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Night sky over a town lit up.
Photo Credit: Ken Klassy/Antarctic Photo Library
An aurora over McMurdo Station during the 2009 winter. The first flights of the 2010-11 field season will start to fly in August to prepare the station for the main field season. The first three flights will use night-vision goggles to land.

Ramping up

Flights for 2010 winfly season scheduled to arrive week early using night-vision goggles

The first sunrise at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site following the dark, cold winter isn’t until Aug. 19. That’s nearly a week after the first Air Force C-17 Globemaster III is scheduled to land on an ice runway with passengers and cargo, ending nearly six months of isolation for the 198 people at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s largest research station.

Seven flights are planned during the winter fly-in (Winfly) period, beginning on Aug. 13. Winfly is the time between winter and the summer when additional support personnel, such as carpenters and cooks, arrive to prepare the station for the upcoming science field season.

U.S. Air Force crews from the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord External U.S. government site (formerly McChord Air Force Base) in Washington state plan to fly the first three missions using night-vision goggles (NVGs) and special reflective cones on the runway.

The U.S. Air Force has proven the concept of operating in the winter dark for the last two years. On Sept. 11, 2008, a McChord C-17 landed at Pegasus White Ice Runway using NVGs for the first time in Antarctic history. [See related article: Night vision.]

The Air Force stands ready to make the concept a regular capability whenever the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site requires it, according to Lt. Col. Robert G. “Beef” Wellington, commander of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron and a C-17A pilot.

“We’re ready to take this next step. It’s a tremendous logistics capability,” Wellington said.

Plane being unloaded at night.
Photo Credit: Bill Henriksen/Antarctic Photo Library
A dozer unloads a C-17 during the 2008 winfly season when the first night-vision goggle mission took place.
Tractors spitting snow into the air.
Photo Credit: Robyn Waserman/Antarctic Photo Library
Heavy machines prepare the annual sea ice runway near McMurdo Station.

He said the Air Force has used NVG technology for many years, and it is a standard part of advanced flight school training. 

“[NVGs] allow us to operate into fields we wouldn’t otherwise be able to operate into or out of, and they enhance safety,” he said. “Although NVGs don’t turn night into day, it sure helps.”

The Aug. 13 scheduled flight is about a week earlier than the Air Force normally arrives in Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze, a military term held over from the 1950s when the U.S. Navy handled most of the logistics for research on the continent, beginning with the International Geophysical Year External Non-U.S. government site.

Today, the support force is mostly civilian, with the military mainly providing air service between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo. The New York Air National Guard (NYANG) External U.S. government site flies ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft within the continent, supporting field camps and the South Pole Station.

Wellington said the Air Force’s big concerns flying that early are extreme cold and rapidly changing weather. Historically, August is the coldest month in McMurdo, with a mean temperature of minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

The planes will carry enough fuel so they won’t have to fill up at the airfield, meaning the engines will remain running while the military transport is on the ground for about an hour. The flight between New Zealand and Antarctica is about five hours each way.

“The funny thing about our aircraft — and jets in general — is that once the plane is going, everything works great. It’s when you shut them down and try to start them back up again in the extreme cold that we increase the likelihood of a maintenance problem,” Wellington explained.

Science is the driving force behind the early start to the Winfly season, according to Jessie Crain, research support manager in the NSF's Office of Polar Programs External U.S. government site.

An international project between U.S. and French researchers called Concordiasi External Non-U.S. government site will launch up to 18 long-duration balloons from near McMurdo Station. Much of the science involves studies of the annual ozone hole that forms at that time of the year. [See related articles: Flying high and Night hunt.]

In addition, a team of biologists studying Weddell seal behavior are particularly interested in looking at the animal’s predation strategies under dark conditions. The extra week will buy the scientists more time for their work. By the end of the month, the sun is up for more than six-and-a-half hours. Daylight then gains about 15 minutes a day in September. By Oct. 24, the sun sits in the sky 24 hours a day.

“It’s a real race against the clock for us,” said Randall Davis External Non-U.S. government site, a professor in the Department of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston External Non-U.S. government site and principal investigator for the eight-member team.

More than 400 people are expected to arrive in McMurdo in August, effectively tripling the station population and representing a larger-than-normal Winfly contingent.

All of those extra hands will be needed this year: The main summer field season, kicking off in late September, also promises to be busier than usual.

Several large deep-field camps are planned, including one in the central Transantarctic Mountains (CTAM) with more than 70 people. The CTAM researchers include dinosaur fossil hunters, along with additional paleontologists, geologists, glaciologists and others.

Farther afield from McMurdo, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide project External Non-U.S. government site will continue to drill an ice core that promises to offer some of the most highly detailed information on past climate for the last 100,000 years. [See related article: Deep into WAIS Divide.]

A second large field camp, Byrd Surface Camp, will also operate in the region. Its primary mission is to support a traverse, or overland tractor train, to establish a base of operations for a major project beginning in 2011-12 that will study the rapidly thinning Pine Island Ice Shelf. [See related article: Byrd Camp resurfaces.]

The U.S. Air Force is scheduled to fly more than 60 flights during the summer between Christchurch and McMurdo. The NYANG is slated to fly about 400 missions across the continent, with more than half of those moving passengers, cargo and fuel to the South Pole.

The South Pole Station External U.S. government site will begin receiving a smaller aircraft called Basler by mid-October, with the LC-130s arriving by the end of the month.

Pole is also expecting a busy field season. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory External Non-U.S. government site, which is drilling holes deep in the ice sheet for strings of special sensors, will finish construction this season. The azimuth for the South Pole Telescope External Non-U.S. government site, a large instrument that searches out galaxy clusters in deep space, is scheduled to be replaced this year.

At Palmer Station External U.S. government site, a small research base that mainly supports marine ecosystem studies around the Antarctic Peninsula, the support crew is expecting a 78 percent increase in science teams between September and May over last year.

Several new groups will deploy to Palmer, including a team that will operate an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to study Adélie penguin foraging areas. 

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