The weather conditions are treacherous. But that’s to be expected for members of the New York Air National Guard‘s 109th Airlift Wing who participate in the U.S. Air Force‘s Operation Deep Freeze mission in Antarctica.
Members in charge of flight operations wrestle with unexpected challenges when delivering supplies and cargo to scientists conducting research at the southernmost point of Earth’s surface.
Because of the temperature — which can drop as low as 50 degrees below zero — the Guard’s LC-130 aircraft are equipped with ski-like landing gear and sometimes drift over ice as loadmasters drop equipment from the cargo door. To get out of white-out conditions in desolate areas at high altitudes, the planes employ takeoff rockets to get airborne at a safe speed.
The operation has been ongoing for 60 years.
From about October to February each year, about 100 airmen stay at McMurdo Station, the central hub of operations supporting the National Science Foundation’s Polar Program research effort, said Lt. Col David Panzera, director of the 109th Airlift Wing’s program integration office.
As many as 500 airmen can rotate through to support the cargolift operation, which involves two to three LC-130s.
An element of Air Force maintainers stays up in Christchurch, New Zealand, with two additional aircraft for obvious climate reasons, Panzera said, but McMurdo can grow to 1,000 station personnel. Year after year during the surge of building McMurdo, and constructing and flying to the South Pole station — built with roughly 24 million tons of cargo brought down by C-130 in the last six decades — some crews saw 400 or more flights.
“When you land in the South Pole on an average day, it’s minus 30 degrees and you’re standing and landing on ice that is two and a half miles thick, you’re 9,300 feet above sea level, and there’s a whole host of challenges that come with touch operations,” Panzera said in a recent interview with Military.com.
Panzera was at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, at the time of the phone call interview, but has since returned home for the holidays before he heads back Jan. 25 to finish his rotation.
Panzera was also not on site when famous astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step on the Moon, was airlifted out of the South Pole after he fell ill on a visit there last week.
But Panzera sang the praises of the 109th for airlifting 86-year-old Aldrin in a safe and secure manner during a recent press conference outside the wing’s Stratton Air National Guard Base, New York.
“We’ve made in essence a dangerous mission safe,” Panzera said, addressing local reporters Thursday.