Operation Deep Freeze Supports Antarctica Research Mission

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2012 — Punx­sutawney Phil saw his shad­ow yes­ter­day — a sure sign, accord­ing to pop­u­lar lore, that win­ter will hang on for anoth­er six weeks. But it’s late sum­mer in Antarc­ti­ca, where Oper­a­tion Deep Freeze, the Defense Department’s sup­port mis­sion there, is begin­ning to wind down anoth­er suc­cess­ful sea­son.

A C-17 sits on the ice run­way at McMur­do Sta­tion, Antarc­ti­ca, Nov. 21, 2011. The C-17 is a part of Oper­a­tion Deep Freeze which pro­vides air­lift sup­port to the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion. The NSF man­ages the Unit­ed States Antarc­tic Pro­gram. Cour­tesy pho­to
Click to enlarge

Oper­a­tion Deep Freeze has been sup­port­ing the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, which man­ages the U.S. Antarc­tic Pro­gram, for almost 60 years.

It’s an exten­sion of a mis­sion the Navy start­ed almost 200 years ago. Back to 1839, Navy Capt. Charles Wilkes led the first U.S. naval expe­di­tion into Antarc­tic waters. Navy Adm. Richard E. Byrd fol­low­ing in his foot­steps, estab­lish­ing naval out­posts on the Antarc­tic coast in 1929 and lat­er that year, made the first flight over the South Pole.

In 1946, Byrd orga­nized the Navy’s Oper­a­tion High­jump, which includ­ed more than 4,000 peo­ple and numer­ous ships and oth­er craft oper­at­ing in the area of the Ross Sea.

In 1955, the Navy con­duct­ed the first Oper­a­tion Deep Freeze.

Today, Joint Task Force-Sup­port Forces Antarc­ti­ca, led by 13th Air Expe­di­tionary Group, brings togeth­er active and reserve assets from the Air Force, Navy, Army and Coast Guard, as well as Defense Depart­ment civil­ians.

The task force pro­vides the air­craft, ships and logis­ti­cal exper­tise need­ed to sup­port research in what may well be the most iso­lat­ed and chal­leng­ing part of the globe, Air Force Col. Gary James, the deputy task force direc­tor, told Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice.

Air Force C-17 Globe­mas­ter III air­craft oper­at­ed by the 62nd and 446th Air­lift Wings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., fly most of the aer­i­al resup­ply mis­sions from a base they estab­lish ear­ly in the sea­son at Christchurch Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. So far this sea­son, they have trans­port­ed over 4 mil­lion pounds of car­go and 3,800 pas­sen­gers.

James cit­ed the chal­lenges of pro­vid­ing logis­ti­cal reach to such an iso­lat­ed part of the world, par­tic­u­lar­ly when fac­tor­ing in extreme weath­er and tem­per­a­tures. Once their car­go arrives in Antarc­ti­ca, the New York Air Nation­al Guard’s 109th Air­lift Wing uses ski-equipped LC-130 Skibird air­craft to sup­ply remote oper­at­ing bases around the con­ti­nent.

The 109th began work­ing with the Navy to sup­port Oper­a­tion Deep Freeze in the mid-1990s and assumed the mis­sion full-time in 1998, Air Force Maj. Jef­frey Hedges, its exec­u­tive offi­cer, report­ed. Now, as the only unit of its kind capa­ble of pro­vid­ing ski-equipped heavy air­lift, it aver­ages six to sev­en air­craft and about 150 air­men on the ground in Antarc­ti­ca through­out the sea­son that typ­i­cal­ly runs from late Sep­tem­ber and con­tin­ues through ear­ly March, Hedges said.

So far this sea­son, they have air­lift­ed near­ly 6 mil­lion pounds of car­go and more than 1,300 sci­en­tists and sup­port per­son­nel through­out the con­ti­nent, he report­ed.

That’s a huge mis­sion load, par­tic­u­lar­ly while oper­at­ing in one of the world’s harsh­est and most demand­ing envi­ron­ments. Crews land on unim­proved or par­tial­ly groomed sur­faces, fly where there’s lit­tle or no con­trast between the sky and ground and nav­i­gate where tra­di­tion­al com­pass­es often don’t work and solar sun spots often inter­fere with com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Hedges said.

Mean­while, unit main­tain­ers from the unit keep the air­craft fly­ing, oper­at­ing in frigid, windy con­di­tions with­out the ben­e­fit of hangars.

Despite these chal­lenges, both James and Hedges tout­ed a safe­ty record of nev­er los­ing a sin­gle per­son or air­craft.

“We ensure safe oper­at­ing by prac­tic­ing proven oper­a­tional risk man­age­ment,” James said. “We have estab­lished guid­ance that gets peo­ple and equip­ment to the con­ti­nent with­out tak­ing unnec­es­sary risks.”

Hedges attrib­uted his unit’s safe­ty record to an expe­ri­ence base built by Guards­men who return year after year to con­duct the mis­sion. Some have been fly­ing the mis­sions since the mid-1990s, he said, bring­ing a wealth of polar expe­ri­ence and capa­bil­i­ty.

Oth­er unit mem­bers are for­mer sailors who sup­port­ed Oper­a­tion Deep Freeze when it was a Navy mis­sion, then joined the 109th Air­lift Wing when the mis­sion trans­ferred there, Hedges said. The Navy, which led the first Oper­a­tion Deep Freeze in 1955, con­tin­ues to con­tribute to its suc­cess.

Car­go and fuel tanker ships from Mil­i­tary Sealift Com­mand pro­vide the largest share of resup­ply to McMur­do Sta­tion, Antarc­ti­ca, where Navy Car­go Han­dling Bat­tal­ion 1 sailors pro­vide car­go han­dling and ship load­ing. Addi­tion­al­ly, ele­ments of the military’s Sur­face Deploy­ment and Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mand and sev­er­al oth­er logis­tics spe­cial­ties pro­vide oth­er sup­port.

In addi­tion, Coast Guard ice­break­ers remain on call in the event that the Nation­al Sci­ence Foundation’s pri­ma­ry con­tract ice­break­ers aren’t avail­able to open icy sea lanes in and around the Ross Sea.

Oper­at­ing in the world’s cold­est, windi­est, high­est and most inhos­pitable con­di­tions, they ensure the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion has what it needs to do its work.

“What they do, in some of the most aus­tere con­di­tions on the plan­et, is incred­i­ble,” said Lt. Gen. Ted Kres­ge, the task force com­man­der, after see­ing mem­bers of his joint ser­vice, inter­a­gency team in action in Novem­ber. “No one else can do what these pro­fes­sion­als do. These men and women, with their exper­tise and self­less­ness, are a nation­al trea­sure.”

James said there’s tremen­dous sat­is­fac­tion work­ing close­ly with the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion in sup­port of its mis­sion in Antarc­ti­ca. “It is good to know we pro­vide much of the sup­port that makes cut­ting-edge sci­ence pos­si­ble on this con­ti­nent,” he said.

“Explo­ration of this world and its secrets is human nature,” he said, not­ing so many dis­cov­er­ies that have occurred through his­to­ry when sci­en­tists actu­al­ly were look­ing for some­thing else.

At Antarctica’s South Pole Sta­tion, for exam­ple, “sci­en­tists are look­ing into the heav­ens for clues to our ori­gins,” he said. Else­where on the con­ti­nent, they are study­ing geo­log­i­cal core sam­ples “for clues only found here — secrets locked undis­turbed in the ice from time.”

“Who knows what secrets Antarc­ti­ca will reveal?” James ques­tioned. “Just being here opens those doors of pos­si­bil­i­ty.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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