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Airman heads south for Operation Deep Freeze

By Airman Alexis Wade | 179th Airlift Wing, Ohio Air National Guard | Oct. 4, 2018

MANSFIELD, Ohio - He eagerly looked out the window of the LC-130 "Skibird", one of seven in the world, which he had been on for over 10 hours, in awe of what surrounded him. Massive mountains, valleys and frozen lakes stretched as far as the eye could see, best described as the most "beautifully desolate" place he had ever witnessed. The Skibird began its descent, landing smoothly onto the frozen lake. Bundled up in their cold weather gear, those on board stepped outside to be greeted by the crisp Antarctic air and immediately prepared to load the bus that would take them up the enormous hills to McMurdo Station, their home for the next month.

This is how Staff Sgt. John S. Worcester, Communications Navigations and Defensive Systems Technician at the 179th Airlift Wing, described his arrival in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze (ODF).

ODF is a partnership between the Air Force and the National Science Foundation that encompasses Antarctica, serving logistical support to the scientific research on climate change, global warming, ozone depletion, earth history, astronomy and environmental change.

For Worcester, being a member of the 179th Airlift Wing has opened up many opportunities for him, one of which being the opportunity to travel to Antarctica earlier this year.

Worcester made the decision to join the Air National Guard at a later age than most, enlisting when he was 30 years old, and hasn't looked back since.

Prior to joining, Worcester was a general manager for his family's business selling outdoor power equipment. Seeing his parent's limited family time and other sacrifices due to being bound to the business they were in, Worcester knew he didn't want to follow in those footsteps. To Worcester and his wife, family is most important, and he knew he needed to make a career change in order to keep his family the number one priority. He and his wife discussed options and the Ohio Air National Guard presented the flexibility and offered the chance to serve and to travel, an opportunity he couldn't pass up, resulting in him joining the 179th Airlift Wing approximately seven years ago.

Since joining, Worcester has had numerous opportunities to serve while getting to travel to different areas around the world, two things he is passionate about.

"It's incredible to know something as small as maintaining an aircraft is helping saving someone's life or bringing aid to people," said Worcester. "I think that's amazing and being able to travel in addition to doing those things, it's just amazing and that's what really motivates me, I love being able to help people."

Worcester discussed traveling to Antarctica from January to February with the 109th AW, Schenectady, New York.

The 109th AW is home to four of the seven LC-130s in the world. The LC-130 is the polar version of the 179th AW's familiar C130-H cargo plane, with an added feature being the ski-equipped landing gear. The similarities between the two aircraft enabled Worcester with the knowledge and experience to be able to maintain the LC-130s to ensure it was prepared to transport people, supplies and resources needed to accomplish the mission.

Worcester credits the 179th AW's strong reputation and good rapport with other wings on previous deployments as a contributing factor in giving him and three other members from the 179th AW the opportunity, being asked by the 109th AW to help fill spots for the mission.

"We really do a good job assisting and just being good maintainers, so our reputations allows us to be a preferred base when they have openings that need filled," Worcester said.

Worcester's experience began with one week in Christchurch, New Zealand, which consisted of briefings on what to expect and being issued cold weather gear in order to prepare those traveling to Antarctica with the necessary resources in order to successfully complete the mission.

After departing New Zealand, he started his journey to McMurdo Station, the United States Antarctic research center, in which he described as an outpost with a maximum capacity of 300 people, comprised of military members, scientists and other professions all working together for the sake of scientific research.

Living in dorms, Worcester describe the environment at McMurdo Station as a very sterile, clean environment, noting that everyone who worked there made a conscious effort to leave everything as unmodified as possible.

For the next month, Worcester's typical day would begin at 5 a.m., eating breakfast at the dining facility then catching the shuttle for a 45-minute drive to the airport. From there, he would help maintain and troubleshoot the communication and navigations system on the aircraft, enabling the aircraft to complete the missions, typically consisting of flights to the south pole or to other research facilities.

Working in an environment like Antarctica presented challenges Worcester was not used to facing.

A daily struggle he was faced with was the constant sunlight. While being at the end of their summer season, the sun never set which was a challenge when it came time to sleep, Worcester said.

Another major complication they were faced with was connection to the Internet. Due to the placement of Antarctica, they are unable to connect to the Internet like every other continent does, forcing them to find other ways that result in a drastically slower, pricier and limited Internet connection.

The ice and rapidly changing climate were more challenges they faced; with temperatures at McMurdo Station averaging between 30 degrees Fahrenheit to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, colder depending on the wind chill. They constantly remained prepared with cold weather gear in case the weather took a turn for the worse.

Worcester experienced the most drastic climate change during what ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of his trip.

The last week he was there, he found out he had been fortunate enough to be picked to travel to the South Pole during a construction equipment delivery.

Due to the extreme temperatures, this flight was one of the last for the season. Flights to the South Pole are suspended during the winter months where the temperature reaches approximately -50 degrees Fahrenheit, due to the aircraft engines not being able to withstand the extreme temperatures, said Worcester.

Worcester said his flight from McMurdo Station to the South Pole took approximately five hours and was just as fascinating to him as his initial flight into Antarctica.

"I never would've thought something like that could be so beautiful," said Worcester. "Just looking at the massive mountains, valleys, frozen lakes that nobody has every touched or been to, the adventurer in me just found it amazing."

With the South Pole being so high above sea level, the air was much thinner than he was conditioned to being in. Just trying to walk you would get out of breath, said Worcester.

They made their quarter mile trek to the Ceremonial South Pole Flag site for photo opportunities, then quickly made their way back to the aircraft to help unload the equipment that was being delivered.

The workers stationed there operated with oxygen masks on in order to avoid getting sick, Worcester was given oxygen after getting back on the aircraft to replenish lost oxygen.

Although their trip only lasted an hour, Worcester said it was hands down one of the best experiences of his trip.

Worcester enjoyed the adventure, but didn't take the work lightly; looking for room to grow professionally he observed those from other units and reflected on the practices of his own shop.

"That perspective is really good and in addition to that, allows you to be open that maybe another base is doing something a little differently that may be better," Worcester added, "You can take what you learned there and help make yourself and your team better here."

Looking to the future, Worcester said that if given the chance, he would go back in a heartbeat.

"It was a beautiful experience," said Worcester. "I believe in the mission they do down there, and on the science aspect of it."