Kings of the Arctic


Mark Ayton reports on the HC-130J Combat King II Hercules in service at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska

A traditional water cannon salute to welcome the first HC-130J Combat King II at Elmendorf on June 3, 2017.
TSgt Alicia Halla/US Air Force

If you’ve had the good fortune to visit the state of Alaska, you know what a huge place America’s last frontier is. Alaska is more than one-fifth the size of the entire continental United States, with more miles of coastline than the other 49 states combined. If overlaid on to a map of the United States, with the eastern tip of the Alaska Panhandle grounded to the Atlantic Ocean, its western tip (at the end of the Aleutian Islands) would stretch to the coast of California.

Its land area measures over 571,000 square miles; that’s over six times larger than the UK. Wilderness abounds. Adventures beckon. Accidents happen. People get lost. People get injured. Who rescues people in distress in middle of the Alaskan wilderness?

Because of its sheer size and varied geography, SAR operations in Alaska are carried out by several diff erent agencies: the United States Coast Guard, the National Park Service, the Alaska State Troopers, the Civil Air Patrol, and the men and women serving with Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing. Based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, the 176th Wing has four groups assigned. The 176th Operations Group has six squadrons assigned, one each operating the C-17A Globemaster III, HC-130J Combat King II and HH-60G Pave Hawk, one home to pararescuers, combat rescue officers and search, evasion, resistance and escape specialists, one tasked with air space monitoring and an operational support squadron. This feature is an overview of the mission of the 211th Rescue Squadron equipped with four brand-new HC-130J Combat King IIs, a highly modified C-130J aircraft dedicated to the rescue and personnel recovery mission. Before detailing the roles undertaken by the 211th RQS, it’s important to point out that its rescue mission is always flown with HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters operated by sister unit, the 210th Rescue Squadron, and pararescuers, combat rescue officers and search, evasion, resistance and escape specialists serving with the 212th Rescue Squadron. All three squadrons operate together to provide the vital rescue mission throughout the state of Alaska and from deployment locations around the world.

Following a legacy

When brand-new HC-130J 14-5815 touched down at Elmendorf on June 3, 2017, the latest chapter of the 176th Wing’s history began. The aircraft was the first of four to be assigned to the unit and the first HC-130J to be received by the Air National Guard. Replacing four legacy HC-130N Combat Kings, the last of which was transferred to Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, in January 2017, the aircraft arrived with the 176th Wing Commander, Colonel Steven deMilliano and the then 211th Rescue Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Budd on board. Both officers had travelled to Lockheed Martin’s plant at Greenville, South Carolina, to sign for the new aircraft

According to the wing’s official history, in 1987, the US Air Force announced that Elmendorf’s 71st Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron would be deactivated. On April 4, 1990, the 210th Air Rescue Squadron assigned to the then 176th Composite Group received federal activation tasked with the combat SAR (CSAR) mission. At that time, the 210th Air Rescue Squadron assumed control of legacy HC-130N aircraft previously operated by the 71st ARRS. In June 1990, the 210th became the first US-based rescue unit to receive the then new HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters. Five years later, the 176th Composite Group became the 176th Wing on October 1, 1995.

Commenting on the squadron’s original control of HC-130Ns and the new HC- 130J’s arrival at Elmendorf, Lt Col Budd said: “This is a pretty historical event. Fast forward 27 years later, and we’re getting another set of HC-130s, this time the HC- 130J Combat King II. The 71st and 79th Rescue Squadrons were the first activeduty squadrons to receive them, and now we’re the first Guard unit to do the exact same thing.”

In Greenville, members of the 176th Wing arrived days before the aircraft was to begin its journey back to Alaska to give personnel from the 176th Maintenance Group and the 211th RQS time to inspect the aircraft before acceptance. During the morning of June 1, 2017, Col deMilliano officially signed for the aircraft transferring ownership to the Alaska-based unit. He said: “There are significant moments in the Wing’s history. You get to take a mission that the unit has been conducting successfully for such a long period of time, and to upgrade to modern and current equipment. I know there’s a long, proud history, not only with rescue, but also flying the Hercules in the Wing, so it’s nice to take a brand-new airplane back. It gives us tremendous capability not only for the state, but also for the nation.”

Director of the Air National Guard Lieutenant General Scott Rice was at the controls of the aircraft when it departed Greenville for Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, where members of the 211th Rescue Squadron were undergoing training on the HC-130J. The aircraft’s crew met with their unit colleagues at Kirtland where Lt Col Budd said: “The training that the guardsmen were going through was establishing the roadmap to be able to provide a capability to combatant commanders when deployed and extended capability for the state of Alaska.”

Back at Elmendorf, the 176th Maintenance Squadron began a 90-day maintenance training process with the HC-130J, after which the 211th Rescue Squadron commenced flight operations.

Pilot and aircrew training started at Kirtland many months before the first HC-130J was delivered to Elmendorf. Captain Drew Meckler, a 211th pilot, attended the second class of 176th Wing crews for HC-130J conversion with Air Education and Training Command’s 58th Special Operations Wing, the school house at Kirtland. Capt Meckler completed his 12-month course eight months before the first aircraft’s arrival and was heavily involved in the preparations required to receive a new type onto a unit.

An Alaska Air National Guardsman assigned to the 212th Rescue Squadron jumps from a HC-130J Combat King II during precision parachute training over Malemute drop zone at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
Alejandro Peña/US Air Force

Capt Meckler described the capabilities of the HC-130J as incredible. He said: “The amount of power available compared to the legacy model, is almost like having a fifth engine. That’s the most obvious diff erence between the two.”

Using the additional power, Capt Meckler said climb performance is probably the biggest factor that we are learning in terms of how to become more comfortable when getting closer to terrain. He said: “We have to abide by regulations as far as terrain clearances and climb gradients are concerned, but knowing the aircraft is capable of more gives us confidence, especially when we’re flying closer to the ground. High-altitude performance has dramatically improved, as well as speed, which is good for getting to a survivor a little bit quicker. The HC-130J also provides a weight increase allowing more payload to be carried without needing waivers.”

However, the most significant change brought about by the arrival of the HC-130J is one of manpower. A crew of an HC-130N comprised of two pilots, a radio operator, a flight engineer and two load masters. Two of those crew members – the radio operator and the fight engineer – no longer exist. Those positions have gone because of the automation of the Combat King II. According to Capt Meckler, crews are still learning and adapting to the new crew component comprising two pilots, two load masters as before, and a combat systems officer (CSO). He said: “The radio operator and the fight engineer were considered crucial for our communications requirement, simply to talk on multiple radios and to coordinate a rescue mission. Now we have the same number of radios and capabilities but less crew. The flight engineer used to keep track of the aircraft’s health by tracking all of the systems. Now a computer essentially does that job. But the biggest adjustment we’re having to make is the loss of a radio operator. Much of that role has passed to the combat systems officer who has taken on that role in addition to operating diff erent systems on the aircraft.

”The amount of power available compared to the legacy model, is almost like having a fifth engine.”

An Alaska Air National Guardsman assigned to the 212th Rescue Squadron approaches the landing zone at the Malemute drop zone at Joint Base Elmendorf- Richardson, Alaska. As the busiest rescue force in the Department of Defense, the 176th Wing’s 212th Rescue Squadron provides elite pararescuemen, combat rescue officers and survival, evasion, resistance, and escape specialists.
Alejandro Peña/US Air Force

HC-130J features

The HC-130J is equipped with fully integrated inertial navigation and global positioning systems, night-vision goggle (NVG) compatible interior and exterior lighting, forward-looking infrared, radar and missile warning receivers, chaff and flare dispensers, satellite and data-burst communications, and has the ability to aerial refuel via a universal aerial refuelling receptacle slipway installation.

Crews use NVGs for tactical flight profiles at low to medium altitude in contested or sensitive environments, over land and water to avoid detection to accomplish covert infiltration/exfiltration and trans-load operations. To enhance the probability of mission success and survivability near populated areas, crews employ tactics that include not using external lighting or communications.

When the HC-130J uses drop zones, mission objectives involve para-dropping of personnel and equipment such as rescue bundles that contain illumination flares, marker smokes and rescue kits.

HC-130J 15-5832/AK in position to aerial refuel a HH-60G Pave Hawk.
Airman 1st Class Caitlin Russell/US Air Force
Aerial refuelling of a HH-60G Pavehawk.
Alaska Air National Guard

“Within in the new crew component, the CSO is in charge of rolling the hoses when we aerial refuel helicopters, and is in charge of the entire [fuel] control panel, which means control of all of our fuel, where its moved, and is the primary crewmember for most of the radio communications such as those when talking to a survivor, different agencies and multiple aircraft involved in a rescue. The CSO does not speak with air traffic control agencies.”

Perceiving the loadmaster now has a bigger list of responsibilities, Capt Meckler explained the load master is now the systems expert in place of the flight engineer: “The aircraft tells you what’s wrong, but the loadmaster is designated to determine the nitty-gritty of what’s going on with the aeroplane when something pops up.”

HC-130J pilots conduct aerial refuelling with a KC-135 over Iraq, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Senior Airman James Merriman/US Air Force

One year on from first aircraft arrival, the 211th Rescue Squadron had fully transitioned to the HC-130J and accepted the 24/7 alert for civil SAR during the first six months of 2019, but understandably as of early June had not deployed as a squadron with the HC-130J.

Explaining the procedures of the SAR role, Capt Meckler said there are many to go through. The 176th Wing operates the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center (RCC), a small, high-tech facility at Elmendorf manned by highly trained guard members who coordinate the efforts of the various agencies.

Most personnel are full-timers who work shifts around the clock, 365 days a year, monitoring Alaska’s skies and responding to distress calls. The team works under the guidance of the National SAR Plan and holds responsibility for all aeronautical military and civilian SAR cases.

A Guardian Angel air-droppable rescue vehicle assigned to the 176th Wing, sits near an HC-130J at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
Roland Balik/US Air Force

The RCC’s mission is to locate and recover downed military and civilian aviators in Alaska as quickly and safely as possible. A secondary responsibility is to provide SAR assistance to state and federal agencies responsible for conducting ground searches for distressed individuals in the harsh arctic environment.

Everything associated with a rescue starts at the RCC, which may receive an alert notice, a request originated by a flight service station or an air route traffic control centre for an extensive communication search for overdue, unreported, or missing aircraft, or an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) alert. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, ELTs are emergency transmitters carried aboard most general aviation aircraft in the United States. In the event of an aircraft accident, the devices are designed to transmit a distress signal on specific frequencies 121.5, 243.0 and 406MHz.

A maintainer assigned to the 176th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron inspects the main landing gear tyres of a HC-130J at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
Roland Balik/US Air Force

Capt Heckler explained how the RCC processes the information and if the situation deems it necessary calls the squadrons to request use of the 211th, 210th, 212th as rescue platform and personnel for the required mission. “We have a SARDO [search and rescue duty officer], the decision-maker that either accepts or denies the mission. It’s extremely rare for a mission to be denied. If the SARDO accepts the mission, the squadrons are alerted and we launch to execute the mission. An emergency is always deemed a serious situation when the 176th is alerted, usually because the weather is too bad for everybody else, or State Troopers or the Coastguard have requested help. Jurisdiction is always a consideration because the US Coastguard is always available.

Alaska Air National Guard personnel offload a vehicle from a HC-130J at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware to support relief efforts after Hurricane Florence in September 2018.
Roland Balik/US Air Force

“We work together to determine which unit gets to the emergency the quickest and which unit is the most effective. If the location is way out to sea, the Coastguard’s helicopters [MH-60Js] do not have an aerial refuelling capability. That’s when the Guard takes the mission because the 176th can conduct search and rescue over the sea, and can aerial refuel our HH-60G helicopters.”

A 211th Rescue Squadron crew prepare to take off from Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, to North Carolina for a hurricane relief mission on September 17, 2018.
SSgt Balinda Dresel/US Army National Guard

Turning the story back to over land rescue missions, the HC-130J is the communication platform between the HH-60 operating down in the weeds such that the crew’s communication with other agencies suffers from broken transmissions caused by land masking, so the HC-130J can hold over or near to the location and relay the helicopter’s communications.

Capt Meckler said the Hercules sometimes adopts the command and control role in some scenarios, usually those that involve more helicopters and other aircraft.

Aerial refuelling capability allows the HH-60 or HH-60s to extend the mission when tasked with all-weather, long-range combat missions or those flown over long distances in Alaska.

Capt Meckler spoke of rescue missions involving people who have been picked up by an HH-60 but still so far away from a medical facility they have to be dropped off at a prepared or unprepared landing strip where the HC-130J can land to pick them up and medevac them at speed to a medical facility that can take care of them. This is known as a trans-load. In such a scenario, the HC-130J’s reach is state wide (the aircraft can be aerial refuelled unlike the HC-130N) and is only limited in duration by the crew duty day.

When AIR International asked Capt Meckler whether the squadron had already accomplished some notable missions, either by duration or weather extremes, while operating the HC-130J, he replied: “We have flown missions that involved extreme weather and extended periods of time, in one case a search that lasted for weeks.”

The multi-week example referred to above involved severe adverse weather. Capt Meckler said: “On such a mission, there might be a weather window during which the crew members might be able to see something during which we can stay on station for up to nine hours before returning to base, where we wait. If the weather opens up, we try again. There were times when flight operations were back to back; one aircraft landed and then another took right off again. However, we try to maximise our potential for finding something.

HC-130J mission

Designed as an extended-range version of the C-130J Hercules transport to conduct personnel recovery missions, provide command and control, aerial refuelling of helicopters and carry supplemental fuel for extended range or aerial refuelling.

The HC-130J’s mission is to deploy rapidly to execute recovery operations to austere airfields and denied territory for expeditionary, all-weather personnel recovery operations. Roles include airdrop, airland, day/night helicopter aerial refuelling with blacked-out communication for up to two simultaneous cabs, and forward area ground refuelling.

The HC-130J can also conduct humanitarian assistance operations, disaster response, security cooperation/ aviation advisory, emergency aeromedical evacuation and non-combatant evacuation roles.

satellite building are currently being retrofitted with an additional third passenger boarding bridge for direct access to the upper deck.”

The passenger numbers A380 flights generate creates logistical and organisational requirements in the airport, too. Munich Airport and Lufthansa have had to introduce additional lanes for the extra passengers going through Munich’s Terminal 2. Lufthansa said: “In order to reduce waiting times at the security checkpoint, four additional lanes will be available to passengers from autumn 2018. In the meantime, guests can use an additional control lock in the north of Terminal 2 at peak times. In addition, passengers will be able to line up more clearly. All passengers are guided to passenger control via the specified route. Automatic boarding pass control will shorten the waiting time at the security checkpoints.”

The A380 requires specialist catering trucks with longer scissor lifts able to access the aircraft’s upper deck, 26ft (8.4m) up from the ramp, and specialist four-wheel drive ground vehicles to the aircraft on the apron. The A380’s size means the numbers of people responsible for turnaround, cleaning the seats and lavatories, replenishing and refuelling the aircraft and unloading and loading bags, is greater than any other commercial aircraft. Lufthansa told AIR International it takes a team of 70 to turn around an A380; they have two hours before the next departure.

An aircraft maintainer walks on top of an HC-130J during an inspection.
Roland Balik/US Air Force
A combat systems officer and a load master assigned to the 211th Rescue Squadron navigate the aircraft at the flight deck work station.
SSgt Balinda Dresel/US Army National Guard
Alaska Air National Guardsmen during rescue operations near Sampson, North Carolina on September 17, 2018 that included site surveys, aerial refuelling of an HH-60G which was transporting 212th RQS personnel to assist with recovering isolated flood survivors.
SSgt Balinda Dresel/US Army National Guard
A 211th Rescue Squadron HC-130J approaches a dirt strip after a combat search and rescue training mission during Exercise Red Flag-Rescue 19-1, near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, on May 9, 2019. This regular event gives joint service personnel an opportunity to build fundamental combat search and rescue skills required to fight in and out of contested environments.
Senior Airman Xavier Navarro/US Air Force

If the weather is really bad, there is absolutely nothing we can do and there is nothing to be gained by wasting fuel to get airborne. This particular mission involved periods when we stood down for a little bit, and then relaunched once the weather cleared up in the area.”

When discussing the weather at Elmendorf, which encounters super-low temperatures, ice, snow, driving snow and fog to name but a few challenges, AIR International asked Capt Meckler about the limits for when an aircraft can launch. He explained that there are limits, but also waivers the aircrew can apply for, depending on the situation. He said: “With waivers come more rules. The decision-makers will ask, ‘If we let you do this, what’s your plan?’ It’s always a very well thought out process but there are minimums to what we can do.”

When operating around the state, HC-130J crews can land away from base for fuel. One such an example is Nome airport located on the coast of western Alaska. Capt Meckler confirmed that the HC-130Js do land away during rescue missions, including unprepared surfaces. Unsurprisingly, such landing strips also have minimum requirements that crews have to abide by, including the length and width of the available runway, not forgetting the state of the substrata, which must be sufficiently strong to hold the aircraft’s weight. Natural surface operations such as landing on ice have never been a requirement.

Capt Meckler said the decision to use such a landing strip is all about deciding what the best option for the mission is: “Sometimes use of a 3,000ft landing strip is not the best option. The better option is to drag HH-60 helicopters out to the emergency location, allow them to hoist the person in distress up, fly them to a better airport and airlift them back to major city with a big medical facility on board the Hercules. Everything involves risk mitigation. Trying to do it smartly rather is often the best option.”

At the time of AIR International’s visit to Elmendorf, conducting CSAR missions was next on the tasking schedule. All of the crews received CSAR training during the course at Kirtland, such that they are fully qualified to conduct the mission at a deployed location.

Members of the 176th Wing prepare HC-130J 14-5815/AK for take off at the Lockheed Martin facility in Greenville, South Carolina on June 1, 2017. This aircraft was the first HC-130J to be received by the Air National Guard.
SSgt Edward Eagerton/US Air Force

However, the CSAR mission differs greatly from the state rescue tasking undertaken from Elmendorf, primarily because it is not conducted in a benign environment. CSAR missions are launched to rescue a pilot or aircrew, who for whatever reason, have ejected from their aircraft and require support from the triad: the HC-130J, HH-60Gs and pararescuers.

All pre-deployment training is undertaken locally from Elmendorf, but other opportunities are presented during exercises such as Northern Edge and Red Flag, which include missions that focus on personnel recovery. The units try to get out of their comfort zones by going to places that they aren’t used to conduct rescue missions with other assets to replicate a scenario that might be encountered while operating from a deployed location.

Guardsmen from the 211th Rescue Squadron returned to Elmendorf on September 21, 2018 after assisting with Hurricane Florence relief operations on the East Coast.
SSgt Balinda Dresel/US Army National Guard

The 176th Wing crews also train to operate in non-permissive environments by abiding by doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures set out in joint NATO-standard publications. Commenting on the benefits of flying the HC- 130J within non-permissive environments, Capt Meckler said that the aircraft provides definite benefits, particularly the additional power.

There’s no doubt that the 176th Wing is highly experienced in the rescue mission, because the squadrons conduct the tasking on a weekly basis. Most other rescue squadrons don’t have that opportunity available because they are not inherently exposed to things encountered in the Alaskan environment, which is extreme in every sense of the word. AI