Joe Dabney at Large
A Daring C-130 Rescue at the South Pole
By Joe Dabney
When I worked at Lockheed-Georgia back in "the good old days," one of my most
exciting experiences came when the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift
Wing, based at Schenectady, New York, invited our Lockheed photographer, John
Rossino, and myself to go with them on a mission that would include landings and
takeoffs on the Greenland Ice Cap.
What made Polar ice landings possible was
a unique ski-and-wheel landing gear system that had been invented by Lockheed
engineers back in the late 1950's.
In other words, the unusual gear gave the
"flying truck" airlifter the capability to take off on wheels such as from
Dobbins AF Base, and land later on skis on the ice in Greenland. Returning to
the home base, the plane easily would take off on the skis and would land just
as easily on concrete.
The ski-and-wheel type landing gear turned out to be
extremely important in the early days of U.S. Navy activity in the Antarctic,
where the Navy flew critical supply and rescue missions to inland scientific
bases with the A-model ski-bird, the LC-130A. Lockheed had built the one-ton
aluminum ski-and-wheel landing gear in the shape of a horseshoe. And to enable
the airplane to break free from the ice in subzero temperature takeoffs, they
came up with the idea of coating the bottom of the skis with Teflon! It worked
like a charm.
LC-130H ski-Hercules of NY Air Guard's 109th Airlift Wing, shows off its
aluminum skies on a Greenland takeoff.
(Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin/John
Rear Admiral David Tyree, commander of Naval Support Forces
Antarctica during the A-model Hercules era, declared that, "The C-130 has
revolutionized our efforts...It has been the greatest tool we've ever had for
the permanent development of Antarctica."
The Navy eventually got out of the
Antarctic ski program, I regret to say, but the mission was seamlessly picked up
by the USAF Air Guard unit at Schenectady which has acquitted itself extremely
well over the years.
One of the greatest rescue missions in Antarctic history
was recorded in October, 1999 when a National Science Foundation medical doctor
suffering from cancer Dr. Jerri Nielsen was airlifted from the South Pole by
the Schenectady guard unit with modern ski-equipped LC-130H
Defying the continent's emerging spring light, rapidly changing
weather patterns, and bone-chilling minus 63-degree temps, the New York
Guardsmen carried out the dangerous mission with flawless precision.
Nielsen had been in Antarctica for a one-year tour at the Amundsen-Scott Camp
when she diagnosed herself as a cancer victim. On Oct. 5, National Science
Foundation officials, taking note of her worsening condition, tasked the 109th
to mount the ski-C-130 rescue mission to bring out the ailing doctor.
Fleming, vice commander of the 109th, told Parade magazine, "We knew that every
eyeball on earth was watching this event." He added that the rescue flight on
Oct. 16, 1999 was indeed historic. It marked the earliest winter flight ever to
land at the South Pole. And it occurred in the 109th's first full season after
assuming control of the LC-130 mission from the Navy's VXE-6 Squadron.
Oct. 6, the Schenectady crew launched its five-day flight to Christchurch, New
Zealand. After a day's delay at Christchurch due to high winds, they flew on to
McMurdo Station located on the edge of the icy continent. It was October 16 when
they took off on the final three-hour leg to the bottom of the
Dr. Jerri Nielsen at the
South Pole Station
(photo courtesy of Dr.
Arriving in the South Pole vicinity, the LC-130's flight station was
dark in contrast to the white-on-white of the outside and the tense
quietness was broken only by the air speed numbers being called out by the
copilot, and above ground height figures coming from the flight engineer. As
luck would have it, the sun crested on the horizon, and the approach angle
enabled the pilot to see the skiway flags.
On the ground, the wait was tense,
also. "Suddenly we heard a noise rising above the howling wind, Dr. Nielsen
wrote in her book, Ice Bound, published in 2002. "It was the roar of all four
engines on the LC-130, powering for a landing. We could hardly believe it was
Onlookers declared the pilot, Major George McAllister, made a
flawless landing. He praised his navigator for "threading the needle," setting
up a perfect approach. Due to the extreme temperature, the crew had only 20
minutes on the ground offloading personnel and cargo, including fresh food,
and taking aboard Dr. Nielsen and other personnel, plus outgoing cargo.
Fleming declared that, "For the men and women of the 109th, the rescue of Dr.
Nielsen was not viewed as a death-defying act but rather a "near routine"
The greatest surprise was the worldwide attention. From the
departure of the ski-Herks from Schenectady to the stops in California, Hawaii,
Pago Pago and Christchurch, New Zealand, and reverse, "their every move," Col.
Fleming said, "was performed before the watching eyes and ears of the world. Yet
for our trained polar flight professionals, what was important was the
opportunity to save a human life."
Joe Dabney is a writer and
speaker. He is the author of four books, including "HERK, Hero of the Skies,"
now in its third edition, and published by Bright
Mountain Books, Asheville, NC. He can be reached at Joedabney@aol.com