109th AW aids Canada with Operation Nunalivut 2015

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Catharine Schmidt
  • 109th AW Public Affairs

On April 4, seven Airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing were dropped off at a remote location in the vicinity of Victoria Strait in the High Arctic with a couple snowmobiles and only the bare essentials to set up a field camp.

Their mission: Prepare a ski-way for the two ski-equipped LC-130s that were supporting Canada's research of a recently discovered ship lost with the infamous Franklin Expedition more than 150 years ago.

This was only one facet of the 109th's support for the Canadian Forces annual Operation Nunalivut, an exercise the wing supported for a second time. Along with the campsite, operations were also taking place in Yellowknife and Cambridge Bay.

By the time the mission ended on April 19th, the  109th had flown 26 flights, and transported 91,000 pounds of cargo and 49 passengers.

After setting up camp, the American Airmen hit the ground running the next day.  They began building a landing area by dragging 4-feet by 8-feet wide slides behind the snowmobiles to act as groomers to build the ski-way.

"After our first real day of grooming, we only made it maybe 500 feet (because of the snow conditions)," said Maj. Matthew Sala, one of the seven Airmen who groomed the ski-way. "It was about 500 feet a day."

"Every day it was about 8-10 hours, sometimes more, of grooming," said Maj. Eric Wood, another member of the team. Temperatures got as low as -35 degrees Celsius with wind chill.

Ten days after their arrival, on April 14, the ski-way was ready, and the first LC-130 flight to their location arrived.

"The ski-way we made was 6,000 feet long by 200 feet wide," Sala said. "We put about 1,700 miles on those sleds on that small mile-long ski-way."

The campsite also housed Joint Ice Diving operations conducted by Parks Canada's underwater archeologists and Royal Canadian Navy divers. Their mission included a joint archeological effort over the site of the HMS Erebus, the flagship for British Admiral Sir John Franklin's  Arctic voyage in 1846.

In September of 2014 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the discovery of the Erebus - one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin Expedition whose members were caught in the ice and eventually died of starvation exposure.

As part of Operation Nunalivut, Parks Canada and Royal Canadian Navy divers conducted intense ice diving and underwater archeology as part of historic research of the ship.

"One big difference from last year (2014) is that last year's exercise was simply just to see what our capability was," said Wood. "Even though it was an exercise, there was a goal the Canadians had which was to go to the site of the HMS Erebus -- the same ship that Mount Erebus in Antarctica is named after. This same ship that sunk at the site (we were located) was the same ship that was down to McMurdo."

About 500 hundred miles away from the camp at Yellowknife, 30 other 109th Airmen were maintaining the aircraft operations of the two LC-130s that made the trips to the remote location as well as to Cambridge Bay, transporting people and supplies in support of the exercise.

The LC-130s were able to provide up to 9,000 pounds of cargo per flight as opposed to the Canadians' Twin Otters which could only provide about 1,200 pounds.

A few weeks before the team of seven arrived, Sala along with Lt. Col. Clifford Souza, Maj. Matt Johnson, Tech. Sgt. David Rodriguez, and Senior Master Sgt. Ronald Jemmott went to the site as a reconnaissance team.

"We go out there and test the snow depth, the ice depth, the snow density and then water depth," said Sala.

The ski-landing area control officer looks at the conditions of where a ski-way will be prepared to see if it's even plausible to make a ski-way for a cargo aircraft to land and take off from, he explained.

"The point of the ski-landing area control officer (SLACO) is to be the last one who walks out there and says yes, I'll land here," he said.

"We use the SLACO process when we go to Antarctica and Greenland, too, when we go to camps that we've never been to before," said Wood. "The first person to go out in a twin otter is the SLACO to give us a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on whether or not we think it's safe to bring a Herc in."

On April 15, the original seven Airmen who set up camp and prepared the ski-way were replaced by five other 109thAirmen who continued to maintain the ski-way and camp through April 19.

Jemmott, an instructor for the 109th Airlift Wing's Kool School held each year in Greenland, said the techniques taught there helped make the mission a success.

"For us it's the people that make it," he said. "You're in small quarters, working long hours. There's no running water, there's no shower -- it's true field conditions. We try to do the work rest cycle, you wear the cold weather gear, you hydrate, but if it wasn't for the people you're with, it'd be easy to say, 'I'm done here,' "Jemmott said.

"We all worked together very well. A good attitude is key. When putting together teams, I sometimes overthink things, but to me I think it pays off in making a successful team," he said.

Operation Nunalivut is a sovereignty operation conducted annually since 2007 in Canada's North. According to the Joint Task Force-North website, it provides an opportunity for the Canadian Armed Forces to assert Canada's sovereignty over to northernmost regions; demonstrate the ability to operate in the harsh winter environment in remote areas of the High Arctic; and enhance its capability to respond to any situation in Canada's North.

This year's operation took place in and around the Cambridge Bay from April 1-22.

The 109th had demonstrated their polar capabilities the previous year when they were asked by Canada to participate. The Wing's support of the National Science Foundation in both Antarctica and Greenland made them an ideal choice to aid the Canadians in their annual Arctic exercise.