STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. - The first LC-130 Hercules aircraft took off for Antarctica today, marking the 27th season the 109th Airlift Wing has supported the National Science Foundation with Operation Deep Freeze.
This season is expected to be the biggest yet, with more than 350 missions planned and nearly 3,000 hours expected to be flown. Crews plan to deliver 5.4 million pounds of fuel and cargo and nearly 4,500 passengers. About 120 Airmen will be deployed to the ice at any one time, and a total of eight LC-130s will be deployed throughout the season which will run through about March.
The unique capabilities of the ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft make it the only one of its kind in the U.S. military, able to land on snow and ice. The primary mission of the 109th AW is to provide airlift within Antarctica, flying to various remote locations from McMurdo Station.
"We transport scientists, support personnel, fuel, supplies, medical supplies - basically anything we can fit on the back of the plane," said Maj. Steve Cousineau, 139th Airlift Squadron navigator who left with the first plane today.
Along with their primary mission of transporting people and supplies, crews will also be flying IcePod missions this year.
"IcePod focuses on the development of an integrated ice imaging system that can measure in detail both the ice surface and the ice bed, helping in the understanding of why ice sheets are changing at such a rapid rate," said Lt. Col. Blair Herdrick, chief of Antarctic Operations at the 109th. "The system will be enclosed in a Common Science Support Pod (CSSP) mounted on the rear troop door of the LC-130. This will be the first operational use of the CSSP."
Two aircraft will also be outfitted with an Airborne Data Collection System (ADCS) for testing.
"The integrated Iridium-based communication and position reporting system will improve in-flight communications for mission reporting, weather updates and air traffic control instructions. It will also dramatically improve search and rescue response," Herdrick said.
Planning is a huge role everyone plays. Lt. Col. Martha Wadsworth, 139th Airlift Squadron commander, said the squadron is ready to start their annual mission.
"We need to make sure we have the right manpower and equipment to survive in the austere environment," she said. "Also the training to use that equipment properly, and the expertise to fly the airplane safely."
The biggest challenge for not only the Airmen, but also the aircraft in Antarctica, has always been the weather.
"The planes have to get acclimated to the (environment)," said Lt. Col. Chris Sander, aircraft commander. "But we're constantly watching the weather."
While weather is a constant challenge, the other is Airmen leaving their families behind.
"Being away from the family is always tough - that never gets easy," Cousineau said. "But once we're there, we're a big family.
"I've been going twice a year for 20 years," he said. "It's like being part of a team. We practice all year to do this. It's a good job, and it's rewarding. We're making a contribution to science."
The 109th AW has been supporting the NSF's South Pole research since 1988. Since 1999, the unit has been the sole provider of this type of airlift to the NSF and U.S. Antarctic research efforts.