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An Air Force C-17 at Pegasus Airfield in the darkness of an Antarctic June
Photo Credit: Joshua Swanson
An Air Force C-17 at Pegasus Airfield in the darkness of an Antarctic June.

Successful Flights Means More Access to McMurdo in Winter

Support vehicles line up in June to help unload the recently landed C-17 cargo plane
Photo Credit: Joshua Swanson
Support vehicles line up in June to help unload the recently landed C-17 cargo plane.

Residents wintering at McMurdo Station saw a rare sight in June; A United States Air Force C-17 touching down at the Pegasus Airfield during Antarctica’s darkest month, which U.S. Antarctic Program officials hope is harbinger of things to come.

The plane stayed for only a couple of hours before flying off into the night. It dropped off seven people and about 52,000 pounds of cargo and picked up eight people leaving the continent. A month later, another C-17 descended out of the blackness, rounding out a three-flight, proof-of-concept program for future winter resupply missions.

The two C-17 flights followed the landing of an Australian Antarctic Division-contracted Airbus A319, which touched down on April 18 while the skies were still dimly lit in the Antarctic twilight. It brought in 13 people to the station and carried 39 off the Ice.

Historically, McMurdo has had a nearly six-month-long blackout period between March and August with no scheduled flights in or out. These recent landings are the vanguard of a new winter flights program that planners expect will fundamentally change how the station operates during the continent’s coldest months.

“It’s a precedent-setting activity,” said Paul Sheppard, the operations and logistics systems manager for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs. “[The Antarctic Support Contract] is already planning on building it into the season plan for fiscal year 2016.”

Added Michael Raabe, manager of transportation and logistics at the Antarctic Support Contract (ASC), which runs the logistics operations for the NSF, “No longer do we have the mentality that the winter staff and the winter operation is a closed operation. We have the ability to fly in and out year round… We become more of a mature operation that can dictate, in essence, to the continent what we want to do and not let the continent and the seasons dictate to us.”

The Airbus flight demonstrated that it is possible to get passengers to McMurdo from Hobart, Australia, without going through Christchurch, New Zealand, the normal point of departure. It also tested the abilities of the Airbus planes to land late in the season and the effectiveness of the new LED landing lights at Pegasus Runway. A second plane, a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 cargo plane, was supposed to fly down as well, but delays and scheduling commitments prevented it from taking part.

Though Air Force C-17s have ferried people and cargo on and off of the continent for years, the June and July flights were a significant departure from previous missions. During the austral summer, a dedicated Air Force unit, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, operates the planes traveling to and from the continent. However, C-17s from a separate division of the Air Force made these winter flights.

A forklift unloads cargo off of an Air Force C-17 in the July darkness
Photo Credit: Joshua Swanson
A forklift unloads cargo off of an Air Force C-17 in the July darkness.

Every week or so, the U.S. Air Force flies logistics missions, known as “channel flights,” delivering passengers and cargo to various locations throughout the Pacific. About a year ago, NSF approached the Air Force about sending a couple of flights this winter to Christchurch to send to McMurdo. The Air Force authorized two missions this year to layover at Christchurch so the USAP could use the aircraft.

After the borrowed plane arrived in New Zealand, it was loaded with passengers, scientific equipment and supplies bound for the Ice. Ice-trained pilots equipped with night- vision goggles flew commercially to Christchurch from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. They then flew the plane the five hours to McMurdo, offloaded the cargo and returned to New Zealand, while the channel flight crew was taking their mandated rest period in Christchurch.

“So when they wake up in the morning and walk out, their plane is back. It’s like it never left,” said Pete Cruser, the logistics operations manager for the ASC.

The June flight went off without a hitch. On July 18, the two different air crews repeated the effort, transporting 51,000 pounds of cargo and 16 passengers in and 8 people out. It too was a success, despite some minor damage to the airfield from a severe storm in McMurdo earlier in the month.

Advancements in night-vision technology made landing in the pitch darkness possible. Both the June and July flights were accomplished using only the pilot’s night vision goggles, not the LED lights along the runway.

“The tactic of using night-vision goggles has been built up over the course of a few years for emergency use,” Sheppard said.

These flights aren’t technically the first winter flights in McMurdo’s history. On occasion, the U.S. Air Force or the Royal New Zealand Air Force has flown emergency medical evacuation missions into the station during the winter, and there have been “air-drop” missions where cargo planes parachuted in supplies without landing. In addition, in June 1967, the Navy flew a scheduled winter mission to McMurdo. But since then, there have been no planned winter flights for almost 50 years.

The Air Force has already authorized another two winter flights for next year. In the future, there may be as many as six flights per winter season.

“It gives the program the ability to really plan how we operate projects and not let the airlift capabilities determine how a project operates,” Raabe said. “We can let the projects determine how the airlift capabilities have to line up.”

In part, planners expect that the mid-season deliveries would help lift the spirits of those wintering at the station.

“Fresh food and mail in the middle of winter, you don’t get a better morale boost,” Cruser said.

The June flight left behind about 4,500 pounds of produce and 3,400 pounds of packages. The June flight’s load of mail was particularly large because it carried the packages from the earlier cancelled April C-130 flight as well. To celebrate the winter delivery, about 45 people gathered in one of the huts for a Christmas-themed party to open packages together.

Station residents threw an impromptu Christmas in June party, complete with holiday decorations
Photo Credit: Travis Groh
Station residents threw an impromptu "Christmas in June" party, complete with holiday decorations, to open their recently delivered packages.

“Every decoration we could find went up in that place: Three Christmas trees, lights crisscrossing the ceiling, pictures of Santa and elves in every window,” said Shannon Keller, who helped organize the event. “We made eggnog, apple cider, mulled wine, Christmas cookies and, of course, we had candy.”

These new winter flights will not only make it easier to bring in additional winter supplies, but also people to help improve the station’s infrastructure.

“You can do major construction in off peak times,” Cruser said. “In wintertime, the population isn’t as big, so you can plan construction projects or maintenance projects.”

When the station’s population shrinks during the winter, many of the buildings empty for the season. Major projects like boiler repairs and building renovations are less disruptive when done in the winter rather than during the busy summer months. Switching out crews to fit construction schedules is more efficient than keeping workers for six months when they’re only needed for a one or two-month job.

Scientific research would likely also benefit from the more flexible schedules. Like contractors, researchers wouldn’t have to winter for a full six months on the continent if their project requires less time to complete.

“Traditionally there’s not a lot of science that occurs at McMurdo [during winter], and this may give us the opportunity to open up a different kind of science that [researchers] can do during that timeframe,” Raabe said. “They can come in, do their project within that timeframe and then leave during that timeframe. So I think it will expand not only the kind of science but also the quality of science that they do.”

These late winter flights could allow researchers access to natural phenomena that they haven’t been able to access.

“A lot of the biology groups would like to go down and see what is going on in the environment,” said Curtis LaBombard, the ASC’s science implementation manager. “The opportunity to do a winter, or a very late season flight, opens up the possibilities for groups that are studying biological processes that we just haven’t observed because the operating parameters don’t let us go in that early.”

He added that he thought that the new flexible schedule could dramatically broaden the both the number of projects as well as the types of science done during the winter.

“There are a lot of really cool things we could do,” LaBombard said. “There will be things that I think the science community hasn’t even thought of yet.”

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