American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow yesterday -- a sure sign, according to popular lore, that winter will hang on for another six weeks. But it’s late summer in Antarctica, where Operation Deep Freeze, the Defense Department’s support mission there, is beginning to wind down another successful season.
Operation Deep Freeze has been supporting the National Science Foundation, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, for almost 60 years.
It’s an extension of a mission the Navy started almost 200 years ago. Back to 1839, Navy Capt. Charles Wilkes led the first U.S. naval expedition into Antarctic waters. Navy Adm. Richard E. Byrd following in his footsteps, establishing naval outposts on the Antarctic coast in 1929 and later that year, made the first flight over the South Pole.
In 1946, Byrd organized the Navy’s Operation Highjump, which included more than 4,000 people and numerous ships and other craft operating in the area of the Ross Sea.
In 1955, the Navy conducted the first Operation Deep Freeze.
Today, Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica, led by 13th Air Expeditionary Group, brings together active and reserve assets from the Air Force, Navy, Army and Coast Guard, as well as Defense Department civilians.
The task force provides the aircraft, ships and logistical expertise needed to support research in what may well be the most isolated and challenging part of the globe, Air Force Col. Gary James, the deputy task force director, told American Forces Press Service.
Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft operated by the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., fly most of the aerial resupply missions from a base they establish early in the season at Christchurch International Airport. So far this season, they have transported over 4 million pounds of cargo and 3,800 passengers.
James cited the challenges of providing logistical reach to such an isolated part of the world, particularly when factoring in extreme weather and temperatures. Once their cargo arrives in Antarctica, the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing uses ski-equipped LC-130 Skibird aircraft to supply remote operating bases around the continent.
The 109th began working with the Navy to support Operation Deep Freeze in the mid-1990s and assumed the mission full-time in 1998, Air Force Maj. Jeffrey Hedges, its executive officer, reported.
Now, as the only unit of its kind capable of providing ski-equipped heavy airlift, it averages six to seven aircraft and about 150 airmen on the ground in Antarctica throughout the season that typically runs from late September and continues through early March, Hedges said.
So far this season, they have airlifted nearly 6 million pounds of cargo and more than 1,300 scientists and support personnel throughout the continent, he reported.
That’s a huge mission load, particularly while operating in one of the world’s harshest and most demanding environments. Crews land on unimproved or partially groomed surfaces, fly where there’s little or no contrast between the sky and ground and navigate where traditional compasses often don’t work and solar sun spots often interfere with communications, Hedges said.
Meanwhile, unit maintainers from the unit keep the aircraft flying, operating in frigid, windy conditions without the benefit of hangars.
Despite these challenges, both James and Hedges touted a safety record of never losing a single person or aircraft.
“We ensure safe operating by practicing proven operational risk management,” James said. “We have established guidance that gets people and equipment to the continent without taking unnecessary risks.”
Hedges attributed his unit’s safety record to an experience base built by Guardsmen who return year after year to conduct the mission. Some have been flying the missions since the mid-1990s, he said, bringing a wealth of polar experience and capability.
Other unit members are former sailors who supported Operation Deep Freeze when it was a Navy mission, then joined the 109th Airlift Wing when the mission transferred there, Hedges said.
The Navy, which led the first Operation Deep Freeze in 1955, continues to contribute to its success.
Cargo and fuel tanker ships from Military Sealift Command provide the largest share of resupply to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, where Navy Cargo Handling Battalion 1 sailors provide cargo handling and ship loading. Additionally, elements of the military's Surface Deployment and Distribution Command and several other logistics specialties provide other support.
In addition, Coast Guard icebreakers remain on call in the event that the National Science Foundation’s primary contract icebreakers aren’t available to open icy sea lanes in and around the Ross Sea.
Operating in the world’s coldest, windiest, highest and most inhospitable conditions, they ensure the National Science Foundation has what it needs to do its work.
“What they do, in some of the most austere conditions on the planet, is incredible," said Lt. Gen. Ted Kresge, the task force commander, after seeing members of his joint service, interagency team in action in November. "No one else can do what these professionals do. These men and women, with their expertise and selflessness, are a national treasure."
James said there’s tremendous satisfaction working closely with the National Science Foundation in support of its mission in Antarctica. “It is good to know we provide much of the support that makes cutting-edge science possible on this continent,” he said.
“Exploration of this world and its secrets is human nature,” he said, noting so many discoveries that have occurred through history when scientists actually were looking for something else.
At Antarctica’s South Pole Station, for example, “scientists are looking into the heavens for clues to our origins,” he said. Elsewhere on the continent, they are studying geological core samples “for clues only found here -- secrets locked undisturbed in the ice from time.”
“Who knows what secrets Antarctica will reveal?” James questioned. “Just being here opens those doors of possibility.”