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Operation Deep Freeze faces conundrum

MCCHORD FIELD, Wash. -- For the final rotation of the 2012-2013 season of Operation Deep Freeze, a team of 35 McChord Airmen left Feb. 7 in a C-17 Globemaster III to take a journey to the icy continent of Antarctica.

ODF is a joint service operation in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program and provides logistical support for the National Science Foundation's scientific research in Antarctica.

Fourteen 446th Airlift Wing Reservists and 21 62nd AW Airmen join to form the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. They plan to fly nine missions from the C-17 staging point in Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. They will carry supplies to those who are staying for the winter and bring those who aren't back to New Zealand.

To accomplish these missions, they use two ice runways, a seasonal runway and the more permanent Pegasus runway.

Rising temperatures in Antarctica have left the Pegasus in a dwindling condition. Reduced from its usual size of 10,000 feet long and 150 feet wide, the runway is now 9,000 feet long and 90 feet wide. The minimum width for a safe C-17 landing is 90 feet.

"We've never had issues with Pegasus runway (melting) before," said Chief Master Sgt. Jim Masura, 446th Operations Group standard evaluation loadmaster. "To have it breaking apart, melting and unavailable is very odd."

Pegasus runway isĀ 22 miles away from McMurdo and is used as a backup once the seasonal ice runway melts into the sea. The seasonal runway, just a mile away from McMurdo, is built out of frozen ocean water. When it melts every year, the 304th EAS turns to Pegasus to carry out the rest of the missions. Since Pegasus began breaking apart, C-17s have not been able to land. It even prevented the last rotation in Christchurch from flying any missions to Antarctica, keeping the people at McMurdo from getting all the supplies they need.

"I think it's really going to affect our ability to help the people down there," Masura said. "They're getting by, but they're not getting everything they need for the winter."

If the C-17 is unable to land, the LC-130s from the New York Air National Guard will be very busy until the end of the season, said Lt. Col. Scott Amerman, 304th EAS director of operations. The LC-130s take longer to fly to Antarctica and only carry a quarter of the cargo a C-17 would, but they have landing skis so runways are not an issue.

Since the weather in Antarctica is subject to rapid change, the scientists believe they can revive the runway in time for the last rotation to fly its missions.

"The National Science Foundation is leaning forward," Amerman said. "They're hopeful that they're going to be able to build us a runway for what we need to do. Since the C-17s provide so much lift, about the same as four LC-130 missions, they aren't ready to give that up."

Just like the NSF, Airmen on the crew are up for the challenge.

"Not everyone gets to visit Antarctica so getting to go there is my motivation," said Tech Sgt. Ron Capalungan, 446th Maintenance Squadron air reserve technician and 304th EAS aircraft hydraulic mechanic. "I've never been on a mission this high profile in such an extreme environment. I expect it to be challenging."

ODF is possibly the military's most difficult peacetime mission due to the harsh Antarctic environment. The Air Force is specially equipped with trained and experienced personnel to operate in these austere conditions and have provided support to the NSF since 1955.

McChord has participated in ODF since 1983 using the C-141B Starlifter. The 446th AW got involved in 1995. The first C-17 trial for use to support ODF was Oct. 15, 1999.