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Home : News
NEWS | Feb. 4, 2022

New York National Guard Airmen get polar survival training

By Jaclyn Lyons, New York National Guard

SCOTIA, N.Y. - The New York National Guard Airmen who fly people to the South Pole or supplies to Greenland science stations on the 109th Airlift Wing’s LC-130 Hercules “Skibirds” must know how to survive in a barren landscape of snow and ice.

They learn that by taking a required class called Barren Land Arctic Survival Training, or BLAST.

The BLAST school is run by the 109th Airlift Wing’s aircrew flight equipment section and survival, escape, resistance and evasion experts, known as SERE instructors, from the 66th Training Squadron from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.

The 109th Airlift Wing flies 10 C-130s modified to use skis as landing gear, and they are the largest ski-equipped aircraft in the world. With the C-130s, the wing routinely supplies U.S. science facilities in Antarctica and Greenland. 

The 109th aircrew flight equipment personnel facilitate all the logistics for the course and set up the training base. The SERE personnel teach the techniques used for surviving in the arctic environment, including surviving a forced landing in a barren landscape.

Students are taught to use resources stored onboard the planes, said Master Sgt. David Gillis, the aircrew flight equipment training instructor from the 109th Airlift Wing. These include arctic tents, camp stoves to boil snow and make water, cold weather rations and a Gamow bag, which is a portable hyperbaric chamber to treat altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness can be a danger because the South Pole is over 9,000 feet above sea level and the Greenland ice cap is 7,000 feet above sea level.

The students learn how to make fighter trenches and snow houses, cold weather shelters made from blocks of snow that are cut and stacked together to create a shelter, Gillis said.

Fighter trenches are small and made for sleeping. Snow houses are larger and used as a gathering place and for prepping water and eating, he explained.

The training site, dubbed Raven Camp, sits at about 7,000 feet of elevation on the Greenland ice cap. The only way to reach it is to fly from Kangerlussuaq International Airport and land on a 6,000 foot-long “skiway” carved out of the snow and ice by two camp caretakers who maintain it during Greenland’s summer.

The camp offers the perfect setting for real-world training. It is a brief 30-minute flight from the airport in Kangerlussuaq but remote enough to experience rapid shifts in weather that occur in the Arctic.

The skiway is also used for landing and take-off practice. The camp has no permanent buildings and is dismantled at the end of the summer.

Capt. Nick Margaglio, an LC-130 pilot, said information is helpful, but it is the reality of the training — the fact that the skills can make the difference between life and death — and the remoteness of the site that matter most.

“The day before we were supposed to leave, we got hit with a massive blizzard, the plane was unable to pick us up. I mean, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face it was so bad,” Margaglio said. “It went from training to real-world, and we had to sit and wait it out. We sat there for 24 hours and just listened to the deafening wind.”

Members of the 139th Airlift Squadron who fly and crew the LC-130s are required to attend the BLAST school, Gillis said.

“The aircrew members are most at risk of becoming stranded in one of these remote locations,” Gillis added.

After two days of classroom training and three days surviving on the icecap, the students headed back to Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, New York, outside Schenectady.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this experience, if needed, would increase my ability to survive long enough to be recovered,” Margaglio said.