For McChord pilots, flying to Antarctica is a challenging mission — and a sought-after job
For McChord Air Force Base pilots who ferry cargo and people all over the world, the most challenging mission is flying a hulking C-17 to Antarctica to serve the National Science Foundation station there. They must battle bitter cold, 80 mph winds and darkness that envelops the continent much of the year.
Seattle Times staff reporter
For McChord Air Force Base pilots who ferry cargo and people all over the world, one of the most challenging missions is flying a hulking C-17 to Antarctica to serve the National Science Foundation station there.
Weather is the wild card.
In less than an hour, skies can turn from blue to milky white as 80 mile-per-hour winds, unforeseen by forecasters, gust across the southernmost continent.
"If you take your eye off Antarctica, it can kill you in a heart beat," said Lt. Col. Jim McGann, deputy commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord, which is located south of Tacoma. "The pilots we choose to fly down there are the absolute best, and this really pushes them to their limits as far as their skills and decision-making."
The C-17 is a support lifeline for National Science Foundation researchers on the Antarctic Continent. And this season of missions, which began six months ago, is the most ambitious yet.
From a base in Christchurch, New Zealand, the McChord crews have transported about 3 million pounds of cargo and some 3,300 passengers from August through early January. By February, as the cold deepens and daylight fades, the McChord crews involved in "Operation Deep Freeze" hope to have completed 62 Antarctic missions.
The flights touch down at McMurdo Station on an island off the continent's edge. There, a runway has been fashioned out of ice and then sprinkled with a thin layer of snow. "We really don't notice it too much," said Lt. Col J.W. Smith, in a telephone interview from Christchurch. "The only issue is when you taxi, and kind of snowplow."
The flights serve a scientific community that swells to more than 1,000 people in the January summer, the peak of the research season, and shrinks to a few hundred or less during the Antarctic winter.
Much of their focus is on tracking greenhouse gases, ice movements and other studies to help monitor climate change.
But there are plenty of experiments in other fields, such as astrobiology, which includes searches for extreme forms of life on Earth for clues to what could exist elsewhere in the universe. Scientists earlier this year, for example, announced the discovery of a microbe in briny water under a glacier. The microbe existed in conditions once thought too dark, cold and depleted of oxygen to sustain life.
McChord has been involved in the Antarctic flights since 1966.
But only in the past decade have crews flown the C-17s, which can carry up to 120,000 pounds on the five-hour flight from Christchurch to McMurdo Station.
That's about triple the capacity of the older C-141 Starlifters. The bigger payloads and increased flight frequency have helped the National Science Foundation undertake a major expansion of the Antarctica program.
In addition to landing at McMurdo, the C-17s have airdropped supplies to a smaller station at the South Pole. Last year, they airdropped fuel to help establish a new outpost in the Gamburtsev Mountains. And throughout the history of the McChord support, no aircraft have crashed.
"It would be impossible to do the level of research we're doing without them," said Dana Cruikshank, a National Science Foundation spokesman.
At McChord, Operation Deep Freeze has emerged as the most coveted mission for McChord aircrews, whose other duties over the years have included carrying cargo to Germany, picking up soldiers in Afghanistan or perhaps flying humanitarian aid missions. They've flown to trouble spots in Africa, and also are assisting in the airlift to help Haitian earthquake victims.
Operation Deep Freeze typically requires about 30 or 40 people involved in flying, loading, maintaining and otherwise supporting the C-17s. Some crew are drawn from active-duty ranks of the 62nd Airlift Wing, while others are reservists with the 446th Airlift Wing.
The more than 2,000-mile trip from Christchurch to McMurdo crosses a chilly expanse of the South Pacific that becomes clogged with icebergs. Bad weather this year has resulted in the cancellation of about 25 percent of scheduled flights.
That caution reflects the challenges of flying in such a remote part of the world.
When a fully loaded aircraft gets within about 300 miles of Antarctica, the crew passes a point of no return, where there is no longer enough fuel to return to New Zealand. So, they must continue on to McMurdo no matter what the weather.
McGann said in February of 2008 a fierce storm blew into Antarctica as he approached McMurdo. The only thing to do was circle, and hope for a break in the weather. He found a hole in the weather to land the aircraft amid 50 mph winds. The plane was unloaded, refueled, and took off in a blizzard that then closed down the runway for several days
Another big limitation is the darkness that envelopes Antarctica for much of the year.
At the end of August, deep into the southern winter, flights are timed to land during the narrow window of daylight. The cargo must be speedily unloaded, not only to stay ahead of nightfall but to avoid temperatures that may fall below -50 degrees F.
"The less time on the runway, the less the aircraft is exposed to the cold, and the better it seems to function," said Chief Master Sgt. Jim Masura. "Cold wreaks havoc on hydraulics and electronics, and we just try to get down there, and get out."
Currently, McChord C-17s do not fly from March through August, the darkest and coldest period. The cold is so intense that the runway can't be illuminated by battery-powered lights, and using burn barrels is a risky practice that has been employed only for emergency flights.
So scientists who arrive on the last flight of the season may have only six weeks of research to do, but they are typically marooned for five months until the flights resume.
That could change.
In September 2008, McChord pilots successfully landed at McMurdo at night with the aid of night-vision goggles and reflective cones that outlined the runway in a successful demonstration of this flight technology.
McGann hopes the Air Force can eventually offer year-round service, which would be a big boon to research.
"This could be a revolution in Antarctica logistics," McGann said.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581
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