JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --
Senior Master Sgt. Mark A. Riekena has spent a total of 32 years in the Air Force and counts his Operation Deep Freeze (ODF) rotations as one of his top assignments. He started his Air Force career as security police on active duty before becoming a C-141 Loadmaster with the 97th Airlift Squadron here. Riekena is currently with the 313th Airlift Squadron as a loadmaster.
How many iterations of ODF have you been a part of and which one was the best? Why?
I started flying ODF on the C-141 in the late 90s then on the C-17 for 15 seasons. All of them are great, but there has been many changes over the years in terms of rotation length, manning and missions. One thing is that nothing is like your first experience stepping onto the frozen surface. Seeing emperor penguins for the first time in 2011 was special as well.
What was your favorite part of ODF?
So many things go into ODF. The connection to the community in Christchurch, New Zealand, the camaraderie being on Temporary Duty (TDY) with a small group for an extended period, and training the next generation of ODF experts, and the non-standard/complex cargo loads that you don’t see anywhere else.
What was your least favorite?
Due to weather and runway conditions on the surface, you experience a lot of mission delays that require more work to recover from later in the rotation/season. COVID-19 has made many aspects more difficult with arrival quarantine and cargo/passenger handling procedures.
Would you want to stay for an extended period in Antarctica?
I have never had the opportunity to spend an extended period at McMurdo Station. I would love to spend a little time there and get to experience the sights, lifestyle, and community.
What kind of Antarctic wildlife did you see?
In my ODF experience, the only wildlife I have seen are the emperor penguins. They are quite amusing to watch as they dive onto their stomachs and slide instead of just walking. They are very curious animals and the folks in Antarctica are very serious about protecting them.
Would you want to be part of ODF again?
I will be! I’m currently scheduled to return as the Chief Loadmaster in February 2021.
Operation DEEP FREEZE, the military’s 65-year mission to support National Science Foundation research in Antarctica, is one of the most difficult peacetime missions due to the harsh Antarctic environment. The U.S. military is uniquely equipped and trained to operate in such an austere environment and this year celebrates 65 years of support. Flown by the 446th and 62nd Airlift Wings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, the Air Force delivers personnel and cargo on C-17 Globemaster IIIs during the season, which runs annually, from August through July. McChord C-17s have been used in support of ODF dating back to 1999. Before that, the C-141 Starlifter was used.