JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --
After a record 100 C-17 Globemaster III Operation Deep Freeze missions to the Antarctic, one Reserve Citizen Airman finally saw a penguin Feb. 4.
Chief Master Sgt. James Masura Jr., 304th Expeditionary Air Squadron loadmaster who served his entire career with the 446th Airlift Wing, began supporting Operation Deep Freeze missions as a master sergeant in 1999. In what can be described as Antarctic humor, he began to feel like penguins were elusive just to him.
“I was the only one around who still hadn’t seen one,” Masura said. “I’ve seen seals, I’ve seen whales and I’ve spent almost two weeks in the South Pole and almost one week at McMurdo Station in my time doing this. You have people who have one trip down there and get to see one. It was just the inside joke, so I would tell people that the penguins were photo shopped into their photos.”
To put his 100th mission accomplishment into context, the only Airman to come close to his record is Chief Master Sgt. Ty Brooks, also a loadmaster with the 446th AW and currently serving in the 313th Airlift Squadron. He has the next closest number with 51 ODF missions.
After Masura’s first Antarctic mission in the C-141, he went to C-17 loadmaster school and reflected on the differences between the C-17 and C-141.
“It was so different compared to where we are today,” he said. “We are small and efficient, getting the job done and having fun.
“Compared to the 141s, we were a huge package with pilots, loadmasters, navigators, flight engineers, twice the maintenance package, literally hundreds of people from the Air Force. We worked every day, and we didn’t get the time off and flexibility because of what it took to get that aircraft to the Antarctic.”
Extended range C-17s increased Antarctic capabilities by being able to navigate the weather more reliably, along with additional cargo.
“Early on, before we got extended range C-17s, about an hour out from McMurdo, you had to make the weather call, go or no go,” said Masura. “In the C-141, we would be lucky to carry 40,000 pounds of cargo; in the C-17, we can get 100,000 pounds.”
As one of the most austere places in the world, the ever-changing environment is always a factor when supporting Antarctic airlift and airdrop missions.
For Masura, there is one airlift mission that sticks out as being exceptionally memorable.
“There was an Argentinian boat (Argos Georgia) that broke down way south and was getting surrounded by pack ice,” Masura said. “They were calling for help, and the New Zealand people contacted the [Pacific Air Forces]. Eventually, word got back to us and we had the right people there who had experience with airdrop.”
The Argos Georgia had suffered serious engine failure while heading south in the Ross Sea, leaving it without propulsion and drifting with the ice Jan. 4, 2008, according to an article released by PACAF Public Affairs. The vessel needed critical engine repair parts airdropped to them so crews could fix damage caused by navigating the icy waters.
The airdrop proved to be challenging because the aircrew had to update their drop zone while flying the 11-hour mission. Communicating with Argos Georgia via satellite phones, the aircrew updated the boat’s position as the flight progressed.
“This whole time the boat is moving with the currents, and when we normally air drop, we drop it with coordinates x comma y,” said Masura. “Well x comma y is moving with every minute, so as we’re flying down, we’re updating where the drop zone is going to be.”
Masura described packaging the engine parts with buoys so it wouldn’t sink, and wrapping it securely in plastic.
The airdrop proved to be a success; the equipment landed exactly where the aircrew wanted it to drop, which was not right on the boat or too far away because of the risk of it sinking before retrieval. Within 24 hours, the vessel was up and running.
Understanding the Antarctic weather is something Masura has learned during his time supporting ODF, and it’s not a topic to tread lightly.
“What people don’t understand is you can go in February and it’s nice there,” he said. “They’ll say they’ve had worse than this in Minnesota or Wisconsin. I tell them to come back in August for [Night Vision Goggle] landings with your eyelashes freezing to your eyebrows and you can’t blink.”
Masura was the lead loadmaster for ODF from 2001-2014, adding continuity to a challenging mission that sees frequent turnover from the active-duty support.
“We add that continuity to help not make the same mistakes,” he said. “ODF is supported by a part-time force other than the active-duty commander.”
While amassing 100 missions to the Antarctic supporting the U.S. Antarctic Program’s National Science Foundation mission, Masura also became involved in supporting the local community.
In 2001, community involvement through tours of the C-17 brought many members closer to the Christchurch community, including Masura. Outreach increased in 2011, supporting the community through charitable donations to aid in response to a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that rattled the region.
“The first tour we did was for a group of kids from the Cookie Munchers, which supports dyslexia programs, in New Zealand,” said Masura. “After the earthquake in 2011, we worked to collect donations to support earthquake recovery operations.”
Masura’s Deep Freeze colleagues describe him as an extremely humble person.
“He’s really done a lot for the Christchurch community and has developed true friendships there during his time supporting Operation Deep Freeze,” said Lt. Col. Trace Dotson, 304th EAS commander. “The success of our C-17 Antarctic program is a product of his years of hard work, dedication, and relationships he fostered.”
With just over four years left before retirement, Masura plans to venture to the Antarctic many more times.
“I won’t get to 150, but maybe 125,” he says with a matter-of-fact slight grin.
Snapping a photo of his first penguin sighting Feb. 4, Masura dryly said he now didn’t need to photo shop in penguins into ODF photos anymore. He finally got to see one in person.