By Sandra Pishner, 446th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 03, 2014
MCCHORD FIELD, Wash. -- Severe melt issues at Pegasus Airfield's white ice runway left little choice other than to cancel most of the planned C-17 missions supporting Operation Deep Freeze in the 2013-2014 season.
A little more than 1,200 feet of the approach end of the primary 10,000-foot-long white ice runway had turned to water up to a foot in depth in places by early January.
"We had an interesting year. We completed 17 missions this season," said Lt. Col. Timothy Davis, 728th Airlift Squadron here and operations officer for the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, Christchurch, New Zealand. "Due to a number of factors, including sequestration, customer demand, and weather, we flew the fewest missions since the C-17 has been involved with Deep Freeze."
Reservists from the 446th Airlift Wing and active-duty Airmen from the 62nd AW join to form the 304th EAS. They fly missions from the C-17 staging point in Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. They carry cargo and people. During the 2012-2013 season of Deep Freeze, C-17s from McChord Field flew 42 missions. A melting runway was also an issue that season. By comparison, the 2011-2012 season saw the McChord team fly 74 missions in support of Operation Deep Freeze.
"The entire main season support with the C-17 was cancelled due to climate change, so we only did 17 flights this year, mostly during WINFLY (August through November)," said Chief Master Sgt. James Masura, chief loadmaster for the 304th EAS and from the 446th Operations Group here.
Weather data for the first half of January 2014 shows that the maximum temperature for 12 of 14 days got above freezing, including a streak of four days, Jan. 3-6, when temperatures climbed above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Gary Cardullo, airfield manager for the U.S. Antarctic Program, said the white ice runway officially shut down for wheeled aircraft like the C-17 on Jan. 3.
"Winds carried dirt from nearby Black Island and deposited much of it on the airfield (Pegasus). Dark-colored dirt plus 24 hours of sun each day equals melting snow on the airfield. While this was eventually cleared, summer temperatures made repairing the snow-covered ice runway challenging," said Davis.
"While the temperatures are now back to normal and the airfield has been repaired and opened, it didn't make sense from an operational and financial perspective to deploy a C-17 package this late in the season," said Davis.
But the weather was not the only challenge to this year's C-17 support of Operation Deep Freeze. Sequestration and customer demand were also factors in determining how many C-17 sorties could be flown.
"Sequestration was the first curve ball we were thrown," said Davis. "At first, we weren't sure how much, if any, flying we would do. That delayed preparation and scheduling until we had a firm 'go' from the National Science Foundation (the customer). Also due to budget issues, we were aggressive in matching the most efficient type of airlift with the cargo and passenger needs, often teaming with our New Zealand partners. For example, instead of flying 100 passengers on a C-17, they now fly on the RNZAF 757 when possible, saving limited resources. We try to utilize the C-17 where it shines - heavy, outsized cargo."
Training also took a hit with the limited use of the C-17, with the McChord Airmen conducting only one airdrop trainer.
"Several pilots were trained in the procedures for polar airdrop, but we didn't drop anything at the pole," said Masura. "Luckily, we had many of our rotations filled with already certified pilots and loadmasters. The 62nd AW missed out on some training, but it will not affect the mission."
Not only was Operation Deep Freeze lacking in C-17 flights this year, it also lacked in the ability of the 304th EAS to donate to New Zealand children's charities as it does each year.
"The charity took a major hit," said Masura. "We decided not to give any money this year and double up our efforts next year."
C-17 totals for the 2013/2014 season are: 321 pallets of cargo, 17 pieces of rolling stock, (1,975,800 lbs. of cargo total), and 1,277 passengers moved.
"We expect to have a robust WINFLY next August. The rest of the 2014-2015 season won't be finalized until approximately late May," said Davis
ODF is possibly the military's most difficult peacetime mission due to the harsh Antarctic environment. The Air Force is specially equipped with trained and experienced personnel to operate in these austere conditions and have provided support to the NSF since 1955.
McChord has participated in ODF since 1983 using the C-141B Starlifter. The 446th AW got involved in 1995. The first C-17 trial for use to support ODF was Oct. 15, 1999.
(Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Sun Editor, contributed to this report).