The New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing is beginning its annual support for National Science Foundation research in Antarctica by sending three LC-130 “skibirds” and 184 Airmen to the southern continent.
The 109th Airlift Wing, which flies the largest ski-equipped aircraft in the world, plays a key role in supporting climate science research and other scientific activities in Antarctica.
The Airmen will be operating out of the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, flying missions throughout the continent to move personnel and supplies from December to February.
The Airmen are deploying in October because COVID-19 health restrictions will require quarantines and longer-than-normal layovers from Stratton Air National Guard Base outside Schenectady, New York, to Christchurch, New Zealand. Airmen will be tested repeatedly to ensure they have not contracted COVID-19.
One plane has already left Stratton, with two more expected to depart Oct. 15.
Once the quarantine is completed, the Airmen will do multiple aircraft checks in New Zealand before flying to McMurdo Station on Antarctica’s Ross Peninsula.
“We comply with the host nation’s COVID-19 protocols while we are in New Zealand, and there will be additional protocols that pertain to McMurdo as part of the Operation Deep Freeze process,” said Maj. Shay Price, the wing’s Antarctic operations officer.
The 109th’s primary mission for the 2021-2022 season will be to resupply science stations on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Siple Dome Field camp, and the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station, Price said.
The remote field camps serve as aviation hubs and refueling points for travel throughout the continent and scientific research in West Antarctica. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is a National Science Foundation research facility at the geographic South Pole.
At the end of the season, the wing’s Airmen will make intercontinental trips from Christchurch to McMurdo Station.
“Until the end of January, we will stay on the continent and fly on continent missions,” said Price. “This timeframe is what we typically call the ‘wheeled gap.’ ”
The “wheeled gap” is when conditions prohibit wheeled aircraft from operating and ski-equipped aircraft are the only option for airlift.
Normally, shifts of Airmen rotate through McMurdo Station, and a typical Antarctic season runs from October through March. This year the same 184 Airmen will remain on location throughout the three-month support season.
During the 2020-2021 season, to limit the spread of COVID-19, the 109th’s Aircraft staged in New Zealand and flew the minimum amount of missions needed to support resupply efforts.
Eventually, the 109th Airmen completed six missions in Antarctica during the shortened 2020-2021 season. They flew three medevac missions, transported 148 researchers and support staff, and delivered 63,000 pounds of critical cargo to research stations within the continent.
The LC-130s flown by the 109th Airlift Wing operate as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the military support of the U.S. Antarctic program.
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.