MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica --
The harsh, unforgiving and unpredictable weather of Antarctica made a routine mission to the South Pole a little more than an LC-130 “Skibird” crew with the 139th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron had bargained for on Nov. 9, 2017.
Despite the extreme cold, minimum visibility and maximum crosswinds, the crew safely landed at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station after three attempts during a resupply mission.
The squadron is part of the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, based at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, N.Y. The wing flies the only aircraft in the U.S. military equipped with skis.
After loading and unloading cargo and passengers at the South Pole, the crew headed back to McMurdo Station on the coast.
But mid-way through the flight back, extreme weather made it unsafe to land at McMurdo with the limited fuel on the ski-equipped aircraft. This forced the crew to make an emergency weather divert to Mario Zuchelli Station.
The station, owned by Italy’s National Antarctic Research Program, is located a little less than 200 miles from McMurdo at Terra Nova Bay.
The stop at Mario Zuchelli Station allowed the crew to refuel and get much needed rest before returning to McMurdo safely on Nov. 10.
According to Capt. Brandon Caldwell, the mission pilot, encountering one or two issues is normal throughout the Operation Deep Freeze season. However, encountering so many issues during one mission is quite rare.
“Throughout the years, our weather restrictions have become stricter so we can try and avoid situations like this one,” he added.
“But the weather is just so unpredictable,” said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Messineo, flight engineer on the mission.
The crew attributes their teamwork, quick thinking and training to the landing at the South Pole and the decision to make the emergency weather divert.
“Teamwork is crucial when landing in extreme weather,” said Lt. Col. Ronald Ankabrandt, the mission navigator. “Everyone on the crew had a job while we were landing, scanning the horizon, looking for flags – this type of mission requires everyone to help,” he said.
For 1st Lt. Brian Alexander, the co-pilot, this was his first mission in Antarctica, and he treated it as a learning experience.
“I’ve probably learned more my first mission on the ice than most co-pilots have learned in years,” he said.
The crews train to land on snow and ice with the Skibirds in Greenland every summer. Alexander said that while the training they are able to do at the camps in Greenland is invaluable for what they do, nothing can prepare you for taking that first mission on the Antarctic continent.
Not only do the crews have to maintain their composure while landing on a skiway—a runway made out of snow and ice-- with minimum visibility, they also endure the extreme cold as they move cargo. During this mission, crews loaded 15,000 pounds of cargo with wind chill temperatures estimated at 65 degrees below zero.
While training in Greenland, Airman 1st Class Ryan Rhoads, a student loadmaster on the flight was briefed that the weather in Antarctica would be less forgiving. Like Alexander, this was also his first mission to the coldest, windiest, most inhospitable continent on the globe and he wondered how he would fare.
“I completely understand it now,” he said. “Our unit needs to be able to overcome and adapt when things like this happen and this really makes me appreciate the mission we have.”
Senior Master Sgt. David Vesper, an instructor loadmaster, added that the cold temperatures mixed with the wind chill coming off the engines makes for an extremely difficult mission. “The South Pole is the toughest place we go (because of weather) – the whole crew has to put safety first,” he said.
The Skibirds, known for their ability to land on snow and ice, provide supplies and transport fuel and people to the various research stations across the continent. Operation Deep Freeze is the logistical support provided by the Department of Defense to the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation. This is the 30th season the Airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing have been part of Operation Deep Freeze.