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Mission puts Airmen near South Pole: Aircrews fly scientists, equipment to Antarctica

Senior Airman Kory Williams, left, and Senior Master Sgt. David Stutts assess the C-17 Globemaster III's condition after landing on the ice runway Nov. 16 at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The jet, from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., shuttled supplies, equipment and personnel for Operation Deep Freeze. Airman Williams is from the 8th Airlift Squadron and Sergeant Stutts is from the 313th AS. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Erika Yepsen)

Senior Airman Kory Williams, left, and Senior Master Sgt. David Stutts assess the C-17 Globemaster III's condition after landing on the ice runway Nov. 16 at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The jet, from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., shuttled supplies, equipment and personnel for Operation Deep Freeze. Airman Williams is from the 8th Airlift Squadron and Sergeant Stutts is from the 313th AS. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Erika Yepsen)

Vehicles transport equipment and supplies off a C-17 Globemaster III from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., Nov. 16, which landed on the sea ice runway near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Erika Yepsen)

Vehicles transport equipment and supplies off a C-17 Globemaster III from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., Nov. 16, which landed on the sea ice runway near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Erika Yepsen)

Cargo is transported from a C-17 Globemaster III from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., to an awaiting LC-130 Hercules, operated by the New York Air National Guard, Nov. 16, near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt Erika Yepsen)

Cargo is transported from a C-17 Globemaster III from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., to an awaiting LC-130 Hercules, operated by the New York Air National Guard, Nov. 16, near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt Erika Yepsen)

MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica -- A McChord jet touched down on a sheet of sea ice here Thursday as part of Operation Deep Freeze.

The C-17 Globemaster III, loaded with National Science Foundation supplies, equipment and personnel along with members of the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings, landed on the ice runway as part of the joint mission the Air Force has participated in annually since 1957.

The flight is the first of eight C-17 missions this month in support of Deep Freeze, which runs through November and into December before the ice runways become unstable due to ice breakup, according to mission experts.

"The Antarctic is a spectacular and unforgiving environment," said Lt. Col. Jim McGann, 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron commander who is deployed from the 62nd Operations Group. "It provides a tremendous challenge for our people and our aircraft, but it is also the experience of a lifetime and a whole lot of fun."

The operation, currently in its 50th season, provides logistical support for NSF research facilities located throughout Antarctica where the average temperature barely reaches the freezing point.

The extreme weather challenges every aircrew member as Airmen must remain alert, monitoring the condition of the aircraft and weather to ensure a safe flight, said Staff Sgt. Ronald Broughton, deployed from the 62nd Maintenance Squadron.

This includes monitoring how far the aircraft sinks into the ice runway. Airmen must ensure the runway doesn't become overstressed and possibly crack - a hazard aircrews don't have to consider at any other location, he said.

C-17 support for Deep Freeze is measured in seasons consisting of three phases, which run from August to March. During the first phase, called "Winfly," Airmen and equipment are sent in August to prepare the ice runway.

The majority of personnel and supplies are then flown between New Zealand and Antarctica during the main season, which runs from now through December. The season concludes in March with the redeployment phase as scientists and personnel are shuttled off the ice before Antarctica's winter weather closes the runway.

"It's definitely not the same old [flight]," said Capt. Phil Poeppelman, a pilot from the 8th Airlift Squadron. "We're used to having references like trees and houses as we're flying along, but down there it's just flat ice."