JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --
When we think of U.S. military aircraft working in austere environments, we generally imagine aircraft landing on a dusty airfield somewhere in the Middle East. After all, for the past 20 years, the Air Force has played a major role getting troops and materiel to the fight in the Middle East. What we don’t normally picture is a C-17 Globemaster III landing on a windswept runway made of ice in Antarctica.
Operation Deep Freeze provides logistical support to the U.S. Antarctic Research Program and began during the 1955-1956 season. Though originally supported by the U.S. Navy, today the U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Reserve make up the bulk of flying operations into McMurdo Station, Antarctica, transporting thousands of passengers and hundreds of thousands of pounds of cargo and supplies each season.
On October 21, 1956, the first Air Force aircraft, a C-124 Globemaster II nicknamed “Miss North Carolina” landed at McMurdo Station after a 12.5 hour flight from Christchurch, New Zealand. It delivered 15,610 pounds of cargo and carried back wounded from a military aircraft crash. Since that time, the Air Force became an essential part of ferrying personnel and supplies to McMurdo Station every year through Operation Deep Freeze.
During Deep Freeze 1997-98, the 62nd Airlift Wing, stationed at McChord Air Force Base (AFB), now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, led the strategic airlift portion of the operation. Team McChord did not waste any time stepping up to the plate and conducting many mission firsts. During Deep Freeze 1998-99, the 62nd AW and 446th AW completed the first C-141 Starlifter redeployment at the end of the season. Usually conducted by LC-130 Hercules, the 62nd AW and 446th AW flew 11 C-141 redeployment missions to McMurdo Station between January 26 and February 21, 1999, transporting scientists, engineers, and support staff before the Antarctic winter closed down operations.
By the end of the 20th century, changes were occurring at airlift wings. The C-141 was steadily being phased out and the C-17A was making its appearance at bases and in the skies. The 62nd AW received its first C-17 on July 30, 1999, just in time for Deep Freeze 1999-2000.
On October 15, 1999, the 62nd AW landed the first C-17 on the sea ice runway at McMurdo Sound. This flight occurred as a validation test for future C-17 Antarctic missions. In addition to mail and fresh supplies, the aircraft carried a powerful telescope destined for the South Pole. The mission included a much larger crew to take advantage of the training opportunity. Among the crewmembers was Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Spotts, a C-141 loadmaster with nine Antarctic flights to his credit.
“After being on the C-141 for 22 years, I’m no C-17 elitist, but that was the easiest trip to the ice I’ve ever made,” Spotts said. “The C-17 has a lot of advantages. You’re looking at the future.”
The C-17 offered three times the cargo capacity of the C-141. Another 62nd AW crew flew the second C-17 mission to McMurdo Sound on November 11, 1999. These two flights proved the C-17s ability to continue the mission once all the C141s retired.
Since that fateful day in 1999, 62nd and 446th AW C-17s and crews journey to Christchurch and McMurdo every Deep Freeze season to support scientific research efforts on the ice. Though Deep Freeze missions do not encounter hostile forces, the Antarctic is an unforgiving region where help is usually a day away during the summer season or a few months away during the winter. This is not a place for the weak of heart, but for Team McChord Airmen.