said. “It’s actually camaraderie between each other that really keeps things going, and playing cards is one of them. There are a few guys who really like to play cards.”

“It’s a great mission,” Donaldson said. “We have a lot of fun doing it. I can honestly say the patriotism from these women and men in the 109th is top notch.

“I’ve worked a lot of different jobs throughout my career, and I can honestly say, to see these folks come together and push for the greater good across the spectrum … is second to none.”

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124, [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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