McChord's aircrews slide through Deep Freeze

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt Erika Yepsen
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
One thing about flying here is McChord C-17 pilots don't have to worry about bird strikes until they land on the frozen runway. Air Force jets are about the only birds that fly this far south -- the other birds walk.

Despite a frigid 5 degrees below zero with winds gusting up to 28 miles an hour, the McChord-based aircrew lifted off from their base of operations in Christchurch and safely landed the C-17
Globemaster III on a sea ice runway near here Thursday.

The Air Force has flown into the world's most inhospitable environment for 50 years, since Operation Deep Freeze first began in 1957 to support National Science Foundation research on the frozen continent.

The crew

Every C-17 aircrew that flies onto the ice is a mix of active duty and Reserve Airmen with various levels of experience, said Lt. Col. Jim McGann, 304th EAS commander.

Thursday's crew was no exception as veteran pilots and loadmasters were on hand to train new Deep Freeze crew members such as Capt. Phil Poeppelman and Senior Airman Kory Williams, both from the 8th Airlift Squadron.

"We're flying to a place where there's not another alternate airfield to land at within 2,000 miles," said Captain Poeppelman, after landing a C-17 on the ice for the first time.

Even though Captain Poeppelman and Airman Williams are new to Deep Freeze, they are far from new to the C-17. Airman Williams has logged approximately 2,000 hours in C-17s, but he recognizes the unique opportunity this mission affords.

"Deep Freeze is about the best deal you can get as a loadmaster," said Airman Williams.

The cargo

About five hours after departing Christchurch, the massive cargo jet, stuffed to the gills with 79,780 pounds of equipment and personnel for the NSF's research in Antarctica came to a smooth stop and began disgorging its cargo.

Scientists and support personnel poured off the plane in a stream of bright red parkas, a stark contrast to the icy Antarctic backdrop. Forklifts appeared behind the plane quickly to unload the awaited cargo. A short distance away, McMurdo sat nestled in a nearby valley, a small village more developed than one would expect after seeing the icy, rugged terrain stretching into the distance.

Unlike other locations McChord aircrews frequently fly into, they are received with open arms, instead of small arms fire. The cargo they bring includes everything from mail to fresh food to research equipment.

The main project Deep Freeze has been supporting this season is a 10-meter telescope which will be constructed at the South Pole.

For now, the packages and research equipment can be brought to McMurdo Station easily as the sea ice runway where the C-17s land is a short drive to the station, but as summer comes to the ice, the journey will become more difficult.

In due time, the sea ice runway, which is currently 85 inches thick, will disappear melting under the warmer temperatures.


As the plane unloaded, a few aircrew members were designated to stay with the plane while others boarded a red van with oversize wheels that would put a big rig to shame to take a tour of "Mactown."

Maria Chavez, the driver and tour director from Colorado, took the group of Airmen to see the few sites the town has to offer, including a hut built over 100 years ago, which has remained in pristine condition, preserved by the cold temperature.

"The best part of the tour was the breathtaking view," said Staff Sgt. Sergio Casillas, a maintainer deployed from the 62nd Maintenance Squadron who is on his second trip to the ice. "It was a spiritual thing for me. It looks like a white desert of snow and ice, like God painted it. We're very fortunate and privileged to come down here."

The return trip

After a short time on the ice, the aircrew returned to the now nearly empty aircraft awaiting them and departed the frozen continent, bringing a meager few personnel and pallets of cargo with them.

Gary Eells, a 17-year veteran of the U.S. Antarctic Program and maintenance manager for Raytheon, the contract company supporting the NSF in Antarctica, was among the few returning from the ice.

After nearly four months on the ice, Mr. Eells also admits he's looking forward to returning home and the comforts of a more temperate environment.

"The first thing I like to do when I get to New Zealand is go to the botanic garden. I want to smell green," he said.

The future

The 304th EAS has 27 more missions planned before it will conclude this season of support in March 2007.

Already, in 28 completed missions, the Airmen of the 304th have moved 2,146 passengers and nearly two million pounds of cargo to McMurdo Station this season, and they don't plan on slowing down.

In fact, Colonel McGann has set his sights for the 304th even higher or, geographically speaking, lower: the South Pole.

The 304th EAS is scheduled to complete the first C-17 airdrop mission over the South Pole on Dec. 19, but C-17s have yet to land at the world's most remote airfield.

"Right now only the ski equipped Air Force LC-130s can land at the South Pole, but in 2010, when they compact the runway, we will land a C-17 on the South Pole," said Colonel McGann. "Most of what they need is fuel, and a C-17 can carry about 120,000 pounds of fuel, nearly six times what the LC-130 can. That's a huge savings in flights."

Though Colonel McGann knows landing on the South Pole is still four years away for the C-17, he has great confidence in Team McChord's ability to continue to meet the challenges of bringing airlift to places where even the birds walk.