Remote site mission: no typical day

April 14, 2006

By Neil Zawicki

I think I became a journalist because I was too much of a punk to become a pilot. In truth, I'm a certified geek about aircraft – especially military aircraft. So when the 517th Airlift Squadron offered to take me along on a re-supply mission, I hopped on board.The C-130 has been in production since 1955. It's the big four-engine plane, made familiar in the film reels of the seige at Khe Sahn, skipping across the dirt runway as shells explode in front of it, cargo pallets skidding out the back.

"For its mission, it just cant be beat," said Tech Sgt. Jeff Begley, load chief on the aircraft. Like everyone in military aviation, Begley has a special place in his heart for the plane on which he serves. "I was watching footage of the UN inspectors returning to Iraq, and they came in on a C-130," he said, grinning.

It's cold outside. It's dawn. Large hoses are attatched to the engines, heating the oil. The plane is being de-iced as well. We're about to take off and fly north to the interior, to land on Indian Mountain, a remote radar site, pretty much in the center of the state. It's an uphill runway, and apparently to get to it, the pilot has to drop the plane between two peaks, and then plop the massive beast down at the last second. There is only one chance to do it right. The training video for landing at Indian Mountain says it all:

"A successful go-around is improbable."

"I love that part," said the pilot, Major Wiley Dickenson, during the pre flight briefing. In the belly of the craft, as crew members load pallets on board, Dickenson stands in his leather flight jacket, overseeing the operations. I'm inspecting all the parts of the plane. Cargo racks, roller tracks for the pallets. I think of the fact that small helicopters can fit in the cargo hold, and notice the familiar cable for static line jumping. I did it when I was 19. Then I notice the pararchutes. The Air Force is big on safety. Still, things happen, especially in interior Alaska. A C-130 crashed a few years ago when a flock of Canadian geese flew into its props. I have a friend who was an army medic at Fort Richardson at the time, and he was first on the scene. The carnage was absolute. He's not an army medic anymore.

This is what rushed through my head when I noticed the parachutes. I think everyone has a "what if' hum in the back of their mind when they get on a plane. Still, that's the fun part: buy the ticket, take the ride.

I counted the parachutes. There were seven of them. Eleven people were on the plane. I mentioned this to Major Wiley Dickenson, in an off-hand, humorous sort of way. But he's heard it before. Pilots know the risks, non pilots dwell on them, and even invent them. He knew just what to say.

"Yeah, I've often thought of what it would take to get me to strap on a [OE]chute," he said matter-of-factly. "The flight decks on these planes are connected to the fuselage with tiny bolts. If one of them goes, they all pretty much pop. And these planes don't ditch very well. I think that's the only instance where I'd strap on the 'chute."

Well, that's encouraging.

After a short pass by Denali, we began our descent for Indian Mountain, but a 29-knot cross wind prohibited a landing. The people at Indian Mountain wouldn't get their re-supply today. We pulled off at 600 yards out, and banked hard, 400 feet above the ground. We did this for the next half-hour. It was like playtime [^] five good ol' American boys spinning donuts in a giant plane. The co-pilot, Captain Sean Finnan, would point out the window, and we'd all look. A herd of caribou on a frozen lake. Dickenson banked again, this time to the right, and even the navigator, 2nd Lt. Micheal Morris, who's done this many times before, stood up and laughed. It's part of their day, having fun like this.

An hour later, we were making our final approach for Fort Yukon, our cargo hold still full. We would have to drop the load here, and another plane would have to pick it up later. Weather is fickle in the interior.

The load chief climbed up into the flight deck, got my attention, and shouted a contingency plan. "If we skid when we land, sit tight, because we'll whip around and take off again!"

Fort Yukon is one of ten radar sites throughout Alaska, meant to alert NORAD of any incoming threats. It was activated in 1958. We had a brief tour of the site, met some of the people who man it through the winter, like station Technician John Nodus from Chicago who wears a fur hunting cap he never removes. He gave us the run down of what there is to do, way out here in the dead of winter.

"Yep, pool and ping-pong," he said.

But leave it up to the United States Miltary to make sure, out here in the middle of nowhere, there is ample supply of blueberry cheesecake. We had a fine feast at the radar site.

The people who man the site seem to enjoy the remoteness, and project a jaunty sense of humor about it. As we were leaving, the site engineer, Clay Shaw, his huskie, Duker, sprinting around in the snow, waved and shouted, "Come on back, we'll be here!"

In the end, the mission left supplies intended for Indian Mountain at Fort Yukon, and the gear we were to collect at Fort Yukon couldn't be loaded. Just another day in the unpredictable climate of interior Alaska. Major Dickenson, a pilot since 1984, is used to it.

"When we leave the building in the morning, we think we're landing," he said. "But it changes fast out there."


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