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Airplanes on sea ice
Photo Credit: National Science Foundation
An LC-130 airplane in the background is parked at the Annual Sea Ice Runway. In the foreground are engines of a C-17A.

Thanks for flying

On the table is a proposal to use one runway instead of three at McMurdo Station

Not many of the entries on Blaisdell’s wish list are as cut-and-dried as getting a sample, applying it and evaluating performance.

Take his idea of developing one airfield to use throughout the summer season.

The ice runway part of it, due to what has been learned the past several years, is “a hundred percent doable,” he said. “There’s absolutely nothing that could stop us from doing that. We know how to build these.”

The major issue that has to be sorted out, he said, is transportation.

“How do we get cargo and people back and forth between a single airport and town?” Blaisdell said. “How do we keep the roads capable of supporting that amount [of traffic]?” Now, travel is spread out between the three different runways.

A year-round airfield would most likely be placed at or near the current Pegasus White Ice Runway, he said, but added that Williams Field would also be a very strong candidate. Currently, only the smaller, ski-equipped LC-130s land at Williams while the larger, wheeled aircraft, such as the C-17, land at Pegasus. He said he believes the technology is now available to land the larger airplanes at Williams.

Another major factor is fuel supply. Currently, a fuel hose runs to Williams Field and it is trucked from there to Pegasus, which lies farther out.

“But I’m convinced that those also are very manageable problems,” Blaisdell said. “There are things on the market or things that with a very slight bit of modification can answer that. That’s very doable. I need to develop a business case and develop a transition plan that would say, ‘And here’s how we would go about doing this.’”

The payoff in maintaining one airfield – probably with two parallel ice runways, one for wheels and one for skis – is a savings in time, equipment and personnel.

“What that would save us is in terms of the amount of fire fighting capability we have to have, because right now we’re operating two airfields and they’re far enough apart that they have to have two separate fire fighting capabilities – personnel and equipment.

“Navigational aids,” Blaisdell continued. “We’ve got pretty much a duplicate at both of our runway sites. One of them has to move all the time, which is not good for ‘nav aids.’ ... It would mean not having to move the mobile buildings all the time, which, again, is pretty hard on them and takes up some time.”

Wheels down

In the 50 years that airplanes have been landing at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, they have done so on skis. That means that the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) can only fly there using LC-130s, which are considerably smaller than the wheeled C-17 used between McMurdo Station and Christchurch, New Zealand.

However, Blaisdell said that a feasibility study two years ago indicates that snow can be made strong enough to support any wheeled aircraft at the South Pole.

“The reason for doing that is that, right now, maybe a little more than three-quarters of all LC-130 flights on the continent are to South Pole, in essence for what is operational support.”

A large portion of the deliveries is fuel for the upcoming winter season, but two large science construction projects – IceCube and South Pole Telescope – and before them the construction of the new elevated station, have demanded a large slice of air time.

“Each new project going in there tends to be bigger and requires more things and, of course, it holds the promise of even bigger and greater discoveries, so it’s not that any of us begrudge that,” Blaisdell said. “But there are other parts of the science community besides those that work at South Pole that need these resources to go study their potential Nobel areas.”

Jessie Crain, lead planning support manager for Raytheon Polar Services Co., agreed.

“Freeing up LC-130 missions from Pole may allow USAP to support more deep field science,” she said, “both large, multi-group, deep field camps and small individual projects. For many of the field projects, we use a model of providing air support with smaller aircraft from hub camps. These camps require a large infrastructure and quite a bit of fuel to support the operations. The LC-130 is the ideal airframe for moving all of that into the field.”

For smaller projects, Crain said, as few as three or four LC-130 missions could put in a light field team in West Antarctica or the Transantarctic Mountains.

“The NSF tries to balance the large and the small science,” she said, “and additional LC-130 missions provide more flexibility to support a diverse range of projects.”

That could be achieved with a wheeled runway at the Pole because it would allow C-17s to make some of the deliveries there, freeing the LC-130s. Each C-17 can carry as much cargo as three LC-130s, Blaisdell said. He envisions the C-17 making its normal run between Christchurch and McMurdo but with two crews. Instead of starting back north almost immediately, the airplane could make three round-trips to the Pole and then return to Christchurch. That would replace nine LC-130 trips to the South Pole.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Office of Polar Programs