Maintenance challenges re-deployment from Deep Freeze support

  • Published
  • By Maj. Brooke A. Davis
  • 446th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part commentary series on the Department of Defense’s logistical support to the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program.

The last Operation Deep Freeze mission of the main 2018-2019 season returned to Christchurch International Airport, New Zealand, Feb. 23, delivering 99 passengers and 12,800 pounds of cargo.

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. Experienced and dedicated Airmen from the 304th EAS introduced a new capability to support the U.S. Antarctic Program with year-round access to the continent through mid-winter flights.

The 304th EAS completed all of its 35 tasked missions of the regular season, supporting the NSF’s research operations in the Antarctic. As a Public Affairs officer, I was given the opportunity to tell the ODF story. Being part of the last mission really showed me how dedicated and professional members of the 304th EAS are, and this is the story of the final main season flight.

Returning from the Antarctic

The last mission of the season, known as Ice-35, lands in the early morning darkness, slowly taxiing from the five-hour flight returning from the Antarctic. Lt. Col. Trace Dotson, 304th EAS commander, slows the jet from its landing and comments that other aircraft parked on the runway are too close.  

“We need wingtip spotters,” he says, and is relieved to see maintenance workers already in place to help spot the nearly 170 foot wingspan of the C-17 Globemaster III cargo jet, as he slowly maneuvers the aircraft.

Two other pilots, Capt. Michael Rivera and Lt. Col. Jeff Sparrow, stand in the cockpit, peering diligently at nearby parked planes as the C-17 slowly taxis, keeping an eye out for any signs the aircraft is getting too close to other aircraft. While there are moments of relaxation in the cockpit, in moments like these the aircrew works in concert with each other constantly communicating their observations to ensure the safety of the crew and aircraft.

At last the C-17 is situated in its final parking spot from the final mission of Operation Deep Freeze, and the engines sigh as they’re shut down. There is kind of a deflated air about returning from the Antarctic, and NSF passengers blink their eyes at the fluorescent lights shining in the belly of C-17 hull.

As the passengers begin to slowly walk down the stairs of the C-17, Senior Master Sgt. Scott Dillinger, 304th AES loadmaster, smiles as he observes many looking up at the sky in astonishment. This time of year, the Antarctic is always lit by the sun, and while dawn was approaching, the early morning darkness offers a different scenery for them to take in.

Boisterously bantering with each other, the aircrew stands aside as the NSF passengers shuffle off the plane. Some of the passengers thank the flight crew as they deplane, their matching red coats and heavy-duty Antarctic gear all bundled with them as they depart. A mix of scientists, engineers and laborers, some will vacation until the next season, while others will continue their research, readying for their next journey back to McMurdo Station.

As the NSF passengers head over to New Zealand customs for processing, but the aircrew remains with the C-17, preparing the aircraft for its homecoming mission.

With the season complete, the plan was for all deployed crews supporting ODF to return Feb. 25, flying first to Hawaii, then back home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Deployments in support of ODF occur in rotations, some lasting weeks and some lasting months. Supporting the final missions of the main season since Jan. 27, the crew in this last rotation was ready to head back home.

With water dripping from its wings from the Antarctic long journey, maintainers busily inspected the jet’s engines and landing gear for damage during post-flight maintenance operations.

With the passengers and cargo off-loaded, loadmasters work to configure the jet for its homeward bound flight, loading seat pallets and readying built-in seats along the walls for passengers. While the flying part of the mission was complete, the entire aircrew chips in to tidy the aircraft for its next journey.

Debriefing NSF Logistical Support

The next step after ensuring the jet is prepped is to debrief the mission as a team, and the aircrew are a bit weary from the long mission. With missions normally departing early in the morning and landing in the early evening, the flight crew still has to adjust to the overnight flying mission.

The debriefing discussion covers many topics, including the difficulties of communicating with McMurdo Station personnel to load the aircraft. 304th EAS members not on the mission sat at the chairs against the wall, not the debriefing table, and listening to the discussion, and offering experienced advice with safety always the priority. These members ‘catch’ the incoming aircrews, tired from flying, and ensure their safe transportation back to their living quarters for rest. This particular ‘catch’ also included the delight of an Australian biscuit cookie called Tim Tams and an early morning orange juice treat.

During the debriefing, Senior Master Sgt. Charles Messer, 304th EAS Maintenance NCO in charge, comes into the room and talks about a possible maintenance issue for the return flight home. Dotson says that it is never good when maintenance comes in during debriefings. The aircrew laughs at his remark, and some of the loadmasters look at each other, appearing to silently wonder how serious the issue is and if they’d be able to fix it at their deployed location.

After the mission debriefing, the aircrew organizes their gear to return back to their quarters for some much needed rest. The distressed look from one maintainer as he approached the departing aircrew, however, stops everyone in their tracks.

The aircrew has a superstition against calling loved ones and definitively saying a specific date they are headed home, a loadmaster said previously, possibly foreshadowing a deviation to the plan. Inevitably something delays or changes the mission.

Troubleshooting Maintenance

Tech. Sgt. Raymond Green, 304th EAS flying crew chief, discusses finding a problem with the C-17 that most likely could not be fixed quickly or easily. When the aircraft landed in Christchurch, the engine four liner caused a thrust reverser door malfunction. According to maintenance experts, no one in New Zealand could fix this issue and a Maintenance Recovery Team (MRT) had to be obtained from McChord Field along with the necessary parts.

Thrust reversers are critical to slowing an aircraft upon landing. Each engine is rated at 40,440 pounds of thrust and includes thrust reversers that direct the flow of air upward and forward to avoid ingestion of dust and debris. Additionally, thrust reversers provide enough thrust to reverse the aircraft while taxing backwards and create in-flight drag for maximum rate descents, according to the Air Force’s C-17 fact sheet.

The aircrew delays returning home, waiting on experts and parts from McChord to arrive. Being able to enjoy the local cuisine and New Zealand community is a highlight for many of the deployed members, and the extra time in country allows them time to explore. I was able to check out Arthur’s Pass National Park, just a short train ride from Christchurch.

Within a few days, the MRT arrives in New Zealand with the parts to repair the aircraft. The team successfully fixed the thrust reversers, pinning them closed as designed for aircraft landings. The team also used locally found parts to complete some of the repairs.

Delayed only a few days, the C-17 is now ready for its oceanic voyage home from Operation Deep Freeze’s final rotation of the 2018-19 season. With the thrusters fixed, the C-17 redeployed back to McChord Field, stopping at Hickam Field and then flying the rest of the way home Feb. 27.

Returning to support Operation Deep Freeze missions for the mid-winter season in the summer is next on the horizon for the 304th EAS. A crew of highly experienced Airmen will venture back to Christchurch in four months for the first mid-winter mission, and delivering supplies to support research as well as fresh food to the skeleton crew manning McMurdo Station.