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Pilot uses special goggles in cockpit of plane.
Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Chris Vadnais
A U.S. Air Force C-17 pilot uses night-vision goggles to land at Pegasus Airfield near McMurdo Station in 2008. The capability, along with the use of new runway lights, has encouraged the National Science Foundation to test regularly scheduled winter flights to McMurdo.

Year-round access

USAP prepares to test plan for regularly scheduled winter flights to McMurdo

Antarctica was a foreboding and challenging corner of the world when the first explorers arrived a little more than a century ago. Journeys south took months to complete by ship. More than one vessel spent an unexpected winter or two locked – and even crushed – in sea ice.

The rapid technological advances of the 20th century brought powerful icebreakers and long-range aircraft, making the remote continent more accessible.

Even in winter, when most of the continent is shrouded in darkness 24 hours a day, flights are still capable of reaching McMurdo Station, the largest research facility in the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). However, those flights are generally for emergency situations, such as an unexpected medical evacuation.

People depart plane in dark.
Photo Credit: Hailaeos Troy/Antarctic Photo Library
Passengers disembark from a C-17 aircraft at Pegasus Airfield in August 2012.

“We say we’re accessible year-round. We just don’t plan for it,” said Paul Sheppard, Operations and Logistics systems manager in NSF’s Division of Polar Programs, Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics.

That’s about to change.

NSF is testing a new model for supporting McMurdo Station – one that Sheppard has said could revolutionize the way the program operates in the future. The agency has scheduled a series of winter flights next year to McMurdo Station from Christchurch, New Zealand, which serves as the gateway to Antarctica for the USAP and several other national programs.

“It’s all proof of concept now,” he explained. “We have an idea of how we want it to go. We have to exercise the system, get comfortable with it, come up with how we’ll manage it, and then increase it.”

Traditionally, the summer field season runs from October to February. Each August, several flights are sent into McMurdo Station during an operation known as WinFly, for winter fly-in, which bring in new personnel and some cargo to prepare for the upcoming summer of science support.

In 2015, flights are scheduled to arrive at Pegasus Airfield, located on an ice shelf about 14 miles from Ross Island where McMurdo Station sits, in April, June and July.

Two mid-April flights will involve aircraft flown by the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the Australian Antarctic Division, as part of a collaborative effort between the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Those flights will move people and cargo southward and northward.

The U.S. Air Force is scheduled to fly one flight on both June 1 and July 17 using a C-17 Globemaster III. Those aircraft are on a tight schedule and will  primarily involve cargo the first year, according to Sheppard.

“The challenges are going to be opening the runways and having a good weather period,” he said.

Moon shines over small town at night.
Photo Credit: Andrew Smith/Antarctic Photo Library
McMurdo Station during the 2014 winter.

Gary Cardullo, airfield manager for the USAP, said there are already procedures in place to support winter flights because of the potential for medevacs. “The crew in the winter will activate the airfield according to the planned schedule,” he said.

There are a number of advantages to adding winter flights to McMurdo Station, Sheppard said.

In the long term, winter flights would help support a proposed major construction effort. NSF is  developing plans to rebuild McMurdo Station, which was established in the 1950s. Much of the current infrastructure and equipment have exceeded their expected lifetime.

An independent Blue Ribbon Panel, chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, recommended in 2012 a major reinvestment in McMurdo Station to increase efficiency and safety. Those plans are still in development.

Winter flights in the near term would allow the USAP to have more flexibility when dealing with medevacs, as well as planning significant construction or maintenance projects, according to Sheppard. 

“If we know that we have a plane every six weeks, medical issues are much easier to deal with,” he said.

Year-round flights would mean the spike in summertime labor could be spread to the winter months if only certain skill sets are needed at specific times. For example, refurbishment of a dorm into single rooms this winter might have been completed quicker if additional flights had been available to bring in more construction personnel.

Plane flies during twilight.
Photo Credit: Jack Green/Antarctic Photo Library
A C-17 Globemaster III prepares to land at Pegasus Airfield during August 2014.

“You don’t need to hold people ‘hostage’ for the whole winter to get stuff done,” Sheppard said. “You smooth out the occupancy throughout the whole year and level out the labor. … We may see that the station is more stable and the quality of life comes up.”  

Operational needs would initially drive the flight schedule, but Sheppard said that new proposals from researchers could certainly include wintertime projects if they could be supported logistically.

The U.S. Air Force flights offer the most potential for support further in the future, particularly for medevacs. A C-17 flies weekly out of the Royal Australian Air Force Base Richmond near Sydney.

A plane could be diverted to Christchurch and return to its normal mission schedule within 24 hours. A flight crew from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state would be brought down to fly the mission. Pilots from McChord have supported the USAP since 1983, as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the military’s catch-all term for its Antarctic activities.  

In 2008, the U.S. Air Force proved it was possible to land during the darkness of winter using night-vision goggles. So-called NVG missions have become a regular part of WinFly in the last few years.

[See pervious article — Night vision: Air Force successfully tests new capability to fly any time of year to McMurdo.]

A new set of runway lights will help the other aircraft that will be used for winter flights – the Australian Airbus A319 and Royal New Zealand C-130 – to land safely at Pegasus Airfield.

“The battery lights were upgraded with a glass mat battery for longer burn time in the cold temperatures,” Cardullo said.

If the winter flight trials prove successful, McMurdo would be one of the few research stations in Antarctica with regularly scheduled flights throughout the year. It would be the only one in the Ross Sea region, which is farther south than any other coastal base in the Antarctic.

“We’re developing a revolutionary way to run McMurdo,” Sheppard said.

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