The Dump Truck of Airplanes

When you’re stuck on the Greenland ice, you want the LC-130.

Mighty Planes - Skibirds (Full Episode)

Winter got you down? Tired of the gray, slushy snow? Try living at NEEM Camp, a remote research facility consisting of two tents and a hut in northwest Greenland.

To get there, scientists must rely on the members of the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard. The 109th has ten LC-130s, ski-equipped variants of the C-130. The members of the 109th—and its Hercules Skibirds—are featured on the Smithsonian Channel’s Mighty Planes. (You can watch the entire episode here.) In this episode, three Hercs fly 2,000 miles from New York to Sondrestrom Air Base (now Kangerlussuaq Airport) to evacuate scientists, their equipment and research samples—drilled ice cores—at the end of the Arctic summer. This flight also carries supplies for the next research season. 

Greenland’s conditions make flying a challenge. When it’s overcast, the combination of white clouds and snow make touchdown “like landing inside a Ping-Pong ball,” says one of the pilots. In order to save time, the crew does a “combat off-load” of the supplies. The pilot guns the engines, and the cargo pallets shoot out the back of the aircraft. (Sort of like ripping the tablecloth off the table without upsetting the dishes.)

The cold creates other hazards. As the aircraft sits in place, the weight of the Hercules can cause a layer of water to form underneath the skis, freezing them in place. To compensate, the crew raises and lowers the skis to prevent this from happening. 

As the crews race against whiteout conditions, scientists patiently wait on the ice. “The Herc is like a dump truck,” says a pilot of the 109th. “You think about it: A dump truck is not pretty. It’s not fast. But it gets the job done.” 

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