AMUNDSON-SCOTT SOUTH POLE, Antarctica - National Guard Airmen from New York, Pennsylvania and Kentucky braved subzero temperatures at the bottom of the world to repair an LC-130 “Skibird.”
The plane was stranded at Amundson-Scott South Pole Station following a routine supply mission when a cable controlling the elevator on the tail broke.
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Hooker, a crew chief from New York’s 109th Airlift Wing, Staff Sgt. Grant Santese, an aerorepair craftsman from Pennsylvania’s 193rd Special Operations Wing, and Tech Sgt. Dennis Craig, a hydraulics craftsman from Kentucky’s 123rd Airlift Wing, flew in to make the fix Nov. 23-25.
The plane, equipped with skis to land on snow and ice, is one of five flown by the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing to resupply American science research stations across Antarctica.
The airlift is a component of Operation Deep Freeze, the Department of Defense support for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic research.
Getting the aircraft working again was vital for the mission, said Maj. Jim Roth, the commander of the 109th Maintenance Squadron.
The LC-130s make regular 850-mile flights from McMurdo Station on the Antarctic coast to the South Pole Station to bring in supplies and scientists. They also fly to other science stations.
“We deploy with a finite number of aircraft. Our members know the importance of returning these planes to fully mission-capable status as soon as possible,” Roth said. “This is a prime example of our deployed members understanding the importance of the mission in Antarctica.”
Roth said in addition to providing critical support to an entire continent, they execute the Air Force’s Arctic strategy.
Once the maintenance team was on the ground, the Airmen immediately began troubleshooting the issue on the aircraft, which was parked on the exposed ice and snow runway.
There are no hangars or shelters at the South Pole. The planes land and unload cargo on the open skiway — the term for a snow runway — and take off again.
The temperature was -40 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of about -55 degrees, said Craig, who was also the recovery team leader for the mission.
The team worked into the early morning to isolate the issue and figure out the repair.
“It was a struggle to maintain warmth and we began to have symptoms of frostnip from the extreme cold and cyanosis from the 9,600-foot elevation we were working at,” Craig said.
Cyanosis is a lack of oxygen in the blood, caused by extremely cold temperatures, which can lead to respiratory or heart failure.
Temperatures fell to -77 Fahrenheit on the second day, Craig said.
But the crew continued fixing the elevator issue and a low engine oil problem, all while exposed to the elements, Craig said.
The South Pole station complex is a 70,000-square-foot building with a game room, gym, dining hall, TV room, and space for 150 people.
COVID-19 precautions currently require people entering the station to isolate themselves ahead of time to prevent the spread of the virus.
For this reason, the three Airmen maintainers had to spend the night in a small isolation hut adjacent to the station.
“This aircraft rescue was a reminder of the daunting tasks that are down here, working in austere environments,” said Chief Master Sgt. Ron Jemmott, the superintendent of aircraft maintenance at McMurdo Station. “It takes a toll on your body, but they keep a positive attitude and get the job done.”
After two days, the aircraft was ready to return to McMurdo Station. A new aircrew flew in, and both planes safely returned.
“This successful recovery showed that the maintenance recovery team and augmentee program embody the true spirit of Operation Deep Freeze: teamwork, unit cohesion and a drive for mission success,” Craig said.