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Frigid chapter closes for C-141

MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica -- Cargo is unloaded from a C-141 Starlifter from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., on the ice runway near here.  The crews and aircraft were flying the last Air Force Reserve mission to Antarctica supporting Operation Deep Freeze.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joe Zucarro)

MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica -- Cargo is unloaded from a C-141 Starlifter from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., on the ice runway near here. The crews and aircraft were flying the last Air Force Reserve mission to Antarctica supporting Operation Deep Freeze. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joe Zucarro)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. (AFPN) -- Another chapter closed in the storied aviation history of the venerable C-141 Starlifter as a 452nd Air Mobility Wing-based crew from here flew aircraft number 152 from the South Pole for the last time.

For 39 years, crews have flown C-141s loaded with people and equipment to Antarctica for the National Science Foundation and its research efforts there. This year, more than 2.7 million pounds of cargo and about 3,000 passengers were flown to the massive ice continent supporting Operation Deep Freeze, said Arthur Brown, NSF representative at Christchurch, New Zealand.

The Feb. 4 mission, the last Starlifter flight from the Pegasus runway at the McMurdo Research Station, brings to a halt the fully Reserve-run mission that has hauled scientists and gadgets to the Earth's southern polar cap for the past four years.

The station is on the southern tip of Ross Island, which is next to the McMurdo and Ross ice shelves. The final C-141 flight was from the 10,000-foot-long Pegasus runway, eight miles south of the station. The runway is made of rolled and pressed snow on top of permanent ice shelf, which officials said moves the runway about 115 feet per year.

"It is a rather sad day, but a necessary day (for the C-141])," Mr. Brown said. "It is sad to see an asset that has served so well leave our inventory. The C-141 has served its useful life, and we look forward to the new technologies that are available."

One new technology Mr. Brown referred to is the C-17 Globemaster III cargo and transport aircraft. The 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., and its active-duty operations assume day-to-day flight duties in the C-17 in the wake of the final Starlifter mission and its pending retirement.

The Starlifter's history with Deep Freeze dates back to 1966, when it was the first jet-engine aircraft to land on the southern-most continent, said Maj. Gevin Harrison, director of the 4th Air Force’s Deep Freeze division. Reserve crews have flown more than 200 missions per year with a perfect record -- no accidents and never an aircraft or crewmember left on the ice.

"Deep Freeze is different than any other mission due to weather," Major Harrison said. "The weather is cold and harsh, but it's also unpredictable.

"Visibility is a huge hindrance because of low clouds, fog or blowing snow. The snow is like dust -- the consistency of sand, very dry," the major said. "The forecast is also on the horizon and surface definitions. You can compare it to flying inside a pingpong ball."

This is the one mission without an alternate location to land in case something goes wrong, Major Harrison said. The crews are given a weather report before reaching the "point of no return," which is an hour away from Antarctica. They have a few minutes to decide whether to continue to the ice cap or turn back to New Zealand. The five-hour flight is 2,076 miles from launch to touchdown. (Master Sgt. Linda Welz, 4th Air Force Public Affairs, contributed to this story).