JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. - A visit to Joint Base Andrews May 8 by the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing provided a rare opportunity to get an inside view of the Guard’s polar mission and their signature ski-equipped Air Force LC-130H Hercules “SkiBird” aircraft.
The visit was also a chance to perform flight tests on the National Science Foundation’s new Icepod, a modular airborne sensor pod that will allow the LC-130 fleet’s supply flights to collect scientific data without special modifications to the airframe.
“We wanted to put a science pod on the LC-130, but if every agency develops their own pod, then we have to flight-test each one,” said Maj. Joshua Hicks, an LC-130 pilot with the 109th. “The idea was to get the biggest pod we could find and put that on a Special AirBorne-mission Installation and Response System arm. Then anyone who wanted to put their instruments inside can do that without any additional aerodynamic testing – the pod’s already been tested. By not having to do that testing, it saves us time and money.”
The Icepod contains multiple radar and camera systems used to study the Polar Regions’ ice sheets, glaciers and ultimately the land beneath them. Previously, the airborne data collection was done with DeHavilland DHC-6-300 “Twin Otters,” but the LC-130 has a much longer range and lift capacity than the smaller, twin-engine aircraft.
“It’s great that the Guard can provide this additional capability on our aircraft in support of the NSF mission in both Antarctica and Greenland,” said Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke III, director of the Air National Guard, who was on hand to learn more about the Icepod.
The LC-130 fleet supports a wide range of military and scientific missions. In addition to the National Science Foundation, the 109th AW is also supporting Department of Defense's new National Strategy for the Arctic Region, recently completing a first-ever joint combined arctic exercise sponsored by North American Aerospace Defense Command-U.S. Northern Command, showcasing the unique capabilities of the LC-130 in austere, polar environments. The 109th and its LC-130s were identified as one of only two, Air Force-specific arctic capabilities in the 2011 DoD Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage.
The unit also provides air service between McMurdo Station, Antarctica and New Zealand during the summer season, ferrying cargo and researchers to and from the Antarctic continent.
“Every single day the environment’s changing in Antarctica,” said Capt. Jason Grupp, a 109th pilot. “You never know what you’re going to be dealing with. Some days it’s beautiful, other days you get crazy storms. It’s such a dynamic environment, you just can’t beat it. We use every single crew member to get our mission done, so it’s even more rewarding because of how challenging it is.”
The 109th AW has provided the world's only ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft, which has been supporting DoD and NSF missions in the Arctic since 1975. Beginning in 1998, the unit has been the sole provider of this type of airlift to the National Science Foundation and U.S. Antarctic Program efforts.