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The first flight to McMurdo Station for the 2008-09 season.
Photo Credit: Anthony "Antz" Powell
The first flight of the 2008-09 summer field season in early September appears above the Transantarctic Mountains. Air traffic and meteorological support for air operations in Antarctica are increasingly being done from off the Ice in the United States.

Flight following

Air traffic controllers, meteorologists keep Ice pilots in the know from far away

The U.S. Air Force pilots and crew who shuttle people and materials between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo Station External U.S. government site on the edge of Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf don’t fly alone.

Working behind the scenes is a team of air traffic controllers and meteorologists who feed the plane’s crew updates on weather and other conditions that might affect the flight. And those jobs are increasingly being done not on the Ice but back in the United States.

In fact, the communications technology is becoming so sophisticated and prevalent that the folks who normally follow the flights from Charleston, S.C., recently performed the same job out of Centennial, Colo., when a storm took aim at the east coast during early flight operations to Antarctica External U.S. government site in September.

“For SpringFly, since Tropical Storm Hannah was coming our way, we put our contingency plan in place in case we got hit and were to lose power,” said Star Fluerty, an air traffic controller with Scientific Research Corp. (SRC) External Non-U.S. government site in Charleston. The Space and Naval Warfare Command (SPAWAR) External U.S. government site contracts with SRC to provide air traffic control and meteorology support to the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site.

Located just southeast of Denver, Centennial is home to Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC) External Non-U.S. government site, the primary contractor for the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site, which manages the USAP. The same computer systems as in Charleston were set up in Centennial, including a TeraScan system used to predict weather conditions.

Bryan Burden tracks weather for SpringFly flights.
Photo Credit: Elaine Hood
Weather forecaster Bryan Burden works out of Centennial, Colo., for flights headed to and from Antarctica.

The contingency plan had been in place for several seasons for the meteorology department, according to Bryan Burden, weather forecaster for SRC. “This is the first time we’ve actually had to go to Denver to do something with it,” he said.

For air traffic control (ATC), the Sept. 5 flight following of a C-17 from Centennial rather than Charleston was not only the first test of the communications system, but this is also the first season for ATC to manage air traffic from the States, according to Fluerty.

“We’re really going to start to do more and more. As we get better equipment here in Charleston, we’re going to start to talk to everything that’s in the en route phase of flight, from Charleston,” Fluerty said after returning home. In the end, the tropical storm only brushed by Charleston, and the Fluerty and Burden only tracked one aircraft of five that week from Centennial.

In the air

The flight between Christchurch and McMurdo takes about 12 hours point to point, but each mission begins hours before the plane leaves the tarmac. Five hours out from takeoff, Burden will contact the pilot to discuss the weather in McMurdo. The pilot will make the call on whether to fly or not.

If the mission is a go, Burden briefs the crew about three hours later via a teleconference. “We really try to make it look like it’s almost a TV presentation,” he said. “They see maps and they get to see what’s happening with the weather between both places and at both places.”

Weather in Christchurch can also be a concern, considering half a day has passed since the crew will have left New Zealand skies. “A lot of times they want to know what the weather is like in Christchurch, if its changes, because it has been a while since they were there last. Sometimes it will change,” Burden added.

Using a high-frequency radio link to the plane, Fluerty will talk to the pilot once he or she crosses 60 degrees south latitude into McMurdo air space, and during other phases of the flight. “I talk to them until he lands at Pegasus,” she said.

Lt. Col. Jim McGann, U.S. Air Force 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron commander at McChord Air Force Base External U.S. government site, said it is critical for the crew to have and maintain communication with air traffic control during the flight. “In literally minutes, weather conditions can deteriorate below our ceiling, visibility and wind limits to safely land the aircraft ... we’d have no idea what we were flying into, and in Antarctica, that’s tempting fate and just too dangerous.”

Except for a few “gremlins,” the Centennial experiment worked well, according to Burden. “It was a success all the way around. We had communications with them the whole time. It went really well.”

Working around the Antarctic

ATC also follows the ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft used for deep-field missions around Antarctica. That’s also starting to be done remotely, as the NSF continues to reduce the “footprint” on the continent — the number of people and facilities required to run the logistics to support science.

Fluerty said some air traffic controllers will continue to work on the Ice, though this year the number on the continent has dropped by about 50 percent compared to previous years, from about 16 to eight. Controllers working out of the communications nerve center at McMurdo, called MacCenter, are still needed for redundancy.

“They are our voice in case we were to lose HF radios or were to lose any of our equipment back here in Charleston; then they would be able to pick up the slack and be able to do [flight following],” she said. “We are still in the testing stage.”

The meteorology department includes weather forecasters and observers. During the summer field season, the met team issues forecasts for not only the Air Force but the Twin Otters. They also provide forecasts for the other two USAP stations, South Pole and Palmer, as well as the science vessels that operate year-round in the Southern Ocean.

“There’s a lot more capability there that we’re able to do, and we do a lot more during the season than just keep track on one plane heading north or south,” Burden said.

He said the meteorology footprint will also continue to shrink as technology allows.

“I think there’s potential with a lot of the communications getting better and better that a lot of the forecasting is going to be done here, with limited forecasters on the Ice,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the pipe somewhere down the road, equipment may take over for some of the observers.”

Still, people won’t entirely be out of the equation, according to Burden. “The pilots do like to have eyeballs out there rather than equipment.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs