A member of the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing performs maintenance on an LC-130, ski-equipped aircraft at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, on December 17, 2018. National Guard photo by TSgt. Gabriel Enders.
The airmen of the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing are not only tasked with flying one of the most unique missions in the Air Force—airlift in Antarctica using their ski-equipped LC-130s—they are doing it while literally writing the book on their plane’s new propellers.
The wing is the first operational unit in the Air Force with a fleet of the new NP-2000 eight-bladed propellers for their LC-130s, and earlier this year completed their first deployment for Operation Deep Freeze with a full fleet of the updated aircraft. Since they are the first operational unit in the Air Force with the propeller system, the wing’s maintainers have written the Air Force Instructions and the task order process USAF will use as more aircraft are outfitted with them.
“Other units don’t know how to fix ‘em, no one knows how to work on ‘em, it’s our maintainers who are figuring it out,” said 1st Lt. Laura James, a navigator with the 109th, during an interview at the Paris Air Show in late June.
Previously, the unit used NAVAIR instructions but that did not cover USAF-specific needs. Last year, the handful of maintainers finished writing the instructions shortly before the wing sent six of the updated LC-130s to Deep Freeze, the 31st season that the unit supported the National Science Foundation in Antarctica.
During the five-month season, the wing flew 2,100 researchers and staff, 2.8 million pounds of cargo, and more than 250,000 gallons of fuel to research stations across Antarctica.
The new propellers system makes maintainers lives easier, especially in the frigid weather. The older T56 four-bladed system was prone to cracking and seal leaks. Airmen had to take the jet down for a day or two, depending on weather, and remove the entire blade assembly just to replace one of the blades. This work has to be done without a hangar. About four seasons ago, SSgt. Jason Candido, maintainer and engine specialist with the 109th, said his aircraft was set to return home on the last day of the season when a blade cracked, prompting the team to unpack the aircraft and start the lengthy replacement process outside when it was -38 degrees.
To do such maintenance, crews had to pull the aircraft to the side of the skiway and bury its landing gear in snow so it wouldn’t move during engine runs. With the new NP-2000, however, individual blades can be swapped out on a much shorter timeline, Candido said.
“It’s about two hours in and out, as opposed to the entire day, so it keeps everything operational if we do have that issue,” he said.
The Air Force identified the NYANG to be an early adopter of the new system because of the increased thrust it offers on takeoff—about 20 percent more per engine according to its manufacturer UTC Aerospace Systems—means the aircraft no longer has to rely on the dwindling stock of jet-assisted-takeoff rockets to lift off from snow.
In addition to the 109th, the Wyoming Air National Guard has a small amount of aircraft with the NP-2000. The service is upgrading the MAFFS-equipped aircraft with the propellers, and Guard officials have said they would like to retrofit the entire C-130H fleet with them.
Operationally, the upgraded aircraft “leap off the snow,” which is noticeable especially at some of the higher altitude locations where the unit flies, James said. While the blades cause a slight reduction in fuel economy, the “tradeoff is significant for our specific mission.”
The 109th, unlike the rest of the service, exclusively flies support for the National Science Foundation as opposed to military operational missions. The wing’s year is split between Antarctic operations and training, both at home and in Greenland where they practice snow operations. The NSF has a presence in Greenland that the unit supports, but the bulk of the Greenland flying is training.
Flying on a skiway is dramatically different than traditional flying on a runway. There’s very few navigation aids and no tower, so the navigator is active in providing detailed information to the pilot on the approach, including distance, drift, heading, altitude down to about 10 feet, especially in some of the intense weather conditions the unit faces.
“Some days have whiteout conditions, so it looks like you are flying in the inside of a ping pong ball,” James said. “There’s no surface or horizon definition, so you have no clue when the plane’s going to touch the ground.”
While deployed to Antarctica, crews maintain 24-hour operations with day and night crews. Getting there takes about a week, ferrying from New York, to the West Coast, to Hawaii, on to Christchurch, N.Z., and then on to McMurdo Station. The deployment is unique because of the personnel the unit flies—scientists in the back of the C-130 instead of soldiers. Sometimes they also carry VIPs. For James, her very first flight to the South Pole, on her first deployment, had a special VIP: her dad, who once was a pilot and now works with the NSF, she said.
The 109th is a small wing, but because of its unique capability maintains high operations, said 1st Lt. Daniel Urbanski, a pilot with the unit.
“It’s a unique mission, we’re serving a niche that only we can do,” he said. “The ops tempo is high, it’s like that for a reason. We’re the only ones doing it. It definitely keeps us busy, but we’re proud of it. We love the mission and it’s something we hope to do for a long time.”