Icebound Cargo Plane Gets Warm Welcome

Times Staff Writer

A 65-ton transport plane that spent 16 years buried under Antarctic ice circled the Santa Monica Mountains on Saturday and glided onto an airstrip at the Pacific Missile Test Center.

The picture-perfect landing added to the mystique of the durable, 29-year-old plane that still had air in its tires when it was excavated nearly two years ago.

“It handled just like a new airplane,” said its head pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Ed Dutra, 41. The only hitch came 120 miles out of Point Mugu when an escort plane experienced propeller trouble that caused it to shut down one of its engines, he said.

The plane that had been dubbed the “frozen Phoenix” was home again, if only briefly.


Tool for Research

The plane--roughly the size of a railroad freight car--was part of the Navy’s Antarctic Development Squadron 6, which is based at Point Mugu. The squadron, known as “the Puckered Penguins,” flies a fleet of six Hercules LC-130s laden with equipment and supplies for National Science Foundation polar researchers.

The plane, which had been buried beneath 30 feet of snow with only its orange tail sticking up, landed after an 8,000-mile trip from Christchurch, New Zealand, with stopovers in Pago Pago and Honolulu. It was scheduled to leave Wednesday for a naval facility in Cherry Point, N.C., for further restoration and retrofitting with modern equipment.

Its resurrection will cost about $7 million. But replacing it would cost $50 million, according to Winifred Reuning, a spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation.


Accident in 1971

The saga of the plane that would not die began in December, 1971, when a freak explosion sent debris through two of its four engines while it was attempting a takeoff from a remote plateau 870 miles from NSF headquarters at McMurdo Sound.

The plane’s 10-member crew was able to walk away from the crash, but the plane appeared doomed. The two battered engines were knocked out of commission, and, over the years, the Navy stripped key pieces of equipment, believing the plane would never fly again.

Eventually, mechanics for the Navy and Lockheed, the plane’s manufacturer, thought again about the grounded bird. By 1975, they had already repaired some other severely damaged LC-130s, but it took another 10 years to line up the money for their most difficult rescue attempt yet.


Work began in November, 1986. A six-member team dug for a month, mainly by hand, to avoid damaging the plane further, Reuning said.

What they finally excavated was a plane in astonishingly good condition. The continent’s extreme dryness may have prevented corrosion, said Joe Dabney, a spokesman for Lockheed Aeronautics Systems in Marietta, Ga.

Air in the Tires

“The tires still had air in them and fuel was still in the tanks,” said Dabney.


The engines were removed and flown to the Georgia plant, where they were rebuilt. A year later, they were flown back and re-installed by a team of 25 mechanics, who also patched the plane’s hull and replaced three of its seven Teflon-coated skis.

By January, 1988, the frosty relic was ready for a 2,200-mile trip to Christchurch, where Air New Zealand mechanics deemed it air-worthy after extensive repairs.

“It’s a tough bird,” said Dabney, who also is the author of a 1979 book on the planes, called “Herc: Hero of the Sky.”

Known as “the workhorse of the Antarctic,” the LC-130s are part of a larger class of the mythically versatile and durable C-130s.


Israelis used C-130s to load the Land Rovers they used in the raid on Entebbe. In the Vietnam War, the Air Force found the C-130s to be more effective than conventional fighter aircraft because of the amount of armament they could pack, Dabney said. And to this day, the Air Force flies the planes into hurricanes to determine their speed and direction for weather forecasts.