C-17 crews perform flawlessly on ice

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Sean Tobin
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Roughly four hours after takeoff, there's a rumble downstairs as passengers and crew come to life and start preparing for what's ahead. Only an hour remains of the relative warmth inside the jet. It's about to get cold. Real cold.

Upstairs, one by one, the crewmembers on the flight deck step away from their seats and begin the process of putting on their Extremely Cold Weather gear. It's a process they wait until the last hour of the flight to do - it's not exactly extremely cold on the jet, and the ECWs work really well.

Meanwhile, the scenery tens of thousands of feet below has changed from the vast blue sea to something resembling a finely-marbled steak - only a horribly freezer-burned one - as the water begins to freeze. As the plane begins its descent and continues heading farther south, the marbled sea turns to a smooth sheet of ice.

Not too far in the distance, a solitary runway has been carved into the frozen ocean and awaits the plane's arrival.

The plane, a C-17 Globemaster III from McChord Field at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., flying under the call sign "ICE 07," is on a mission to deliver dozens of National Science Foundation personnel and tons of cargo to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in support of Operation Deep Freeze.

The mission is difficult and potentially very dangerous. However, it is a mission McChord Field C-17s and crews have flawlessly performed hundreds of times before, thanks to some careful planning and dedicated Airmen from the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings who are carefully chosen to go.

"Antarctica is the most remote and inhospitable location on the globe," said Lt. Col. Brent Keenan, 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron commander. "Because of the difficulty of the mission, we bring only the best C-17 crews and maintenance personnel we have."

The 304th EAS, comprised of McChord Field Airmen, deploy to Christchurch, New Zealand, and use the international airport there as their base of operations.

McChord C-17s have been used in support of ODF dating back to 1999. Before that, the C-141 Starlifter was used.

Flying into and out of Antarctica, which can be the coldest, windiest and most desolate environment in the world, brings with it unique challenges not found in any other operation.

In fact, just getting there can be a challenge.

Normally, airplanes navigate using a magnetic compass that points to the magnetic north pole. Depending on where in the world the plane happens to be, there is a certain degree of magnetic variance that must be accounted for to reliably navigate.

The farther one travels south, particularly once past 60 degrees south latitude, the variance becomes so great, a magnetic compass becomes unreliable, said Keenan. Because of this, pilots must stop navigating by magnetic north to start using grid navigation.

From the South Pole, any direction travelled would be considered magnetic north. Grid navigation helps remove that ambiguity by overlaying standard directional headings over the pole. From there, the direction toward Greenwich, England is considered grid north.

Because of the way grid navigation works, a plane could be travelling magnetic north, but headed grid south, said Keenan.

It can be pretty confusing to the uninitiated.

After that navigational work-around is sorted out, pilots are still faced with the difficulty of visually spotting and landing on a runway made of ice, surrounded by nothing but more ice.

"It's white behind white behind white," said Lt. Col. Jason Taylor, 728th Airlift Squadron pilot, deployed with the 304th EAS. "There is not nearly as much contrast between the runway and its surroundings as there is with a traditional runway."

The runway, which is carved into the seasonal sea ice, is essentially a floating runway which can also make for a unique experience.

"If you smack down hard on it like a paved runway, it can create waves in the ice and crack," said Taylor.

Once safely on the ice, the task of offloading passengers and equipment begins. In addition to that, maintenance crews begin the task of ensuring the aircraft is still mission capable so it can turn around and leave after it's offloaded.

"It's important that we bring the most reliable aircraft," said Staff Sgt. Matthew Lee, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief, deployed with the 304th EAS. "If we break down while we're there, we're all alone."

If the plane were to break down while on the ice, performing maintenance on it in minus 35 degree Fahrenheit weather, and being isolated from the rest of the world are not the only difficulties involved.

The plane would have to be moved to a new location every couple hours just to avoid breaking through the ice and plunging into the water below, said Lee. Continuously moving the aircraft around would cause large delays in performing maintenance.

Fortunately, ICE 07 has no maintenance issues and the ground crews and loadmasters work quickly to offload cargo, maneuvering large forklifts and pallets as if carefully choreographed.

Just after a little more than an hour on the runway, ICE 07 lifts off and heads back toward to do it all over again, only next time as ICE 08.

As the plane ascends and levels off, the scenery below transitions from the white, snowy Trans Antarctic Mountains, to the cobalt-colored marbled sea ice, and finally back to the vast blue sea, as the plane continues north to New Zealand.

Well, grid south, that is.