They are going out of the ice, and into the fire.
The ice is the polar expanse of the barren continent Antarctica, where men and women in the 109th Airwing Lift of the New York National Guard have flown missions dropping food and science equipment to researchers. The fire is the war-torn terrain of Afghanistan this coming summer.
Before their deployment, the unit will train in tactical night-time maneuvers on their massive LC-130 Hercules planes, nearly grazing treetops around the local area as they practice the kind of landing they’ll need to do to avoid missiles when touching down in hostile foreign territory. They’ll cover the bright orange paint striping the bottoms of their planes with camouflage, so that they won’t be identified as they hover above makeshift landing strips littered with debris. Touchy landings at best, the unit will also drill on safely bringing down the planes, which are so cavernous they can carry 50,000 tons of cargo, or load a Humvee straight from the battlefields.
Military officials were tight-lipped last week when they announced the mission, not releasing when, exactly, the troops will fly out, what they’ll be doing, or how many of the 1,300 people in active duty at the base will be leaving home for war within a few months time. How long they will remain in the country is also a military secret.
Father of three heads out
The deployment has not been a secret to Major Mike Steindl of Greenwich, Washington County. Steindl received word about two months ago that he and his crew will be flying the Hercules into Afghanistan sometime this summer. Steindl, 36, the father of three young children and husband of a teacher, is a former United Airlines pilot. He has flown on combat support missions, including several to Haiti, but those were peaceful operations; this flight will be his first taste of combat conditions.
I haven’t been in combat before this, said Steindl, straightening his shoulders. `I’m not nervous; when you fly airplanes you develop confidence. We all rely on the training we receive to keep us safe and successful. We’re all part of a team.`
Mike Steindl isn’t trying to make history. He’s just trying to do his job. His Commander, Col. Anthony P. German, summed up the philosophy of the soldiers who will fly out.
`Our job is to be deployed until we’re told to go home,` said German. `This is our job. It’s not that we enjoy going into combat, but this is what we do.`
Serving his country is something Steindl knows well, since he grew up in a military family.
His father, Robert, who now divides his time between Glenville and Myrtle Beach, S.C., served in the U.S. Air Force for 11 years of active duty and 11 years in the reserves. Steindl said he has been in contact with his father since he found out about his deployment orders two months ago.
`He’s obviously worried about me going, but he understands,` said Steindl, blowing on his hands to warm them in the late March winds.
Hoping for support from home
On an impossibly sunny day that belied the fact the country is at war, Steindl squinted into the blue sky from the cramped cockpit of the Hercules parked at his home base in Scotia. Out on the runways, other military aircrafts took off and landed lightly during their own training runs. Steindl said he hopes to leave with the knowledge the local community, and the country at large, is behind them, keeping them in their thoughts and prayers.
`I haven’t heard from anyone saying they don’t support what we’re doing,` said Steindl, tapping the control panel dotted with a dizzying array of buttons and switches. `I won’t get into the political side of it because that’s not part of my job. I’m just here to do my job to support my country. I joined up because of my sense of duty. I’m proud about this opportunity to serve.`
Scant news released about the mission
The mission is called `Operation Enduring Freedom.` That, Steindl’s name, and the type of aircraft to be flown were about all the details released Thursday, March 29, at the air base.
`There are many unknowns, and we haven’t had intel briefs yet,` said German. `What we’re doing now is preparing for the conditions we’ll be landing in, and doing specialized tactical training. We conduct more intensive preparatory training for deployment in a combat theater of operations.`
Steindl will fly with a co-pilot, a navigator and an engineer, whose names remain top secret. Whether they’ll be transporting equipment or troops are details also not being released to the public. The voluminous, stripped-down craft is lined with canvas seats to carry soldiers. It can fly about six to eight hours fully fueled, but the flight pattern to the Middle East will not be released.
Local training, then on to Missouri
Within a month, those involved in the mission will head to the Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Center in Missouri, considered the premiere facility for combat training.
Before they depart, members of the unit will practice nighttime and low-ground maneuvers in the local skies. Officials warn residents and property owners near the county airport to be aware of the unusual sights and sounds, and to not be alarmed by low-flying planes.
The crew will be working on landing aircraft on non-runway conditions.
`This will be an uncontrolled airfield, like landing in Louisiana when we went for hurricane clean-up,` said German. `We’ll be looking for a lot of debris. There won’t necessarily be a clean spot to land. But our unit will master it, just like they’ve mastered everything else.“