Fly the Friendly Skies

Legendary 109th pilot Jim Grupp (Ret) at Alert Bay, Canada, March 2006. Photo: Ed Stockard We got to thinking about our colleagues in the New York Air National Guard 109th Airlift Wing the other day.  We heard about the delight with which two Greenlandic high school students, participating in an education program en route to Summit Station, experienced take-off and landing in the plane’s cockpit, having been invited up by the pilot for a rare view of their ice-topped homeland.

The 109th is a special unit. Their primary mission is to provide airlift to the US National Science Foundation’s research programs at both poles:  they move civilians (scientists and those who manage or support the research program) and their gear to and from and all over the ice in Greenland and Antarctica.

Through the 109th, civilians experience a fly culture unlike a typical commercial airline. For one thing, the "seats" are made of red netting hooked to the inside walls of the plane. No first class here--everyone sits in cargo class.

For one thing, all the seats are middle seats—and they’re made of red netting. No nonsense. Have a seat.

The ANG doesn't serve snacks, and forget the drink cart. But sometimes, en route to Greenland from their base in Scotia, New York, they will take you out for ice cream: the airport staff at Canadian Forces Base at Goose Bay, Newfoundland (the refueling stop), give free ice cream bars to all comers. And while there's no in-flight movie, the view out the windows can be spectacular, especially if a reconnaissance means the crew goes in low.

There's no in-flight movie, but the view out the porthole windows can be stunning. Photo: Ed Stockard

You can drape yourself over the cargo pallets (as is the fellow, left center, below) or stand in the aisles. As long as the air is smooth and the loadmaster doesn't mind.

If they lose your luggage, you’re likely to know it since cargo flies in the belly of the plane with the people.  (But the 109th doesn’t lose your luggage.) Photo: Henning Thing

Like flight attendants on commercial airlines, loadmasters are in charge of what happens behind the cockpit. But they won't bring you an eye mask or fluff your pillow; they're busy with other matters:

It was a beautiful day for the loadmaster--really, for all involved--to see this D-8 snugged into the hold, ready to fly to a deep field camp. Photo: Ed Stockard

Sometimes the 109th drops something--but only on purpose:

. . . on purpose of course. Here, the 109th delivers via air drop. Photo: Ed Stockard

And then there are the skis, required for snow and ice field landings. When fully retracted, the skis sit up close to the body of the plane. When deployed, they fit down over the wheels, almost like enormous spats.  And those spats make the "ski-birds" workhorses at the poles, where there are few paved runways available.

You land in Kangerlussuaq on wheels, but on the ice, you land on skis and glide to a stop. Photo: Henning Thing

. . . and touchdown!

The Guard doesn’t put up much of a curtain between the air operations and the passengers; there's no Wizard of Oz here, so you never forget that what you’re doing is flying in a big metal bird. But somehow, that’s comforting.  Friendly skis.  Friendly skies.

Congratulations to Lt Col Mark Doll and the entire 109th Airlift Wing on the successful testing of an LC-130 fitted with eight-bladed propellers earlier this week at Summit Station! More on those developments in a future post.