C-17s may take polar route

CHARLESTON - Pilots from Charleston Air Force Base could soon begin flying over the North Pole to reach the Afghanistan war zone. And if the order comes, one flier says it won't be that hard to do.

C-17 pilot Capt. Brian Moritz said flying over the top of the world wouldn't be much different than flying the current route into southwest Asia, over the Atlantic.

U.S. pilots train to a common standard "whether it be over a pole or over an ocean," said Moritz, chief of air crew training at the base.

Because C-17s navigate largely through satellites, he said, compass readings are done only as a backup to the main satellite navigation.

Moritz has flown the polar route once, from a U.S. base near Fairbanks, Alaska, to Europe. For half the flight, he went due north until he neared the pole and his compass began to swing wildly.

"Then all of a sudden you're flying south," he said.

This month, the nation's top uniformed logistics officer said the Pentagon is looking at a variety of methods to get the 30,000 U.S. surge troops into the Afghan theater.

Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb of Transportation Command has said a "niche" route is to fly from the U.S. north over the pole into Russia or another Central Asian republic, or directly into Afghanistan.

Such a route would allow Air Force C-17s to fly nonstop from the United States, including Charleston Air Force Base, into Afghanistan's Bagram Air Field.

It also would allow for wounded soldiers to be evacuated directly to U.S. soil without a need to stop at hospitals in Germany.

Time and money savings weren't immediately available from the Air Force, but a commercial estimate of flying from North America into southern Asia over the pole showed that as much as five hours' flying time could be trimmed.

The current route from Charleston includes a leg to Germany of about eight or nine hours, and another eight or nine hours more to get into Afghanistan.