Following the arrival March 18 of SKIER 75 – the last LC-130 “Skibird” aircraft to depart the Operation Deep Freeze Joint Operating Area, the 2012-2013 ODF season completed another successful, yet challenging campaign.
The Skibird’s arrival at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam marks 55 years that Operation Deep Freeze has served as the U.S. military’s support of science and research activities conducted by the U.S. Antarctic Program. ODF is a joint, inter-agency operation under the direction of the National Science Foundation and, for the first time this season, led by Pacific Air Forces as Joint Task Force – Support Forces Antarctica and commanded by Maj. Gen. Russ Handy.
SKIER 75’s arrival also marks the successful conclusion of 25 years of continuous support from the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, based out of Scotia-Glenville, New York, to the U.S. Antarctic Program, which NSF manages
Corresponding to the austral spring and summer in Antarctica, the 2012-2013 ODF season kicked off in August as six C-17A winter fly-in, or WINFLY missions, flown by the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., transported 389 passengers and more than 338,000 pounds of cargo between Christchurch, New Zealand and McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
Following an astonishing flyover and open house that attracted more than 10,500 aviation enthusiasts to the Christchurch International Airport, main season operations began on October 1 with C-17 crews returning to deliver personnel and cargo as part of 36 Christchurch-to-McMurdo round-trips for the season, including the milestone 500th ODF C-17 special assignment airlift mission on October 12.
In addition, the ice mission experts of the 139th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron – deployed airmen from the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, deployed five ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft to McMurdo Station in late October. Using a hub-and-spoke approach, the unit successfully resupplied 15 Antarctic stations and field camps from its operations base at McMurdo.
While the 139th’s primary task is to support Antarctic science, the bulk of their work was to resupply and prepare the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for winter. The Amundsen-Scott Station is a modular, premier scientific research facility, the components of which were delivered to the remote Antarctic plateau exclusively by the NYANG unit from 1999-2008. This ODF season, the 139th moved more than 6.4 million pounds of cargo and fuel, and provided service to over 3,600 passengers during 310 LC-130 missions this season.
Similar to the 2011-2012 season, C-17 and LC-130 aircraft carried participants from the New Zealand, Italian, Australian and South Korean Antarctic programs under scientific collaborative agreements with the NSF. Additionally, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Dr. Kelly K. Falkner, the Director of the NSF’s Division of Polar Programs, and the Vice Commander of Air Mobility Command, among other dignitaries, were able to experience firsthand the one of the most challenging peacetime missions performed by the U.S. Air Force.
Dec. 7, an unprecedented wind storm buried Pegasus Field and a section of the snow roads under a layer of dark mineral dust, resulting in deteriorated road and ramp conditions and a failed ice runway, preventing the Australian Antarctic Program from completing scheduled Airbus A-319 flights.
As a result, LC-130 aircraft from the 139th were tasked to provide additional intercontinental passenger services, totaling a 62 percent increase of actual versus planned intercontinental LC-130 missions, totaling an extraordinary 102 for the season.
Though the C-17 returned to Christchurch Jan. 19 after a seven-week operational pause, the storm prevented the 304th’s first Antarctic mission of 2013 to Pegasus Field until Feb. 11, with six of the final nine missions flown to a modified 9,000-foot long by 90-foot wide surface, the first time such an abbreviated ice runway has been used by a C-17 at McMurdo.
Maritime support for ODF began in February with the arrival of the NSF-contracted Russian icebreaker, Vladimir Ignatyuk. The icebreaker cut through 15 miles of ice in preparation for the arrival of the Military Sealift Command-contracted fuel tanker, Maersk Peary, Feb. 8.
The Peary off-loaded more than 5.9 million gallons of diesel fuel, jet fuel, and gasoline needed for the sustainment of McMurdo Station, and provided fuel for the NSF-chartered scientific research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer and the Vladimir Ignatyuk before departing McMurdo Station Feb. 14.
Following the departure of the Peary, the MSC-contracted MV Ocean Giant arrived McMurdo Feb. 15, carrying nearly seven million pounds of supplies, to include frozen and dry food stores, building materials, equipment and parts – approximately 80 percent of the materials needed for the upcoming winter.
The cargo transfer, as well as the loading of nearly 2.6 million pounds of retrograde cargo was conducted by 42 Navy Cargo Handling Battalion – One person from Williamsburg, Va., and 59 New Zealand Defence Force and Antarctic Service Contract personnel in just 11 days, who battled freezing temperatures and continuous Antarctic winds.
“I am enormously proud of the dedication and professionalism displayed by our JTF-SFA airmen and sailors this year,” said Maj. Gen. Russell J. Handy, commander, Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica. “We regularly encounter obstacles during the challenging ODF season, but this year’s were significant because of the windstorm that essentially cut the continent off from normal heavy airlift support. The LC-130s stepped up, proving that military support to the U.S. Antarctic Program is vital.”
The general emphasized that it was not only the specially outfitted LC-130 aircraft that “stepped up” but the entire Operation Deep Freeze team who performed above and beyond this year.
“Our C-17s were able to establish wheeled access before any other programmatic aircraft, being able to operate on a significantly modified runway when other, smaller programmatic aircraft could not,” Handy explained.
“The US Navy cargo handlers delivered essential ship-born supplies to McMurdo while battling some of the most difficult working conditions on the planet – my expectations could not have been exceeded without the exceptional proficiency demonstrated by these first-class airmen and sailors.”