8/28/2015 - CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand -- As the sun rises over McMurdo Station, Antarctica, for the first time since February, so too begins the initial season of Operation Deep Freeze. On August 23, Airmen from the 446th and 62nd Airlift Wings flew the first mission of the winter fly-in phase of the operation out of Christchurch, New Zealand.
ODF, a multi-agency operation, is the military component of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). It is one of the military's most difficult peacetime missions as it takes place on the coldest, windiest, and most inhospitable continent on the globe.
WINFLY is the pre-operation to NSF's main Antarctic research season and takes place at the end of the Southern Hemisphere's winter. The C-17 Globemaster III aircraft that fly down in August bring cargo and people necessary to prepare the runways and airfields for the heavy traffic of the main season. It is a challenging time of year as the weather patterns, extremely low temperatures, and persistent darkness can all make flying and operating the aircraft a challenge. This is why only the top Airmen from each essential career field are chosen.
"We're a very small footprint down here, so everybody we bring is critical," said Lt. Col. Keith McMinn, 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron director of operations. "It's a small, displaced unit when we leave McChord making us more interdependent on each other. The infrastructure to support us is there, but it's not there like we're used to in the normal transportation system throughout the world supported by [Air Mobility Command]. Typically, everyone that comes down here has much more experience than the usual aircrew or any of the other positions. Usually they're a little bit older, a little wiser, and a little bit less likely to make a mistake in a critical role."
The team is made up of a variety of career fields.
First, no one could survive the freezing temperatures of Antarctica without being equipped with cold weather gear. This is where life support comes in. The average daily temperature during August at McMurdo ranges from around -7 degrees
Fahrenheit to -25 degrees Fahrenheit with wind gusts making it even colder. This can easily cause frostbite and freeze uncovered skin. Life support ensures each Airmen has three layers of cold weather gear, a parka, gloves, boots, and face and head protection. Life support also loads and maintains the night vision goggles so that pilots can land safely in the dark.
Next comes communication. It is this Airman's job to set up a radio that facilitates communication between Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina and the aircraft. Airmen from Charleston provide weather updates to the pilots to help them make informed decisions while flying. This is a lifeline for the flyers as without communication in place, they will be forced to abort the mission and return to base in Christchurch.
"The ability to communicate is much more critical here because the divert options are much fewer," said McMinn. "The ability to reach out and ask questions, talk to somebody, make a plan, and bounce things off of someone that's not moving is vital."
After a communication line is set up, the jet needs to be prepped by maintenance. Maintainers have the role of refueling, checking the engines, and completing a walk-around inspection of the aircraft before takeoff. It is their job to ensure the aircraft has the capability to successfully complete the mission.
When the jet is ready, the loadmasters work with the Royal New Zealand Air Force to load the airplane. The loadmasters prep the airplane for the cargo it is carrying and keep track of the weight and total number of people coming onto the airplane. The RNZAF Airmen process the passengers and transport them to the aircraft and operate the forklifts and K-loaders to load the pallets. Together, they load and secure the cargo pallets.
"[The RNZAF] are a stellar group of men and women," said Senior Master Sgt. Derek Bryant, 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron superintendent and senior loadmaster. "They know what they're doing. They're as excited about this program as we are."
When everyone and everything is on board, the jet is ready for takeoff and the responsibility is handed over to the pilots. Some of the challenges pilots face include navigating the atypical grid of the South Pole, preventing the fuel from freezing during flight, landing in complete darkness, and making decisions in an adverse environment.
"The flight itself and landing on the surface down there is not that difficult," said McMinn. "The problem is, if things start to wrong they can go wrong really quickly and your options are very limited. So the implications of making a poor decision can get very serious very quick and your options to mitigate that decision can become almost nonexistent. That's where the experience comes into play."
As soon as the aircraft has safely landed on the ice, the loadmasters are faced with the challenge of safely unloading the aircraft. Oftentimes, doors will freeze shut if there is rain during takeoff, rollers on the plane will freeze making it difficult for Airmen to unload pallets onto the transport sleds, transport sleds can take a lot of time to position correctly since they aren't as maneuverable as the normally used K-loaders, and communication can be lost in a whirlwind of cargo, passengers, cold and darkness.
Usually only loadmasters who have been to Antarctica during regular season and who are certified as trainers come down for WINFLY, as there is not a lot of time for second guessing, said Bryant.
"Things can go south real quick down here so I need Airmen who know the job," said Bryant. "This isn't a training mission, this is a live action mission."
Once everything has been unloaded, it's time to fly back to Christchurch.This small, but experienced group of people worked together to successfully complete the 587th safely flown mission to the ice marking the beginning of the 16th season of the C-17's support in Operation Deep Freeze. Originally just a five-year contract, the C-17 support has proven to be a vital component of ODF and the need for the aircraft's capabilities is only growing stronger.