IN THE MILITARY
AIR FORCE PHOTO
An LC-130 offloads fuel at the South Pole, generating huge clouds of water vapor as the temperature hovers at 50 below zero Celsius. The cargo plane from the New York Air National Guard flies support missions for researchers during the summer in the Southern Hemisphere, which corresponds to winter in the northern latitudes.
Operation Deep Freeze
Ski-equipped cargo aircraft rack up several records during this season's science support missions in Antarctica
AIR NATIONAL GUARD Lt. Col. Gary James says that during his unit's missions to Antarctica ferrying scientists with the National Science Foundation, he always makes a point to get out of the plane and walk around.
"When you take a bunch of scientists basically to what is just a pin on the map, and when you land there, you wonder if you are the first human ever to set foot there.
"There's not too many places on the Earth where you can wonder that."
James, 42, is an LC-130 cargo pilot with the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Squadron. Since 1988, the squadron has provided the air supply bridge for the science foundation's study of Antarctica.
This month, James and his crew of five piloted one of the two last LC-130 cargo planes to close this year's Operation Deep Freeze. The ski-equipped LC-130 cargo planes -- two of 14 maintained by the 109th in Schenectady, N.Y. -- stopped briefly at Hickam Air Force Base on their way back to the East Coast from McMurdo Station near the South Pole.
Lt. Col. Walt Clark said the last mission, which began in August and ended last month, resulted in 466 flights flown in Antarctica -- a record for the Deep Freeze operation. This included the most flights over the South Pole -- 337, said Clark, who is Pacific Air Forces director of operations and plans for Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica Operation Deep Freeze.
The mission ended because the temperature began to dip -- to almost minus 50 degrees in three days. There were many other Antarctica records set this season:
» Most cargo moved to and from the South Pole: 12.2 million pounds.
» Most cargo moved in a season at the South Pole: 4.54 million pounds.
» Most missions flown by C-17 Globemaster cargo jets: 51.
» Most passengers moved by a C-17: 4,739.
All of the Antarctic support missions, Clark said, have to be flown between August and February and are coordinated by Pacific Air Forces at Hickam. It is considered by the military as its most difficult peacetime mission because of the extreme austerity of the environment and the remoteness of Antarctica.
Clark said the temperatures are so severe that at times aircraft cannot fly because the fuel gels and the steel shrinks, causing fuel leakages.
Clark, who was part of the New York crew in 1997, recalled that during one mission his LC-130 left McMurdo Station under clear skies. Within minutes, a fog bank engulfed the station.
"The fog remained over the runway for two days," Clark said. "We had to put down in minus 20 degree weather and wait it out. But that is the nature of Antarctica. The weather is so unpredictable."
The 109th flew its first Antarctic mission in January 1988. The Navy controlled the operation then, but in 1998 the New York Air Guard assumed full control of the mission.
Clark said the LC-130 aircraft provide the vital air link between Christchurch in New Zealand and Ross Island, 2,500 miles south, as well as throughout the South Pole region.
The headquarters of the National Science Foundation's Antarctica program is on Ross Island at McMurdo Station. It is the largest Antarctic station and was established in 1995. It is built on the bare volcanic rock of Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island, the southernmost solid ground accessible by ship. As the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program, it has a harbor, landing strips on sea ice and shelf ice, and a helicopter pad.
Supplies and people are flown by C-130s to McMurdo, where in summer airplanes with wheels land on an ice runway near the station. However, as it gets colder, the LC-130s land on a snow-covered skiway on the Ross Ice Shelf a few miles from the station.
James, who has been participating in these Antarctica support missions for eight of the 20 years he has been in uniform, has watched the South Pole station grow. There are now 85 buildings ranging from a small radio shack to large, three-story structures. The buildings house repair facilities, dormitories, administrative buildings, a firehouse, power plant, water distillation plant, wharf, stores, clubs, warehouses, and a laboratory. More than 1,200 people work at McMurdo during the summer, with the numbers dipping to 400 as the mercury drops in the winter.
Clark said that it takes about six hours to fly the 1,500 miles from McMurdo to the South Pole. In the past, LC-130s were moving about 10 million pounds of cargo to and from McMurdo to the South Pole, which was topped by this year's record of 12.2 million pounds.
James, who has been in the cockpit of C-130s for 15 years, said flying in the frigid Antarctic is "a whole different type of flying. Doing the ski mission specifically is a whole new world. It's so much different than flying a normal combat C-130.
"Every day is a challenge. Snow conditions change from day to day ... Getting the plane airborne takes different tricks. Nothing is the same."
Each year, from April through August, the 109th also provides airlift and polar airdrop support to the National Science Foundation and several allied nations in Greenland and above the Arctic Circle.