Saturday, September 03, 2011

South Pole airdrop delivers critical medical supplies in total darkness

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AFNS) -- Airmen with the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron here airdropped urgently needed medical supplies Sept. 1 at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica.

The supplies will augment a South Pole medical team's treatment of an ailing civilian wintering there with the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Although accessible by ski-equipped aircraft during the summer season, extreme cold winter temperatures ranging between 70 and 80 degrees below zero, plus continual darkness and strong winds, rule out traveling 800 miles overland and prohibit landing any aircraft at the pole during the winter. South Pole physicians and staff must therefore handle all medical emergencies themselves.

Upon learning that one the staff members at South Pole required additional medical supplies, the National Science Foundation, which is the lead agency for the U.S. Antarctic Program, formally requested help from its inter-agency partner, Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica. Lt. Gen. Stanley T. Kresge, the commander of both 13th Air Force and JTF-SFA, based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, called upon his attached C-17 Globemaster III forces, deployed from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wa., to provide a solution.

The solution: a parachute-enabled C-17 air-drop of medical supplies in bitter cold and complete darkness using night-vision devices. Although JTF-SFA plans for such missions and trains for this requirement during the summer season, this is the first time a C-17 has attempted a mid-winter, nighttime air-drop at the South Pole, according to officials.

Lt. Col. Robert Wellington, the commander of the 304th EAS, assigned C-17 weapons and tactics instructor pilot Maj. Rick Kind to plan the mission. Wellington, Kind and the JTF-SFA team worked closely with NSF planners to execute the mission.

The typical Operation Deep Freeze mission consists of a 4 1/2-hour flight from Christchurch to McMurdo, with only one hour on the ground before returning to New Zealand. By being able to combine missions, the C-17 crew simply added the 2 1/2-hour flight over the South Pole after the routine stop at McMurdo. Once over the South Pole, the crew released two parachute-supported 200-lb bundles of supplies before heading back to Christchurch.

"During the winter, the only option was to airdrop supplies in," said Lt. Col. Edward Vaughan, Operation Deep Freeze's interim director of joint operations. "Rapid global mobility is one of the Air Force's core capabilities in supporting the joint military team. Year-round airdrop at the South Pole is one of the specific capabilities that the 304th EAS brings to JTF-SFA operations."

Since the South Pole has 24 hours of darkness during the polar winter, the use of night-vision goggles was essential for the mission, officials said. Scheduling the delivery around daylight was not a factor.

"The complex mission, utilizing NVGs to first land at McMurdo and then later acquire the South Pole drop zone, exploited the unique capability of the aircraft and validated the operational procedures developed and the training accomplished over the last several ODF Seasons," Wellington said. "It was the first C-17A winter airdrop at the pole and presents a stellar example of inter-agency cooperation."

According to Kevin Schriner, an NSF contractor and network administrator at the South Pole, the air drop was a complete success. Both packages were dropped and recovered without damage.

"Coming on the heels of the late-June, mid-winter medical evacuation mission from McMurdo (Station, Antarctica), we welcomed another opportunity to provide assistance to the NSF," Wellington said. "Plus, we were fortunate to have the right crew with right qualifications in place when the call came in."

For more information on Operation Deep Freeze, contact Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica Public Affairs at 808-449-7985 or email To learn more about the U.S. Antarctic Program, visit the official website at

(Courtesy of Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica Public Affairs.)