JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Everyone on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) has seen the F-22 Raptors soaring above the installation. Most see the C-17 Globemaster IIIs on a regular basis. The C-5 Galaxy and C-130 Hercules are not unusual sights. But unless you work near the flightline, you may never notice the small C-12 Hurons coming and going, despite their extensive work in the Last Frontier.
One of JBER's critical missions is supporting the long-range radar sites around the state – remote outposts which protected America and Canada in the Cold War, and which continue their mission today.
“Ninety-nine percent of our mission is supporting radar operators, technicians, maintainers, and facilities folks out at seven Long-Range Radar Sites,” said Air Force Maj. Nate Chott, 517th Airlift Squadron's C-12 director of operations, referring to Sparrevohn, Tatalina, Indian Mountain, Cape Romanzof, Cape Newenham, Cape Lisburne and Tin City. “We normally fly two C-12Fs with eight assigned pilots, and get guest help out of three more attached to other base agencies.”
The aircraft land on unimproved gravel airstrips in these remote locations – something to which the small airframe is particularly suited.
“The flying environment is challenging to say the least,” Chott said. “Alaska weather can be unforgiving, and landing on a windy one-way icy mountain runway with an 8-percent slope and no escape option demands all the skill and expertise of an Alaska bush pilot with ice water in his veins. We don’t have a long list of traditional military competencies like air-refueling or tactical maneuvers, but we think we do that one thing really well.”
It does take a toll on the aircraft, though; that's where four contractors with Vertex Aerospace come in. Most have been cranking wrenches on the King Air 200 – what the military calls the C-12 – for years. One, Jay Rosenbach, has been maintaining JBER's C-12s since 1975.
“It's the nature of where these guys operate,” said Geoffrey Hershberger, another mechanic with the squadron. “They're just remote airstrips carved out of the wilderness, so there's gravel and rocks. Rock damage to the propellers is a guaranteed thing. These [pilots] have developed techniques to mitigate that somewhat, but it's unavoidable.”
“We literally trust or lives to these guys every day, and they do a tremendous amount of work keeping us in the air,” Chott said.
“These guys get a charge out of the can-do attitude we have here,” Hershberger responded. “It's just based off experience – some pilots are new to this airframe, but it's routine to us.”
The C-12's mission goes far beyond just ferrying maintainers and supplies to radar sites, though.
“The rest of our mission is creative and flexible uses of the limited space we have to move passengers and cargo all over the state of Alaska,” Chott said. “We have supported prisoner transfers, Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams, public health professionals assisting Native groups, Defense Courier missions, navigational aid flight inspections, F-16 [Fighting Falcon ] divert rescues, distinguished visitor movements, wildlife disturbance advisories, and low-level route obstacle inspections … and occasionally we find some ground time to catch a few fish.”
While the day-to-day missions might seem routine, the remote nature of the mission means crews have personalized survival gear, and pilots are highly specialized and trained to deal with challenging terrain.
“Training and certification of a site instructor pilot is an intensive process, requiring supervised instruction for each of the military-only instrument procedures we use to fly into those austere, unimproved mountainous sites,” Chott said. “Regulations and limitations are scaled down to the absolute minimum with several waivers in place to allow us to accept the abnormal flying risk. We have a unique pilot at the moment – Air Force Capt. James Strohmeyer, who is the first-ever first-assignment instructor we have certified to operate into those sites. Normally, a site pilot only has over 4,000 hours with a range of diverse experience by his third or fourth tour.
“We train to the highest levels of proficiency, and believe this unique experience prepares our pilots for any future assignment or airframe.”
Despite the issues COVID-19 caused, and one plane at the depot for major maintenance, the crews continued to perform missions and extensive training, Chott said.
“We had to conduct most of our own initial and instructor qualification training in-house,” he explained. “On top of added aircraft decontamination procedures, hard crew-scheduling challenges, restricted movement, one airplane and the strain of increased ops to support COVID-19 mitigation travel, we conducted three qualification upgrades and flew more hours than we did last year.”
Some of those hours are spent picking up cargo and personnel in short-notice missions – moving maintainers from Eielson Air Force Base to Bethel to fix an F-16 in Bethel, for example, or picking up parts in Fairbanks to bring to JBER.
“It's a lot cheaper to use Air Force assets to move parts and people than to use commercial shipping or contract,” said C-12 mechanic Ronnie Preston. “We're supporting whatever the aircrew need us to support. Sometimes that's one flight a day, sometimes two or three a day. Getting the job done, getting them out on time and, when they come back, if they need it, getting them fixed as soon as possible – there's a real sense of accomplishment.”
“We take pride in our flexibility,” Chott said. “And we enjoy the opportunity to fly as many contractors, military members and visitors as our mission allows. It is a rare privilege to see the state of Alaska the way we do, and wish we had the chance to share it with everyone who helps makes our job possible.”