SCOTIA, N.Y. – The specialty of the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing is landing massive, ski-equipped LC-130s on snow or ice at the top or bottom of the world.
But before the pilot can put that plane down, a team of 109th engineers has to go in first and build a snow runway, called a skiway, for that aircraft to land on.
The skiway makes it a lot easier to get the 80,000 pounds of cargo an LC-130 carries onto the ground. It ensures there are no holes or cracks to surprise the crew, said Maj. Brandon Caldwell, LC-130 pilot and a Ski Landing Area Control Officer (SLACO).
As a SLACO, Caldwell's job is to evaluate the landing area to determine if it will be possible to groom a runway and land an aircraft. He also oversees the formation of the runway and checks to ensure it will be safe.
During missions in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, 109th Airmen have been refining the process of building a skiway rapidly. This allows the heavy LC-130 transports to land in places that are normally inaccessible, explained, Lt. Col. Steve Slosek, an LC-130 pilot.
The ability to build a skiway and land an LC-130 in a remote area will come into play when the 109th Airlift Wing participates in Arctic Edge 2020 in Alaska in February. The biannual joint training mission tests the ability of the U.S. military to operate in the Arctic.
The 109th's primary mission has been providing airlift for National Science Foundation research in Antarctica and the Greenland ice cap. But the skills needed to fly cargo and people around Antarctica can also be used for military missions in the Arctic, Slosek said.
Building a skiway in the Artic works best when it's done with the Canadian Forces, Caldwell said. The Canadians fly the small Twin Otter ski-equipped aircraft, which don't need a skiway to land on snow and ice, he explained.
The Otters bring in the people and items needed to construct a base camp and build the skiway, he said.
"They (the Twin Otters) can fly low and slow and have the ability to land and take off in about 100 feet," Caldwell said. "We find a place that the little plane can land, they put us on the ground and then we smooth it out so the heavy airlift can come in."
If the Twin Otters are unavailable, the SLACO and skiway team would have to evaluate the aircraft that could be used and choose an alternate transport.
A skiway building team consists of eight to 12 volunteer base personnel from various career fields. Volunteers submit a resume or letter highlighting skills that may contribute to living in the isolated base camp. Before they can deploy, the Airmen must go through arctic survival training and train with more experienced team members.
First, they study satellite imagery to help determine the best spot in the designated area. Once they've picked the place and land in the Canadian Forces Otter, the team must immediately build life-sustaining shelter to include tents, heaters and water purification.
Next, a reconnaissance team evaluates the area on the ground to ensure it is suitable for a skiway. After that, it's a matter of grooming the runway with snowmobiles, groomers and shovels and marking the runway with large black canvas markers, Caldwell said.
"There is no technical order to tell you how to build a skiway. A lot of what we do is an art; there is no blueprint for it," said Slosek. "We have to be concerned about the density and type of the snow. We have to develop procedures to evaluate the land and operate in such a harsh, unpredictable environment."
The 109th has already demonstrated the capability to land and take and carry heavy cargo, Slosek said.
In 2014 after Parks Canada, the Canadian National Parks agency, located the remains of the HMS Erebus, the 109th helped recover a cannon from the wreck.
The Erebus sunk in 1848 while searching for the Northwest Passage as part of the Franklin Expedition.
The 680-pound cannon was too large to fit in a Twin Otter. So a skiway was built, a 109th Airlift Wing LC-130 landed and loaded and flew the cannon away.
Today that cannon is displayed at the Canadian Museum of History.
Another example in which a skiway would be needed is if a traditional wheeled runway becomes unusable due to natural disaster in a remote part of Alaska, Slosek said. A skiway team could be dropped, build a runway, and allow an LC-130 to come in with needed supplies, equipment and transport.
Building a runway wherever it may be needed in a polar region to drop supplies or pick up troops is becoming an option that was never thought possible, Slosek said.
"I believe in our mission and I think this is the next step. What we do is important and will be needed in the future." Caldwell said.