Science and Technology News

Monday, November 1, 2010

In Their Own Words: C-17 Pilots Visit McMurdo Station [Dispatches from Antarctica]

15 October 2010, McMurdo Station, Antarctica: In their own words…C-17 Pilots Visit McMurdo U.S. Air Force active duty and Reserve Airmen from the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, forward-deploy to Christchurch, New Zealand for Operation Deep Freeze each year. These Airmen are now skilled in providing inter-continental airlift to and from Antarctica in support of NSF scientific research.

In a bizarre twist, the same C-17 aircrew who fly missions to Antarctica almost never spend the night there. No matter how much “ice” experience the C-17 aircrew gain, it’s virtually all obtained in the air or on the ice runways. Compare that with Airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard, who forward deploy to McMurdo Station, living and working on the Antarctic Continent for extended periods.

So what? Well, in order to provide C-17 aircrew a glimpse into life and science support operations at McMurdo Station, the NSF approved a new initiative this season. Under this initiative, C-17 instructor pilots spend 2-3 days at McMurdo on a space-available basis, shadowing forward-deployed military personnel. The goal of the program is to improve coordination between the Christchurch and McMurdo detachments of the 13th Air Expeditionary Group, and help C-17 aircrew build professional relationships with McMurdo weather, air traffic control, and other mission support personnel.

The following guest blog posts and video capture this unique experience in the pilots’ own words.

By: Capt Chris Stephens

Much to my surprise, I am sad to leave McMurdo Station and the interagency environment I experienced as a visiting C-17 pilot. From an experienced joint operator on a tactical level, specifically in the air world, McMurdo and its interagency operations are among the best I have seen. Most amazing was the lack of large issues between agencies and the abundance of willing and eager people to accomplish a multitude of missions.

One small piece of the greater puzzle is the C-17 operations supporting the National Science Foundation. Each and every facet attached to that operation is top notch. The work environment is one of constant improvement and I often heard the phrase “I know it is running smooth but how can we make it better.” Emotion seemed to take second stage as each individual is pointed at getting business done better and better each day.

As an example, the weather team supporting flying operation is of the best and creates a superb product from the tools they have to work with. In communicating with airborne C-17s, some of that information was not being passed, preventing a complete weather picture from being delivered to the pilots. When I talked with the individuals in the weather office, they immediately asked how they could make their product better. As we discussed my above concern they produced all the answers and had all the appropriate products, but simply did not realize that we desired that specific information. The process improved.

I must have witnessed this phenomenon several times across several different agencies all throughout McMurdo Station (the fire station, medical clinic, airfield operations, etc).  Phenomenon is used with purpose here in that I do not often see agencies that are eager to improve, or change, in the joint operations I have been part of.  McMurdo Stations is definitely a shining light in the world of interagency operations and its people are setting a great example.

BACKGROUND: Capt Chris Stephens, C-17A Weapons Officer, Evaluator and Lead Airdrop Pilot is a Flight Commander, Weapons and Tactics Flight, 7th Airlift Squadron, 62d Airlift Wing, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.  Capt Stephens is a 2001 graduate of the US Air Force Academy in Colorado.  He has logged over 2,800 total flight hours, with 850 of those in combat.

By Major Bruce Cohn, C-17 Instructor Pilot, 62d Airlift Wing

48 Hours on the Ice

Usually C-17 pilots never get to leave the airfield. We fly down from Christchurch New Zealand, land on the ice runway, offload cargo and depart. Over the last 2 days I’ve had the unprecedented opportunity to explore McMurdo Station visiting its various operations – from numerous scientific laboratories to the vital weather forecasting center that allows travel in this extreme environment.

What appears to the casual observer as individual station functions is actually an eccentric mix of people working together to make science happen. Since arriving I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Crary Laboratory, interact with various scientists of different disciplines and even touch an undersea “critter” or two (in an NSF-approved touch tank). The research that’s done here spans the gambit from marine biology to climate research and vulcanology. After two days of near perpetual sunlight, breathtaking views and a crash course on McMurdo, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what happens in Antarctica…but its 48 hours I will never forget.

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