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FAA plane flies by the geographic South Pole.
Photo Credit: Keith Vanderlinde
An FAA Challenger 601 aircraft flies by the geographic South Pole. A team of inspectors from the Air Force Reserve and FAA is down in Antarctica to inspect the USAP's three airfields as part of a routine mission in a very unusual place.

Flight safety

Air Force Reserve, FAA make routine inspection of USAP airfields

Flight Safety is serious business in the Air Force, and for one Air Force Reserve organization, it’s so important they’re willing to go to the ends of the Earth.

Five members of the 507th Air Refueling Wing’s External U.S. government site 1st Aviation Standards Flight (ASF) are in Antarctica to conduct airfield inspections. The mission of the 1st Aviation Standards Flight is to perform flight inspections of navigational-aid radar and instrument procedures at military and civilian installations in the United States and overseas.

Working in tandem with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) External U.S. government site, the flight operates from the Will Rogers International World Airport in Oklahoma City.

This year employees from the FAA and 1st ASF went to Antarctica to inspect the airfields located there, including the one at the South Pole Station External U.S. government site, making sure they are safe for aircraft ferrying supplies and hundreds of scientists and support personnel with the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site.

Reservists Lt. Col. William Geiser and Maj. Brett Vanmeter flew a FAA Challenger 601 aircraft from Oklahoma City to McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, the USAP’s main research station on Ross Island.

Master Sgt. Kirk Babcock will lead the 15-member FAA team during its three-week mission. While an Air Force Reserve non-commissioned officer, he is the FAA Antarctic Flight Inspection Program Manager, Aviation Systems Standards, in civil service.

An aerial view of Williams Airfield near McMurdo Station.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
An aerial view of Williams Airfield near McMurdo Station.

“I am the lead for the Antarctic mission,” he said. “It does get sort of confusing for people because I do go down to the Ice under military orders but having the same job in the FAA as in the Air Force makes that possible.”

The main sponsor for this mission is the FAA. “They are ultimately in charge of this mission by request from the National Science Foundation and Commander, Operation Deep Freeze [Air Force],” Babcock explained. The crew consists of six pilots, four mission specialists, three maintenance personnel, and two members in support roles.

This will be the first year the team will use the Challenger aircraft operationally to conduct the inspections. “Last year, we took a Challenger CL-604 down to McMurdo to do a feasibility test,” Babcock said. “The test was successful, so this year we are taking the Challenger 601 down to also do some tests but primarily to certify the navigation aids.

“Flying the Challenger will eliminate the need to use the ice-box,” he added, referring to a palletized calibration equipment compartment previously flown in C-130 aircraft to inspect navigation aid, or navaids. “This year we have shipped the ice-box down there only as a backup.”

Babcock said this season the team will inspect six major navaids and eight instrument procedures at three airfields External U.S. government site — Pegasus Airfield and Williams Airfield at McMurdo as well as the airfield at the South Pole Station.

“The navaids are two Microwave Landing Systems (MLS), two TACANS, and three PAPI lights,” Babcock said. “The NSF does not have any Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) in Antarctica. They use the MLS for the Air Force support aircraft. They do use Global Positioning Systems down there and it works really well. We will be inspecting GPS approaches at the South Pole and around McMurdo.

“At one time, GPS wasn’t very usable in Antarctica because of the lack of satellites, but since they have added to the satellite constellation, it is a very good form of navigation in Antarctica. It is used by ground vehicles and science monitoring equipment as well as aircraft.”

The MLS system literally guides aircraft down through the clouds, by displaying steering indications on the pilot’s instrument panel. When descending through a cloud deck, the pilot steers the aircraft to keep two needles (one horizontal and one vertical) centered on an Attitude Direction Indicator. This keeps the aircraft aligned with the runway centerline and descending at the proper rate to touch down in the first 1,000 feet of the runway.

Raytheon Polar Services External Non-U.S. government site, the prime contractor for the National Science Foundation’s USAP, managed the project to install the MLS. The program received FAA certification of its McMurdo MLS as an approved landing system in 2005 after successfully testing it at Williams Airfield in 2004.

This trip will be Babcock’s seventh to Antarctica. “I think the thing that impresses me the most is the beauty and peacefulness of such a harsh environment,” he said. “One day it can seem harmless and the next day it is complete white-out blizzard that without the proper protection you won’t survive.

“Since we are down there for such a short time, I spend a lot of time working to get the job done so we can get home to our families.”

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