In conjunction with the 446th Airlift Wing, the 62nd Operations Group kicked off the 2017-2018 season of Operation Deep Freeze a mission offering unparalleled Department of Defense support to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program, with operations that began in late September.
According to the NSF website, Americans have studied the Antarctic and its interactions with the rest of the planet since 1956. The aim of the Antarctic program is to carry forward the nation’s goals of meeting obligations under the Antarctic Treaty, fostering cooperative research with other nations and protecting the Antarctic environment.
“Since September we have flown 17 (ODF) missions, transported nearly 950,000 pounds of cargo and more than 1,300 passengers including the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand,” said Maj. Lucas Berreckman, 62nd Operations Group executive officer and instructor pilot.
Ensuring the success of the U.S. Antarctic Program is no small feat. The program’s success is accomplished through a network of intricately-connected parts known as Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica.
JTF-SFA is managed by Pacific Air Forces at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, but it relies on support from active duty and National Guard and reserve personnel working together as part of JTF-SFA to execute the ODF mission.
“The Air Force provides strategic inter-theater airlift, tactical intra-theater airlift and airdrop, aeromedical evacuation support and search and rescue response capabilities,” said Lt. Col. Trace Dotson, C-17 Antarctic Mission commander. “Operation Deep Freeze, the military’s support for the Antarctic Program, is supported by the triad of active duty, Air National Guard, and Air Reserve component personnel. Our Airmen provide a reliable airlift capability to one of the more challenging U.S. military peacetime missions due to the harsh environment in which we operate. Those Airmen get to put their skills to test in the coldest, windiest, most inhospitable continent on the globe which truly tests AMC’s (Air Mobility Command’s) global mobility capability.”
Having traveled to the continent twice — once as a student pilot and again as an instructor — Berreckman said he recalls his impression of Antarctica as dreamlike.
“It was surreal,” he said. “Not knowing what the continent would actually be like beforehand, I found it surprisingly mountainous, truly beautiful and colder than you would imagine — despite our arriving during the Antarctic summer.”
Though striking to behold, Antarctica’s austere environment creates unique challenges for those who seek to land and operate there.
In addition to fast-changing weather which makes approach difficult for pilots, cold and inhospitable surroundings present challenges unlike those loadmasters and maintainers operating outside the aircraft have typically encountered before, Berreckman said.
NSF notes that research is performed in Antarctica only when it cannot be performed at more convenient locations elsewhere on the globe and that research has three distinct goals: to understand the region and its ecosystems; to understand its effects on, and responses to global processes such as climate; and to use the region as a platform to study the upper atmosphere and space.
Likewise, there are distinct goals and benefits for McChord Airmen operating in the remote and extreme Antarctic environment. In addition to the advancement of technical skillsets, the ODF mission has resulted in strengthened bonds between the United States and partner nations such as New Zealand.
“The value comes from getting to execute a subset of the C-17 (Globemaster III) mission that I hadn’t done before,” Berreckman said. “Learning more about the aircraft’s capabilities, further developing pilots, loadmasters and maintainers who go on the missions, and also cultivating relationships with our international communities firsthand makes ODF priceless.
“At the beginning of this season, we arranged a (C-17) static display for local residents in New Zealand,” Berreckman said. “More than 3,000 civilians and five ambassadors came through that day, allowing us to communicate our mission and the capabilities of our platform, which is an invaluable opportunity.”
There’s a reason not every aircraft in the U.S. Air Force arsenal plays a role in ODF. The C-17 is uniquely suited to the task, and so are the Airmen who crew it.
“The C-17 is the perfect size aircraft to provide intra-theater airlift between Christchurch, New Zealand and Antarctica,” Dotson said. “The C-17 can carry up to 100,000 pounds of cargo and people safely to Antarctica while still having enough fuel to return to New Zealand if the weather degrades suddenly. A larger aircraft may not be able to land on the ice runway at McMurdo Station, and smaller aircraft can’t afford the large cargo payload that the USAP (U.S. Antarctic Program) requires.”
With 13 missions still to accomplish, the current ODF season will conclude in February. The 2018-2019 season will resume in late September or early October 2018.
“It’s been a successful season so far, and we’re looking forward to returning to Christchurch in February to complete our remaining missions,” Dotson said.
Despite all these contributions, the 62nd AW remains heavily tasked supporting overseas contingency operations, presidential support missions and various other high-priority airlift and airdrop operations around the world.