Feature   Know Your Military

Polar Navigator: What a Cool Job!

Oct. 22, 2018 | BY Katie Lange

Air Force navigator works inside plane.
Flight Navigator
Air Force Maj. Amanda Coonradt, a navigator with the 109th Airlift Wing at Stratton Air National Guard Base, Schenectady, N.Y., works inside an LC-130 Skibird.
Photo By: courtesy of Amanda Coonradt
VIRIN: 170728-O-JZ422-199C

The Air Force’s LC-130 Hercules aircraft, known as the Skibird, is the only ski-equipped airplane in the U.S. military, and its peacekeeping missions to Antarctica supporting science exploration make the job of the navigator onboard critical.

Air Force Maj. Amanda Coonradt, a veteran navigator with the 109th Airlift Wing at Stratton Air National Guard Base, Schenectady, New York, filled us in on what makes the job and mission so cool.

What does a navigator do?

Polar mission navigators are commissioned military officers who research weather, obstacles and terrain for trips to remote destinations and ensure there’s enough fuel to successfully land.

“We have to do a lot of research and training prior to completing these missions,” Coonradt said.

Scenic view of McMurdo Sound, Coast Guard ship.
McMurdo Station
A U.S. Coast Guard ship sits in McMurdo Sound near McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center.
Photo By: courtesy of Air Force Maj. Amanda Coonradt
VIRIN: 180120-O-JZ422-775C

The Antarctic mission is a DOD-wide effort.

Aside from the Air National Guard contributing its LC-130s, the Air Force is present with the C-17 Globemaster III, and the Navy comes to help resupply and offload cargo.

“We have a Coast Guard cutter coming down and opening up the seaways, breaking up the sea ice,” Coonradt said. “The only thing we’re missing is the Marines, unfortunately.”

A grounded LC-130 in Antarctica.
LC-130 Hercules
An Air Force LC-130 Hercules aircraft, known as the Skibird, sits on land in Antarctica.
Photo By: courtesy of Air Force Maj. Amanda Coonradt
VIRIN: 170723-O-JZ422-002C

The trips can be intense.

Antarctica has low cloud ceilings and visibility, so there’s no room for error.

“There are no instruments that can talk to the ground. There’s no electricity that’s down in these austere, ice-barren locations,” Coonradt explained. “So, it’s really up to the navigator, especially in poor weather. … It’s typically us flying the airplane verbally to the pilots.”

Sailor uses navigational sextant.
Navy Ensign Matthew Nucifore uses a sextant during navigation training on the bridge wing aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton, Oct. 18, 2017.
Photo By: Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelsey J. Hockenberger
VIRIN: 171018-N-VR594-0022

They use the same antiquated navigation tool as Lewis and Clark did.

Navigators often use a traditional technique called celestial navigation. It’s the art and science of finding your way by the sun, moon, stars and planets -- one of the oldest practices in human history. To do so, navigators use a sextant, which measures angles and times to calculate positions. It’s the same tool used by U.S. explorers Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s.

“At the South Pole, where pretty much every direction is north … we use a sextant to help us finalize a position and know exactly where we are on our navigational chart in case any of our instruments fail,” Coonradt said.

And if they do fail?

“We rely … typically on the sun because it’s 24-hour sunlight down in Antarctica that time of year,” Coonradt said. “We give [the pilots] headings, distance, drift -- what the wind is doing that day -- and when they can descend in a safe location.”

Airman poses in front of South Pole.
South Pole
Air Force Maj. Amanda Coonradt poses in front of the geographic South Pole during an Antarctic mission.
Photo By: courtesy of Amanda Coonradt
VIRIN: 091117-O-JZ422-233C

The job has adventure and hardships.

Missions to Antarctica are typically eight to 10 weeks, so they have to mentally prepare. Crews bring proper cold-weather gear and something to entertain themselves, and they have to be ready for limited access to communication. There’s no satellite coverage down there, which means no cellphones. So, for the 700-1,100 civilians and service members living there throughout the year, they have to share limited phone lines to the outside world, and the internet is also limited.

“During the main hours of the day, [the internet is] very, very, very slow,” Coonradt said. To keep up morale, the service members rely a lot on each other and their chaplain.

Aerial view of Antarctica.
Skibird View
A view of Antarctica's landscape from an LC-130 Skibird.
Photo By: courtesy of Air Force Maj. Amanda Coonradt
VIRIN: 180110-O-JZ422-380C

But the land is stunning, and there are things to do!

“Once you step off that aircraft [in Antarctica], the mountains that surround McMurdo Sound, where we live, are really majestic. It’s just breathtaking,” said Coonradt, who knows of a few great hiking spots. “Antarctica has some specific trails that have already been blessed by mountaineers that are safe for travel, so you can go with a buddy or on your own.”

Bill Nye talks with airman on airplane.
LC-130 Skibird
Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” an American TV personality who communicates science to the masses, talks about the LC-130 Skibird with its navigator, Air Force Maj. Amanda Coonradt, during a visit to Antarctica.
Photo By: courtesy of Amanda Coonradt
VIRIN: 160715-O-JZ422-596C

There’s a chance you’ll meet someone famous.  

On flights, Coonradt has gotten to accompany a lot of military leaders, senators and other high-level officials, including Edmund Hillary, the first person to successfully hike to the top of Mount Everest.

“I was just about to get on a C-17 in late January, and they were offloading the current passengers,” Coonradt said of one of her very first excursions to Antarctica in the mid-2000’s. “[Hillary] was on the Antarctic mission in the 1950s. It was his first time back to Antarctica in 50 years.”