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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 Rossino.)

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 transports.

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.

Dr. 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.

Col. Ed 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.

On 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 earth.

Dr. Jerri Nielsen at the
South Pole Station

(photo courtesy of Dr. Neilsen).

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 happening."

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.

Col. 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" flight."

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 .


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