Flying With The National Guard
Reporting from aboveThe "airline" that flies to the bottom of the earth isn't known for its comfort and cuisine, but its pilots, crews, and passengers share an experience few other people will ever know..
On Dec. 14, 1911, Roald Amundsen and four other Norwegians became the first humans to reach the South Pole after a two-month trip across the ice from the Ross Sea. Now, each year during Antarctica's October-to-February summer, ski-equipped LC-130s flown by a New York Air National Guard unit, the 109th Airlift Wing, make regular three-hour trips between the South Pole and the U.S. McMurdo Station near the Ross Sea.
Some days, two or three LC-130s might arrive at the South Pole to slide (ski airplanes don't taxi, they slide) off the skiway-the ice and snow runway-to within a few feet of the circle of flags that mark the South Pole. On a warm summer day the temperature might be only a little below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The warmest temperature ever recorded at the pole is 8 degrees and the average high temperature in the summer is minus 15 degrees. Passengers and crew wear layers of extreme cold weather clothing in case the airplane is forced to land far from one of the continent's few research stations.
The pilots and crew flying to the Pole, along with those who take care of the airplanes, include men and women who work full time for the National Guard as well as traditional guardsmen on their annual 15 days of active duty.
The 109th is unique. When the Navy ended more than 30 years of Antarctic flying in February 1999, the 109th became the world's only military unit flying ski-equipped LC-130s.
It, like other Air National Guard units in all 50 states, offers men and women the training needed for a flying career and the opportunity for either full-time or part-time Air Guard positions.
Other Air National Guard units fly transports, fighters, bombers, aerial refueling tankers, or air-sea rescue airplanes and helicopters on missions that can span the globe.
While the 109th is a military organization, its main job is supporting U.S. National Science Foundation research in Antarctica and Greenland. If the U.S. ever needs to move troops or supplies somewhere with only snow or ice for a runway, the 109th will be called on to do the job. The 109th also flies other missions, such as hauling relief supplies to Central America after Hurricane Mitch in October 1998.
Antarctic flying, however, is the big challenge. "The Antarctic environment is very intense," says Lt. Pat Brew, a 109th pilot who spent 60 days there during the 1998-99 season as a full-time guardsman. "It's always challenging and always rewarding; it's never the same every day."
Brew began flying when he was 16 and had nearly 4,000 hours, airline transport pilot and instrument flight instructor certificates, an airframe and powerplant mechanic's certificate, and a four-year college degree in aircraft maintenance management when the 109th selected him for Air Force flight training.
Extensive aviation ex-perience isn't necessary, however. In fact, as the experience of Major Dave Fountain shows, it's possible to enlist in the Air Guard without a college education, work in a field such as aircraft maintenance, go to school, and ultimately be selected for flight training. Today a college degree is needed to qualify for flight training, but educational benefits available to Guard members can cover a large part of the cost of college.
Fountain, who is now commander of one of the 109th's maintenance squadrons, began his career by enlisting in the 109th and working as an aircraft electrician for almost four years before being selected for Air Force flight training. "They gave me a great opportunity to prove myself," he says.
As an aircraft electrician, Fountain made trips to Greenland, including a chance to go along on some flights to the ski landing and takeoff area there. With these experiences, he says, "My love for flying blossomed."
A man or woman who enlists in the Air National Guard first goes to regular Air Force basic training in San Antonio, Texas, and then to an Air Force technical school. "The training is the same as for the regular Air Force," Fountain says. "Men and women from the Guard sit side by side with other Air Force personnel in school."
While pilots and navigators are officers, the flight engineers and loadmasters on LC-130s are enlisted. Enlisting in an Air Guard unit offers no guarantee of being selected for flight training; competition for these slots is fierce. Still, Fountain says, a young man or woman who enlists in the Guard and goes to a technical school and to college is ahead of the game even if he or she doesn't win a pilot training slot.
"Having the technical background as well as the education makes them very marketable whether they decide to stay with us or go find employment in the civilian sector," Fountain says. A man or woman with military experience, even part-time Guard experience, "learns a lot from having to be responsible, having to show up and be somewhere every month, dressed a certain way. That's worth a lot [to prospective employers]," Fountain notes.
Lt. Col. Brian D. Gomula, a navigator who is air operations officer for the 109th, says enlisting in the Guard and using the available financial aid to work your way through college is a good way to earn a commission as an officer and try for flight training.
Members of the board that decides who goes to flight training tend to be more confident in enlisted men and women from the group. "They have already proven themselves and they know what they are getting into. They are not an unknown," he says.
In fact, Gomula says, "Sometimes we see people who look like good candidates who haven't applied for pilot training. I've sent a couple to flight school. I've grabbed a couple of them and said, 'Do you want to be a navigator, do you want to be a pilot?'"
The screening is tough because each unit has few pilot training slots. "Since these are our slots and we pay for them, and these are folks who are going to be with the unit for a long duration, the Guard likes to use every screening process that we can," says Capt. John F. Panoski of the 109th.
The first step toward winning a pilot training slot is to contact the recruiters for several Air Guard units. They will tell you how to submit a resume and other materials. Each Air Guard unit has an Undergraduate Pilot Training Selection Board that selects individuals for pilot training.
Candidates have to pass a first-class Air Force physical and do well on the flying aptitude part of the Air Force Officers Qualifying Test. After jumping these hurdles, each candidate is sent to a six-week course at the Academy of Military Science in Knoxville, Tennessee, to learn how to be an Air Force officer. Those who pass are commissioned as second lieutenants and sent to undergraduate flight training.
At this stage, if the candidate does not have a pilot's certificate, the unit might pay for him or her to earn it. However, knowing how to fly is not a requirement for Air Force undergraduate pilot training. Undergraduate training takes about a year, beginning in the T-37 jet. Those who go to transport units such as the 109th, then move to the T-1, a military version of Raytheon's Beechjet 400A business jet. Those who are headed for fighter planes fly the T-38. After about a year, graduates pin on Air Force silver wings. Those who don't make it move into other Air Guard officer jobs. After earning their wings, the new pilots go to training for a specific aircraft, such as the C-130.
Training for Air Guard pilots is exactly the same as for regular Air Force pilots, Panoski stresses. "It's all the same training, all the same qualification level, there's really no difference." However there is an advantage for those in the Air Guard, he says. "In the Guard you know that the unit that sent you to pilot training will be the unit you go to when you complete your training. You know where you'll be going from the day you walk in. Folks on active duty don't know what airplane they'll be flying and where they'll go. We know we're coming right back home."
In general, you can expect to take two-and-a-half to three years from first applying until you're through undergraduate pilot training and specialized aircraft training.
Anyone who goes through pilot training for the regular Air Force has to stay on active duty for 10 years after completing pilot training, says Lt. Col. Karen Love, chief of training for the 109th. "If you come here you can work for us part time instead of giving up 10 years of your life with the Air Force."
If you complete pilot training for the Air National Guard, you are obligated to serve in the Air Guard for eight years, but this can include part-time as well as full-time service. Those who complete navigator training are obligated for seven years.
After a new 109th pilot completes undergraduate and C-130 training, he or she goes to Air Force survival school and the 109th's own polar regions survival school in Greenland. The new pilots also begin learning how to fly on skis in Greenland or in Antarctica.
Learning to take off and land in an LC-130 requires lots of practice on skiways. "We can't make the simulator feel like a takeoff from the ice," Love says. "We use it as a procedures trainer. But you have to fly on the ice to get the seat-of-the-pants feeling that you need."
She says that after serving as a copilot for two or three years on the ice, a pilot in the 109th can expect to qualify as an aircraft commander. Another three years is usually needed to become an LC-130 instructor pilot.
For those who wish, the Air Guard can be a full-time flying job, but they have the option to switch to part-time Guard flying. For example, Panoski flies Boeing 737s to Mexico and Latin America for Continental Airlines, and also flies part-time with the 109th.
Another option for part-time members is to become a "Guard bum." This is a term of affection, stress those in the Guard. Guard members can put in more active time than the required one weekend a month and 15 days a year. For instance, someone who is going to college could work full time with the Guard during summer or other breaks.
The part-time military flying option worked out perfectly for Lt. Col. Jim Hunt, who joined the 109th 13 years ago after six years of active duty flying with the regular Air Force.
Hunt's full-time job is as an arborist. "I run a company that takes care of trees from cradle to grave," he says. His father ran the business while Hunt was in the Air Force. When he left active duty, Hunt had expected to try for an airline job, but his father was ill and he decided to return to the family business instead. Hunt sees parallels in the attention to detail required for polar flying and jobs such as removing a dying 130-foot tree from unstable ground where it could fall on a classic Victorian house. The management courses he has taken through the Guard have also paid off in his business.
Flying in the Guard can open opportunities for an airline career, Panoski says. "Flying with people in the 109th who are with Continental Airlines helped me get a job with the airline. We have a network of folks here from all different airlines-Continental, United, Delta, American, Federal Express, and USAirways."
A young pilot who does a good job as copilot with an aircraft commander who flies for a major airline has a better shot at a job than most applicants. An airline's selection board will give a lot of weight to a letter of recommendation from one of its own pilots who has flown with the candidate.
Airline selection boards are much like those that select Guard pilot training candidates. Air Guard boards like to see people who are willing to try again if they're turned down. "This demonstrates commitment," Panoski says. He tried for two years, sending resumes to Guard units in 20 states before being selected by the 109th. "You aren't harassing us if you keep trying," Love agrees. Also, "we want to see flying experience. Try to fly as much as you can. A maintenance background also helps."
Unlike active duty military units where people usually stay less than four years, members of the Air Guard often spend their entire career in the same unit. "People don't do it for the money, they do it because they love the mission and the folks they work with," Panoski says.
Hunt says, "The beauty of the Guard is that it allows you to blend the ideal attributes of a career with the ideal attributes of the best part-time job, hobby, and military service that money can buy. "
Information about the Air National Guard is available by calling 800/TO-GO-ANG or from the Web site (www.goang.af.mil).
By Jack Williams