JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. --
The last flight to the Antarctic for the regular Operation Deep Freeze season almost didn’t happen. But, with the quick thinking of the maintenance crew and help from another C-17 unit, the mission was a go Feb. 22, 2019.
The following paragraphs describe the flight, and how members of the 304th Expeditionary Air Squadron (304th EAS) worked to overcome technical glitches to make the last flight of the main season a reality. Being able to ride along with the aircrew as they navigated the C-17 Globemaster III the Antarctic was an opportunity few get to experience.
Operation Deep Freeze background information
ODF seasons run annually from September 1st to July 31st. Led by Pacific Air Forces, the Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica (JTF-SFA) provides the U.S. Antarctic Program logistical support. JTF-SFA is comprised of active duty, National Guard and Reserve personnel from the U.S. Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy, and Army. The JTF-SFA works closely with National Science Foundation, which in turn works with other Antarctic programs to best support NSF’s research in the safest and most efficient way possible.
The 304th EAS is manned with deployed Airmen from both the active duty 62nd Airlift Wing and reserve 446th Airlift Wing. Year-round operations permit additional science and research to be conducted in McMurdo Station.
On the day of the last flight of the main season, a critical avionics aircraft part wasn’t functioning properly. A backup part wasn’t readily available in Christchurch, New Zealand where the flights for Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. military’s logistical support to the NSF-managed U.S. Antarctic Program are staged.
However, Airmen from the 105th Airlift Wing in Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York, were also supporting ODF operations. Their C-17 Globemaster III was parked near the U.S. Antarctic Program’s hangar at the Christchurch International Airport.
The 304th EAS aircrew reached out to the New York ANG unit and determined the 105th AW’s C-17 was from the same software block. With permissions granted to use the avionics equipment from the ANG aircraft, maintenance personnel quickly fixed the issue and performed pre-flight checks successfully. The aircraft was ready to venture one last time to the Antarctic during the regular 2018-2019 ODF season.
Delivering National Science Foundation Cargo
A reduced cadre of personnel at NSF’s McMurdo Station were preparing to maintain the station during the fast approaching bitter Antarctic winter and 99 passengers were depending on the last ODF flight of the season to transport them back to warmer continents. Known as Ice 35, the mission successfully delivered four people, 13,400 pounds of cargo to Phoenix Runway and returned 99 passengers and 12,800 pounds of cargo to Christchurch.
With an aircrew of four pilots, four loadmasters and two flying crew chief maintainers, the aircraft ventured to a location that not many fly to; landing and taking off on a runway made of compacted snow and ice.
Flight to the Antarctic
The C-17 took off from Christchurch International Airport around 6 p.m. and flew with the sun glaring into the right side of the cockpit. The aircraft would fly in the daylight like this for nearly five hours before reaching McMurdo. One pilot joked that this whole flying in the daylight thing wasn’t so fun as the cockpit heated up from the bright sunlight.
The pilots rotated who was at the controls, two resting and two flying, checking in for updates from McMurdo every 10 minutes. During one of the checks around 9 p.m., the McMurdo operator asked if the crew would like hot coffee.
Capt. Michael Rivera, a 304th EAS pilot, responded, “Hot coffee? We wouldn’t say no to that. You guys are the best!” Then he went on to let the controller know they would be doing an ERO, or engine running offload, and coordinated to have the nose gear warmed while the aircraft was on the ground. With the troubled pre-flight take off, the pilots felt the safest bet for a successful mission was to leave the engines running instead of taking a chance with shutting down the aircraft.
As the aircraft approached the point of losing contact with navigational aids, pilots carefully tracked the mission’s progress at certain checkpoints.
Crossing point first at 60 degrees south, the normal navigation system no longer provides accurate information, said Lt. Col. Jeff Sparrow, 304th EAS Operations director. The solution is to alter the navigation system to navigate in grid mode so it looks like you’re flying north.
Rivera described it as navigating like you’re flying south, but you’re really going west chasing the sun. With just one previous C-17 landing at McMurdo Station, Rivera did not show any nervousness approaching to the Antarctic airstrip for his second landing.
Because this specific flight is taking place later than one typically flown to the Antarctic, Sparrow comments on the shadow pattern of the sun being one they don’t normally see on the left of the aircraft. Rivera responded that he was wondering how much snow and ice the runway would kick up upon landing, indicating his thoughts were already on the challenging aspects of landing the large cargo aircraft on a runway made of compacted snow.
With his mind also on the landing, Sparrow studies the navigational charts and the McMurdo Station airstrip and doesn’t respond to Rivera’s comment, lost in his concentration. At 100 miles to the initial descent, Sparrow and Rivera take turns getting into their cold weather gear and alert the loadmasters we were approximately 15 minutes away.
A full set of cold-weather gear consists of two layers under a uniform and one layer over. Then, cold weather boots, two-layers of gloves, goggles and two-layers of hats complete the look.
Temperatures outside are minus 26 Celsius. McMurdo Station appears after the descent through layers of clouds. The water around McMurdo slowly fades away as Rivera banks the plane, methodically preparing for the final approach to Phoenix Runway.
All four pilots are awake and alert, watching as Rivera positions the aircraft for landing. He banks it again, and the runway appears closer, the groomed airstrip lined with bamboo flags appears as austere as imagined. Perfectly positioned for landing after another quick maneuver, he guides the C-17 and lands smoothly, the white, snow-filled world of the Antarctic whizzing by as the jet rumbles down the slightly bumpy airstrip. The engines whine as the aircraft slows from landing and the pilots look for McMurdo Station personnel to guide the C-17 to its parking spot.
Engines Running Offload
With its engines running, loadmasters quickly work to unload and load passengers and cargo. Little time is wasted on the ground; with light fading, the C-17 is ready to return to Christchurch. Rivera pilots the aircraft back to Phoenix Runway and takes off, leaving behind a skeleton crew to man McMurdo Station during the harsh winter months. He circles the plane back around and gracefully dips the wings of the C-17 to the left and to the right, saying goodbye to the winter crew, who likely won’t see another aircraft until June.
While dipping the wings felt like a graceful maneuver from the cockpit, Sparrow notes to Rivera that probably wasn’t the case for the passengers in the aircraft’s cargo space. At cruising speed, he asks a loadmaster if hot meals are ready. The pilots take a moment in the darkness of the cockpit to refuel on small meals, like the ones served on a commercial airline flight.
The cockpit is softly lit with softly glowing green control knobs and heads-up displays (HUDs). In the miles of oceanic darkness, the stars in the sky glow brightly. Orion’s Belt has never looked as close as it does that far south in the world.
Aurora australis sighting
Suddenly, the pilots notice a strange glowing mass. Sparrow identifies it as the aurora australis, or southern lights, which is the southern cousin to the northern lights. According to the NSF, the aurora australis is caused by solar wind passing through the upper atmosphere and is not observed by many because few live in Antarctica during austral winter.
Sparrow calls up the loadmasters to observe, and wakes one of the pilots from rest, noting they might not ever have a chance to see the glowing lights shifting around like a lava lamp in the sky again in a lifetime.
Amid the dancing lights of the aurora australis and stunning celestial views, the last C-17 ODF Antarctic mission of the season is on schedule for its arrival back at Christchurch. Sparrow and Rivera rotate out to rest, and the final leg of the five-hour journey back stretches out over the black ocean waters reflecting the moon’s light.
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two part commentary series on the Department of Defense’s logistical support to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program.