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Flying into the Deep Freeze

ANTARCTICA - A C-17 from McChord Air Force Base, Wash.,  sits on the ice in Antarctica after 446th Airlift Wing Reserve aircrews deliver cargo to McMurdo Station. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Steve Mortensen)

ANTARCTICA - A C-17 from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., sits on the ice in Antarctica after 446th Airlift Wing Reserve aircrews deliver cargo to McMurdo Station. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Steve Mortensen)

ANTARCTICA- U.S. Antarctica Program participants arrive at the Annual Sea Ice Runway at McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica. The C-17 jets are flown by 446th AIrlift Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit at McChord Air Force Base, Wash.,  in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program. (National Science Foundation courtesy photo by Andre Fleuette)

ANTARCTICA- U.S. Antarctica Program participants arrive at the Annual Sea Ice Runway at McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica. The C-17 jets are flown by 446th AIrlift Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program. (National Science Foundation courtesy photo by Andre Fleuette)

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- McChord pilots, loadmasters and maintainers have wrapped Phase III of Operation Deep Freeze, having ferried supplies for the National Science Foundation between New Zealand and Antarctica.
Crews from the 446th and 62nd Airlift Wings operated Phase III Dec. 16 through March 1.
Operation Deep Freeze is broken into three phases: Phase I is in August; Phase II runs during October and November; and Phase III goes from mid-December to March.
Since August, McChord crews have been flying out of Christchurch, New Zealand supplying McMurdo, Antarctica, with food, fuel, equipment, laborers and scientists, said Lt. Col. James McGann, 8th Airlift Squadron assistant director of operations and commander of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, which runs the C-17 Deep Freeze mission.
For Phase III, equipment and most of the people brought down during Phase I and II were brought back to New Zealand. Also, supplies continued to be transported to support the few people who remain in Antarctica during the long, dark and bitter winter.
The people who make up the C-17 flight are equally amazing to the frozen continent itself, added Colonel McGann.
“They’re fantastic,” he said. “It’s rare to command a team like this. The squadrons send outstanding people and (the mission) goes like clockwork.”
For instance, during Phase II the C-17s never missed a sortie due to maintenance. “Those guys are critical. They work their tails off,” said Colonel McGann.
Having the Reservists and active-duty Airmen available for Deep Freeze helps make it a success as well.
“The Reservists provide continuity. They have been there season after season,” said Colonel McGann.
The 446th AW’s participating squadrons are the 97th, 313th, and 728th Airlift Squadrons.
The 62nd AW provides flexibility because people can be replaced at a moment’s notice. “We can say, ‘Well, Joe is out; Sam is in.’ It’s just that quick,” said Colonel McGann.
“Each flight has 10 crewmembers on it: four pilots, four-loadmasters and two-crew chiefs. There is always a mix of active and reserve members in each of the crew positions,” said, Senior Master Sgt. James Masura, 446th Operations Group. Sergeant Masura served the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster superintendent, base out of Christchurch.
“We did have the last rotation for “Main Season” and the Reserve flew a majority of the missions. Normally, the only difference is the maintenance is usually active duty.”
Sergeant Masura has been on the most Deep Freeze missions in the 446th AW, second only to one person in the 62 AW.
“It is the best mission that McChord has,” said Sergeant Masura. “It is a lot of work, followed with a lot of fun. When we deploy (to New Zealand), it is with very limited support, and we are required to get the mission done with an extremely small staff compared to any other deployment. It has helped me hone my skills as a loadmaster and an organizer.”
Master Sgt. Linda Mortensen, 313th Airlift Squadron, recently returned from her third Deep Freeze trip.
“This was my third time participating in Operation Deep Freeze and, if my count is correct, my eighth time to the ice,” said Sergeant Mortensen. “The mission itself is worthwhile because of the uniqueness of it. The Ross Ice Shelf is one of the most remote places on earth and I feel quite fortunate to see it and be a part of something distinctive. We also used the Pegasus runway (a permanent ice landing strip) this time because of the warming temperature, which was a first for me.”
Tough decisions
When crews fly to Antarctica’s frozen mainland, they are met with many tough decisions, but none as critical as the one made an hour outside of touchdown called the “point-of-safe return.”
At that point crews must decide to either scrub the mission and return to Christchurch or commit to landing on the ice. McMurdo is more than 2,400 miles away from Christchurch, far enough that if planes cross the point-of-safe return, they have no choice but to land and refuel, no matter the conditions.
Analyzing runway conditions and weather data constantly, crews land if everything appears safe.
Where crews land during Phase III is different from Phase II, added Colonel McGann. During Phase II, C-17s land on a temporary sea-ice runway.
Lt. Col. Smokey Robinson, 10th Airlift Squadron commander, and his crew were the last to land on the annual sea-ice runway before it completely melted. He had to skip the first 2,500 feet of the runway; the ice had thinned enough where he could see the shadows of the water beneath it, he said.
For Phase III, crews landed on Pegasus, the permanent-ice runway 10 miles farther a field from McMurdo than the temporary sea-ice runway.
Time is precious once they are on the ground, said Master Sgt. Shawn Brumfield, 62nd Operations Group Standardization and Evaluations and 304th EAS chief loadmaster. Each flight crew is augmented with four pilots, four loadmasters and two maintainers so they can rotate and avoid staying out in the dangerously frigid temperatures too long.
The crews are highly experienced with the Deep Freeze mission, added Sergeant Brumfield.
“We try and pick people with experience so (their work) is second nature,” he said. “All they have to worry about is the cold.”
Each flight has one loadmaster with an acute amount of Deep Freeze knowledge to make sure everything stays safe.
The lead loadmaster basically watches everyone work, said Sergeant Brumfield. If someone’s nose turns rosy, a sure sign of oncoming frostbite, the lead loadmaster will swap them with someone warm inside the jet.
Off-loading is planned long before the plane touches down, said Sergeant Brumfield. This keeps time on the ice to a minimum.
“You have to be forward-thinking,” said Colonel McGann. “If you turn your back on Antarctica, she’ll bite you.”