New York National Guardsmen train in Arctic survival

  • Published
  • By Jaclyn Lyons
  • 109th Airlift Wing

The New York National Guard Airmen who fly people to the South Pole, or supplies to Greenland science stations on the 109th Airlift Wing’s LC-130 Hercules “ Skibirds” must know how to survive in a barren landscape of snow and ice.

They learn that by taking a required class called Barren Land Arctic Survival Training, or BLAST for short.

The BLAST school is run by the 109th Airlift Wing’s aircrew flight equipment section and survival, escape, resistance and evasion experts, known as SERE instructors for short, from the 66th Training Squadron from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.

The 109th Airlift Wing flies 10 C-130s modified to use skies as landing gear. They are the largest ski-equipped aircraft in the world and the wing routinely supplies American science facilities in Antarctica or Greenland.

The 109th aircrew flight equipment personnel facilitate logistics for the course and set up the training base.  The SERE personnel tech the techniques used to survive in the arctic environment.

The SERE instructors modified the traditional Arctic survival school that they teach to focus on surviving a forced landing in a totally barren landscape.

The course they normally teach in Alaska normally covers gathering wood for fires, hunting animals and using the woods to help make shelter. Those things aren’t there where the 109th flies.

At BLAST, the students are taught to use resources that are stored onboard the LC-130 ski-equipped planes, said Master Sgt. David Gillis, the aircrew flight equipment training instructor from the 109th Airlift Wing. These include arctic tents, camp stoves to boil snow and make water, cold weather rations and a Gamow bag which is a portable hyperbaric chamber to treat altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness can be a danger because the South Pole is over 9,000 feet above sea level and the Greenland ice cap is 7,000 feet above sea level.

The students are taught how to make fighter trenches and snow houses, cold weather shelters made from 8-12 inch blocks of snow that are cut and stacked together to create a shelter, Gillis said.

 Fighter trenches are small and made for sleeping, snow houses are larger and used as a gathering place and for prepping water and eating, he explained.

The training site, dubbed Raven Camp, sits at about 7,000 feet of elevation on the Greenland ice cap. The only way to reach it is to fly from Kangerlussuaq International Airport and land on a 6,000 foot-long “skiway” carved out of the snow and Ice by two camp caretakers who maintain it during Greenland’s summer.

The camp offers the perfect setting for real world training. It is a short 30 minute flight from the airport in Kangerlussuaq, but remote enough to experience the rapid shift in weather that can often occur in the Arctic.

The 6,000 foot skiway is also used for landing and take-off practice. The camp has no permanent buildings and is completely dismantled at the end of the summer.

Captain Nick Margaglio, a LC-130 pilot, said that information is helpful, but it is the reality of the training—the fact that the skills can make the difference between life and death—and the remoteness of the site that matter most.

“The day before we were supposed to leave we got hit with a massive blizzard, the plane was unable to pick us up. I mean, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face it was so bad” Margaglio said, “It went from training to real world and we had to sit and wait it out. We sat in there for 24 hours and just listened to the deafening wind.”

The members of the 139th Airlift Squadron who fly and crew the LC-130s are required to attend the BLAST school. Gillis said.

“The aircrew members are most at risk of becoming stranded in one of these remote locations,” Gillis added.

After two days of classroom training and three days surviving on the icecap the students head back to Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, New York, outside Schenectady.

The chance of being forced to land on the ice is always there when flying in the Arctic or Antarctic, Margaglio said. The BLAST training gives those aircrews confidence that they could cope, he said.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this experience, if needed, would increase my ability to survive long enough to be recovered,” Margaglio said