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Support staff unload a C-17 cargo plane at the Pegasus Airfield as the sun rises just over the horizon
Photo Credit: Joshua Swanson
Support staff unload a C-17 cargo plane at the Pegasus Airfield as the sun rises just over the horizon.

Despite Storms, Winfly A Success

McMurdo Station was abuzz with activity at the end of August.

As “Winfly” got underway this year, a spate of nasty storms blew through the area, slowing progress and adding to the annual heavy workload. Despite the inclement weather, more than 200 people safely flew into McMurdo Station, including more than two dozen researchers on multiple science teams.

An Airbus comes in for a landing underneath a sky of nacreous clouds. Four Airbus planes arrived during Winfly, carrying more than 200 people.
Photo Credit: Michael Christiansen
An Airbus comes in for a landing underneath a sky of nacreous clouds. Four Airbus planes arrived during Winfly, carrying more than 200 people.

Winfly is the annual series of flights at the end of the Southern Hemisphere—austral—winter that brings people and equipment to McMurdo, the largest of the National Science Foundation’s three year-round stations in Antarctica and the logistics hub for the continent, before the summer season begins. Even in pristine conditions, it’s a busy time.

“The Winfly period was a challenging one this year,” said Pedro Salom, the winter site manager at McMurdo Station. “We had great weather right up until August 19, the day before the first scheduled flights, when conditions deteriorated.”

Over the next week, several severe storms blew through the area. The first flight wasn’t able to land until the 23rd while the last flight didn’t arrive until Sept. 3, eight days later than originally scheduled.

“Losing a week isn’t unheard of, but it is inconvenient,” Salom said.

In spite of the weather, the station staff has been hard at work preparing for the upcoming summer season. In addition to typical Winfly tasks like pulling gear, prepping for overland traverses and de-winterizing the various vehicles, buildings and equipment, the staff has also been helping the newly arrived science grantees get their research under way.

The sun rises over McMurdo Station for the first time in four months.
Photo Credit: Joshua Swanson
The sun rises over McMurdo Station for the first time in four months.

“That requires a lot of logistical support,” Salom said. “We’re digging holes and setting up sea ice camps, offering training and field support and maintaining a robust communications infrastructure to track everyone’s movements off of Ross Island.”

The support staff had a bit of an extra head start this year. Many staff flew in on the new winter flights in June and July, in order to get a jump on prepping the station for this first wave of arriving scientists.

“They went in earlier and started tasking sooner,” said Pete Cruser the logistics operations manager for the Antarctic Support Contract. “When [the grantees] came in, they were ready to roll. The stuff was already sitting, waiting for them. It gives them a jump on Winfly.”

Twenty-six grantees on four science teams arrived during Winfly, ready to set up and start collecting data.

“We haven’t had this big of a science season in a number of years,” said Liz Kauffman the McMurdo science and technical project services implementation manager at ASC. “We have four groups going down, and all of them are working out on the sea ice in some capacity.”

One of the researchers heading down early is Gretchen Hofmann, who is traveling to McMurdo to study how Antarctic pteropods, tiny sea snails, respond to warming and acidifying oceans.

Two C-17 flights brought in more than 65,000 pounds of cargo to the station.
Photo Credit: Joshua Swanson
Two C-17 flights brought in more than 65,000 pounds of cargo to the station.

“If we got there at Winfly we could get a lot more of science out of the project,” Hofmann said. “We can catch an earlier part of their life history cycle.”

She’s hoping to observe the critters when they’re freshly hatched and watch how they grow in the waters off around the station. It’s the only time of the year to observe this important part of the snails’ development.

“Each group has a reason to go [to McMurdo] early because they can capture something that they want to get in the early spring time,” Hofmann said.

Lars Kalnajs, an atmospheric chemist from the University of Colorado, Boulder, is there to monitor the chemical composition of atmospheric particles, and how the sun drives chemical reactions that change their makeup as the continent transitions from winter to spring.

“Heading down in the winter, before the sun begins shining too strongly, allows us to look at the Antarctic atmosphere before these reactions start, and observe the changes as the sun rises,” Kalnajs said.

He added that while the station’s population is still just a fraction of what it is at its summer maximum, the crews there now are working hard to have everything ready for the coming slew of scientists and support staff.

“You can see that people are gearing up and preparing McMurdo for the coming season,” Kalnajs said. “Some preparations are quite obvious. For example, buildings that were shuttered for the winter are being reopened. Others are more gradual changes, such as the fleet of light vehicles that is slowly coming out of hibernation and finding places on the lines. Labs and science equipment are being readied in the Crary lab for the main body science groups.”

After the storms that slowed the first week of Winfly, iridescent nacreous clouds formed over the airfields and station.
Photo Credit: Michael Christiansen
After the storms that slowed the first week of Winfly, iridescent nacreous clouds formed over the airfields and station.

Most support staff and scientists start deploying in early October when flights start arriving for what the program refers to as “mainbody” or the bulk of the research season. Currently, there are 346 people at the station. Come the peak of summer this year, McMurdo may host more than 1,000 people at any one time.

All together there were six flights into the station this year for Winfly, four Airbus A319 flights carrying passengers and two Air Force C-17 flights bringing in cargo.

Planners have been using Airbus passenger planes more widely during Winfly over the last several years. Though used during the early part of mainbody for years, 2013 was the first time one arrived so early in the year. This year’s four flights are the most during Winfly.

With more people arriving on the Airbus planes, only two C-17 flights were scheduled, fewer than in than in previous years. Cruser said that though the makeup of flights is different, it wouldn’t affect the transport of cargo and passengers.

“Using the Airbus now, it gives us the capacity to run people on a people-only airplane, so we’re using the airframes more towards what they’re designed for,” Cruser said. “The C-17s are perfectly capable of hauling a lot of people, but it’s designed for heavy cargo.”

Like the recent winter flights in June and July, the C-17s used during Winfly this year were grabbed from the channel flights that the U.S. Air Force’s 446th and 62nd Airlift Wings fly in and out of Australia. This new method for the National Science Foundation to fly cargo into the station should reduce the Air Force’s total flight time, making the process more efficient.

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