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Two people shove bundles out of airplane door.
Photo Credit: Chief Master Sgt. Jim Masura
A C-17 Globemaster III loadmaster with the U.S. Air Force's 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron prepares to airdrop supplies near the South Pole Station on Aug. 29 (local time). Both bundles were successfully received by a ground crew, which had set up "burn barrels" for the pilots to spot the drop zone using night-vision goggles.

Winter airdrop

Air Forces delivers needed supplies to South Pole using night-vision goggles

It’s a mission that the U.S. Air Force External U.S. government site has trained for during the last five years of supporting research in Antarctica — but it was the first time that a C-17 Globemaster III made an airdrop at the South Pole in winter.

The mission went exceedingly well, according to Lt. Col. Robert Wellington, commander of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron from Joint Base Lewis-McChord External U.S. government site in Washington state. The U.S. Air Force and other elements of the U.S. military support the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site as part of Operation Deep Freeze, which started in the 1950s.

The Aug. 29 airdrop delivered “urgently needed medical supplies” to the South Pole Station External U.S. government site, along with other supplies and mail for the 49 people who are spending the winter at the bottom of the world. The station remains isolated from about mid-February to late October.

The Air Force was already in Christchurch, New Zealand, in support of the annual late winter flying operations (WinFly) to McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, the main research base for the USAP, which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site. This year WinFly consists of six flights to transport several hundred people, along with cargo, to prepare the station for the beginning of the 2011-12 field season in early October.

People in heavy coats push boxes inside building.
Photo Credit: Steffen Richter
South Pole personnel move the airdrop bundles into the station's logistics facility. Temperatures that night were as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Plane on runway at night.
Photo Credit: Bill Henriksen/Antarctic Photo Library
U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster at Pegasus airfield during original night-vision goggle mission in September 2008.

The airdrop was added to the third WinFly flight, which involved landing at McMurdo in the dark using night-vision goggles (NVGs), a capability the Air Force first tested during the winter of 2008. [See previous article: Night vision.] Station personnel set up highly reflective cones along the runway to outline the airfield. The plane’s lights reflect off the cones, which the night-vision goggles pick up.

The C-17 refueled at McMurdo and flew on to South Pole, about 800 miles away. Again, the crew used NVGs to spot the drop zone, which was outlined using burn barrels that personnel at the South Pole Station had set up. The Air Force has practiced doing airdrops during the summer with the C-17 since 2006.

“We began training for a winter drop with the annual summer drop this year,” said Karen “Grace” Clark, a South Pole materialsperson who headed the ground crew for the airdrop operation. “Two of the C-17 fellows were on the ground with us during the drop and attended meetings to answer our questions concerning a winter drop, since it had been so long since a winter drop, and a C-17 had never done a winter drop here before.”

The United States routinely performed midwinter airdrops for more than 15 years at both McMurdo and South Pole before they were eliminated due to cost.

The South Pole crew had to build wooden wicks for the burn barrels, which were 55-gallon drums cut into thirds. Personnel used GPS coordinates to place each barrel at a precise location for the drop zone, located about two miles from the main station. It took heavy equipment operator Rob Shaw about 30 hours to groom, or flatten, the snow around the drop zone.

The operation went as planned. Two bundles of 200 pounds each landed without incident after two passes by the C-17.

“It was a culmination of all of our past training and the experience we gained over the last several seasons,” Wellington said. “This [airdrop] wasn’t something that was planned for or that we were tasked with prior to leaving home station. We were [fortunate] to have crewmembers here that had done this before and had the right experience to form the crew to make this happen. There was a bit of luck involved.”

South Pole during winter night.
Photo Credit: Patrick Cullis/Antarctic Photo Library
The aurora australis and Milky Way over South Pole Station during winter.

Once the two packages were on the ground, Clark’s team called on snow machine support to come haul the bundles back to the station.

“We had to wait for them to come because the tracks freeze and they have to keep moving,” she explained.

The temperature at South Pole was between minus 65 and minus 70 Fahrenheit on that Monday night, with winds around 10 knots. “All in all, it was really beautiful out there,” Clark said.

Not so at McMurdo Station, where the weather had deteriorated to the point where the C-17 flew straight back to Christchurch from South Pole. The original plan had been to return to McMurdo to pick up passengers before returning to New Zealand. Total mission time was about 14½ hours, according to Wellington.

“Everybody worked hard and put in a tremendous effort to make this happen, especially the people at McMurdo and the Pole,” he said, also crediting the New Zealand Defence Force in Christchurch for providing equipment and personnel to build the airdrop bundles.

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