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Fly softly, carry a big mission
Air Force Maj. Blake Johnson, 517th Airlift Squadron C-12F Huron pilot, inspects the propeller blades on the C-12 before takeoff, Sept. 19, 2013. The C-12 was taking took members of the 611th Air Support Squadron to a remote long range radar site called Tin City. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Zachary Wolf)
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Fly softly, carry a big mission

Posted 10/21/2013   Updated 10/21/2013 Email story   Print story


by Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Wolf
JBER Public Affairs

10/21/2013 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- At just under 44 feet long and 15 feet high, a C-12F Huron pales in comparison to the much larger C-17 Globemaster III, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in a dynamic mission here.

"The C-12 mission is to keep our long range radar sites up and running, constantly scanning the skies for the first threats to America," said Air Force Maj. Christopher Paulhamus, 3rd Operations Group chief of standards and evaluations. "Those sites are not only scanning the skies for threats, but they're also watching things in space as well. Alaska is the watchman for the Lower 48, and it's a thrill to get to be a part of it."

The C-12 mission is divided into three categories.

"First, our primary mission is supporting the remote long-range radar sites scattered throughout Alaska," Paulhamus said. "Second, the C-12 mission supports the transportation needs of any of Alaska's permanent-party senior leadership. And lastly, the C-12 is an excellent pilot-seasoning platform for our first-assignment pilots."

Given the remote nature of many of the radar sites, the C-12 is well suited to combat the unique challenges of operating in Alaska's airspace, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Dobbels, 517th Airlift Squadron commander.

The aircraft's small frame and twin-propeller engines provide increased maneuverability to get people working at the sites and some cargo in and out of the area.

"Our mission is important, because we help keep these sites operational--since many of them can only be reached by air," Dobbels said.

It's not just the radar sites that these C-12s travel to.

Another aspect of the C-12 mission is military travel. This helps personnel visiting Alaska on official business travel cheaper than larger aircraft like the C-130 Hercules or C-17.

While travel is an important part of the C-12 mission, Dobbels said a bigger picture benefit from it is the experience it provides the pilots.

"This is as close to bush flying as you can get in the U.S. Air Force with the various places we go," Paulhamus said. "Several of our radar sites are what we call 'one-way sites,' meaning there's only one way to get in and one way to get out. In order to fly a mission into one of these sites, which is often on the side of a mountain or down in a valley surrounded by mountains, you have to be properly trained and specially certified."
Paulhamus explained one of the challenges flying to these areas is that it requires pilots to make critical, calculated decisions that are irreversible.

"Once you get to a certain point close to the runway, you have no other choice but to land," Paulhamus said. "You can't execute a 'go around' and try it again because the plane doesn't have the climb performance to avoid the surrounding terrain. In other words, you will end up smacking the side of a mountain. So, you know that going into these sites and you just have to put it out of your mind and concentrate on getting the plane on the runway and keeping it there."

Some of the C-12 pilots come to JBER as their first assignment out of flight school and may find it different from what they expect, but many said they feel that it is priceless training.

"It has been nothing like what I expected when I first got the assignment," said Air Force Capt. John Smyrski, 517th Airlift Squadron C-12 pilot. "When first arriving, as part of our mission qualification, we must observe a mission. Riding along to one of the radar sites was a huge eye opener for me. After two years flying to paved runways with no obstructions nearby, flying into a short, gravel runway sitting at the base of a mountain was a far reach from my normal comfort zone."

Smyrski said the lessons he's learned are invaluable.

"Overall, I have learned a lot flying in Alaska as a first assignment pilot that I will be able to take with me to my future air frame," Smyrski said.

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