During the Cold War, Greenland was a strategic location for the United States military to track and detect Soviet aircraft and ballistic missiles. The military established radar and tracking sites throughout Greenland's ice sheet. The only way in and out of the remote facilities was by specially equipped aircraft. Since 1975, that mission has belonged to an Air Force unit based in New York state -- the 109th Airlift Wing. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, a unit that began a now obsolete military mission has found new life in Greenland in the pursuit of science.
It is early morning in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing from New York state are far from home on this cold morning. It is about an hour from take off for a group of students and scientists heading into the Arctic chill of Greenland's vast ice sheet.
For many of these students, it is their first time up on the ice. But for Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Jones? "We are polar aviators," says the mission commander.
It has become a routine mission that is far from ordinary.
"We are the only C-130 in the world that has skis on them, and we're able to drop 30 to 40,000 pounds [18,000 kilograms] of cargo in one trip,” says Jones. “You wouldn't be able to do that with a smaller airplane or any other type of vehicle."
The C-130 is a robust military cargo airplane first used by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. It is now used by many different militaries around the world, but only the 109th has the distinction of flying to both polar regions.
"Our primary mission is down in Antarctica during the winter season,” explains the colonel, “and during the off season, we come up here and support VECO."
VECO Polar Resources is contracted by the National Science Foundation to coordinate travel and cargo for the scientists conducting the research.
Greg Huey is one of those scientists. To study the atmosphere in places like Summit, Greenland's tallest point, Huey depends on equipment brought in and out by the C-130s.
"It's hard work,” he says, “because you might have a six or seven week project, and you come in on the C-130s on a certain day, and you're going to leave on the C-130s, and you have to make sure that all your equipment is there. You have to make sure that everything works."
For the most part, everything does work. The 109th prides itself on its safety record -- it has never lost an aircraft -- and its maintenance record. Ice and snow can easily ground the C-130s. But decades of operating in the difficult conditions have enabled the unit to quickly return the aircraft to service.
While the weather frequently wreaks havoc on tight schedules up on the ice sheet, there is no alternate way to get in and out of the remote camps. The 109th is currently the only organization capable of transporting the large amounts of cargo and people needed to conduct the scientific research.
"If we weren't here they would probably have to either walk, ski, or take a sled dog team into the location,” says Jones, “which would probably hamper the amount of research they would get done."
The 109th Airlift Wing is made up of Air National Guard personnel. Most typically have other full-time jobs, and serve in uniform part-time -- usually about three weeks a year.
The 109th's ongoing support of the National Science Foundation's efforts in Greenland and Antarctica comes at a time of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite the current strain that combat operations have placed on members of the National Guard, it has so far not affected peacetime operations of the 109th in the polar regions.
"We are a military organization. We bring the professionalism of a military organization and the skills and we have the assets. But the actual mission we do is in the support of science, for the betterment of mankind as a whole."
In 1999, the 109th made international headlines when Dr. Jerri Nielsen, a physician at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, discovered a cancerous lump in her breast. A ski-equipped C-130 with the 109th attempted a dangerous landing in Antarctica's winter. Despite battling poor visibility and temperatures reaching negative 50 degrees Celsius, the mission was a success. The 109th airlifted Dr. Nielsen to the United States for treatment.
Some video courtesy of 109th Airlift Wing