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Night Vision landings shed light on Antarctic airlift

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Airlift support to the U.S. Antarctic Program wrapped-up in March, and members from Joint Base Lewis-McChord met challenges of the harsh Antarctic environment head-on, including performing night-vision goggle landings on a runway made of ice during the Austral Winter.

The flights were part of Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. military’s logistical support to the Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation. The Antarctic flights are one of the military's most difficult peacetime missions, due to the unpredictable and severe weather conditions on the southernmost continent.

The 446th Airlift "Rainier" Wing partners with the 62nd Airlift Wing in a total force Team McChord effort to provide airlift support to the Antarctic Program, which manages three research stations year-round. The bulk of research in Antarctica takes place during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer: The 2015 airlift season spanned the period from September 2015 until March 2016.

In blended ‘rainbow’ crews consisting of Active Duty and Reservist Airmen, Team McChord members work in concert with many organizations to support NSF research and deploy as part of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.

The missions also tested the capabilities of the C-17 Globemaster III, and the Rainier Wing, supported three rotations to the Antarctic.

“We ran three rotations during the main season of September to November,” said Senior Master Sgt. Derek Bryant, 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron superintendent. “On average, each rotation contained roughly seven missions and transported over 500 personnel and over 400,000 pounds of cargo each.”

Night-vision goggle operations were key elements of a successful season without mishaps for members of the Rainier Wing.

“We ran night-vision missions in June this year when it normally would have been too dark to operate,” said Bryant. “This enabled us to help create new scientific possibilities for the NSF. Those flights in June and July solidified our training and the capabilities of the C-17 in those conditions.”

Aircrews land on a sheet of ice, which is called Pegasus Runway, in Antarctica. Total airlift support from Team McChord included two medical evacuations, over 1,300 passengers transported, over 150 flight hours and nearly one million pounds of cargo offloaded.

During the last mission March 2, members from Team McChord helped move 5,912 pounds of cargo to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, and transported over 30 passengers and 44,000 pounds of cargo to Christchurch, New Zealand, said Lt. Col. Robert Schmidt, 304th EAS mission commander and 62nd Operations Group deputy commander.

Adding to the total force effort, once personnel and equipment are brought by C-17 crews to McMurdo Station, a ski-equipped LC-130 from the 109th Airlift Wing deployed from Stratton Air National Guard Base, N.Y., ensure personnel and supplies are flown to smaller camps and stations in the Antarctic, said Schmidt.

Christchurch International Airport, New Zealand, is the staging point for deployments to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the USAP’s logistics hub, according to Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica, led by Pacific Air Forces at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

“The Pegasus Runway moves approximately 100 feet per year, and they’re in the process of building a new runway,” said Schmidt. “During the next season, the plan is to start flight testing the new runway.”

During June and July 2015, members from Team McChord validated increased flying hour efficiency by supporting pre-scheduled mid-Austral winter flights to McMurdo.

“On each mission, we saved approximately 28 hours of C-17 positioning and de-positioning flight time by tying into an Australian channel,” explained Schmidt.

The Australian channel is a routine airlift mission flown from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., and reduces the C-17 flight time from 17 hours to 6 by more efficiently using airlift assets already deployed to Australia to support transporting equipment and personnel for the NSF Antarctic mission, he said.

Preparations for flights in June and July 2016 are underway for Antarctic airlift support.