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C-17 makes 1st-ever airdrop to Antarctica

  • Published
Another airpower milestone was reached Dec. 20 with the completion of the first C-17 Globemaster III airdrop mission that delivered about 70,000 pounds of supplies to the South Pole.

The airdrop's success is due to the combined effort of people from Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica Operation Deep Freeze; the 62nd Airlift Wing and the Air Force Reserve Command's 446th Airlift Wing both from McChord Air Force Base, Wash.; the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division; the Royal New Zealand Defense Force; the National Science Foundation; and Raytheon Polar Services Corporation.

By validating the C-17 capability of conducting an airdrop at the geographical South Pole, JTF-SFA's Operation Deep Freeze demonstrated its ability to provide mid-winter emergency re-supply and flexible support to the National Science Foundation and U.S. Antarctica Program. Operation Deep Freeze is a unique joint and total force mission that first anchored U.S. national policy in Antarctica in1955.

The ability to airdrop supplies using the C-17 versus the ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules, the traditional aircraft used to airland supplies on the ice, allows aircrews to deliver up to four times as much supplies in a single airdrop mission in conditions that do not allow airland missions.

During the winter season at the South Pole, temperatures often dip as low as minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit and can paralyze an aircraft's hydraulic systems, crystallize the fuel and solidify lubricants. Around-the-clock darkness and crosswinds up to 60 miles per hour create blizzard conditions and zero visibility, making it impossible for an aircraft to land.

A medical emergency in 1999 highlighted the need to maintain a mid-winter airdrop resupply capability to sites in Antarctica. In that year, Dr. Jeri Nielsen, the only physician at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, critically needed medical supplies to treat her tele-medically diagnosed cancer. An LC-130 airland mission was not possible before October, so NSF requested and funded an Air Mobility Command out-of-cycle airdrop of medical supplies to the South Pole station.

An economy-of-force driven decision provided a C-141 and handpicked aircrew from the 62nd AW and 446th AW from McChord AFB, to execute the aerial delivery. The nearly 50-flying-hour mission was described by then-AMC commander Gen. Charles T. Robertson Jr., as "a truly heroic effort."

The 2006-2007 Operation Deep Freeze kicked off in August with C-17 flights from Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station to stage essential personnel and equipment to prepare the ice runway for the main C-17 and LC-130 operations. Main body resupply consists of C-17 intercontinental flights between Christchurch and McMurdo Station and LC-130 flights from McMurdo, Antarctica to the South Pole and other camps throughout Antarctica.

Up to two C-17s based at Christchurch fly missions as required each week while up to nine LC-130s, depending on mission requirements, fly multiple daily missions daily from their hub at McMurdo Station.

Vessel re-supply operations consist of two Military Sealift Command vessels delivering fuel and supplies to McMurdo Station. In early January, prior to the MSC vessels' arrival, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea will cut a channel through miles of ice allowing the ships access to the McMurdo Ice Pier.

Operation Deep Freeze is unlike any other U.S. military operation and is one of the most demanding peacetime missions due to the extreme adversity of the environment and the remoteness of Antarctica. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest, highest and most inhospitable continent on the globe, and Operation Deep Freeze provides a challenging opportunity to demonstrate the reach and flexibility of airpower, the capabilities of the joint force and the integrated support of active duty, Guard and Reserve military personnel.

Through the office of the Secretary of Defense, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command has been designated to support the 2006-2007 Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica operation.

The PACOM commander has delegated this joint operation to the commander who further delegated primary responsibility for execution of the JTF SFA operation to the 13th Air Force commander.

The U.S. military is uniquely equipped to assist the National Science Foundation in the accomplishment of its mission to explore Antarctica, and the 613th Air and Space Operations Center at Hickam has the capability to provide joint operational and logistics support to the NSF around the clock.

Through the 613th AOC's strategic airlift, LC-130 field support airlift and other airlift as required; aeromedical evacuation support; emergency response; sealift; seaport access; bulk fuel supply; port cargo handling; communication and transportation requirements are coordinated.

Operation Deep Freeze involves active duty and Reserve C-17 support from McChord AFB, LC-130 support from the New York Air National Guard, and other aircraft as necessary; U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers, and the U.S. Navy Cargo Handling Battalion One to provide critical port services at McMurdo Station.

The U.S. Navy ran the first Operation Deep Freeze mission in 1955 for exploration and scientific research and began supporting the National Science Foundation's research in Antarctica in 1959. The operation has evolved into a huge logistical effort, moving passengers and cargo for the NSF's research facilities in Antarctica.

Christchurch International Airport is the staging point for deployment to McMurdo Station, a key research facility for the USAP.

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