109th Retrograde Cargo Team builds pallets at South Pole

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Madison Scaringe
  • 109th Airlift Wing

Four air transportation specialists from the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing spent five weeks, from November 22nd to December 27th, 2022, at Antarctica’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station building pallets for “retrograde cargo” to be transported from the science research station.

Retrograde cargo is another term for garbage or waste materials, according to Staff Sgt. Jessica Cruz, one of the Airmen charged with the mission.

“Retrograde cargo can be anything from old construction material to human waste. There are no dumpsters there, so anything that needs to be disposed of gets palletized and flown out,” she said.

And because the 109th Airlift Wing flies the world’s only ski-equipped LC-130s to support the National Science Foundation’s research stations in Antarctica, their Airmen get to assist in lots of ways, including waste removal.

In order to keep Antarctica pristine for research, nations around the globe have agreed to a strict carry-in, carry-out rule as an environmental protective measure outlined in the Antarctic Treaty. That 1959 agreement sets the rules for nations conducting research on the southern continent.

In 2015 the National Science Foundation, or NSF, requested the 109th’s help in hauling away their waste and proposed a five-year plan for doing so.

But because COVID-19 pandemic restrictions meant the Airmen who normally do this work didn’t fly to the south pole station in 2021 and 2022, that meant there was a lot of retrograde cargo to haul out, explained Tech. Sgt. Brandon Wiggand, the head of the retrograde cargo team.

“Not being there for two years led to a backlog of retro cargo, and over time the wind buried the cargo in snow,” he explained.

So, the 109th team, which included Tech. Sgt. Shannan O’Connor and Staff Sgt. Mark Ebensperger, spent 35 days building 137 pallets to carry various waste materials being airlifted to McMurdo Station by the 109th’s LC-130’s.

Once the palletized cargo arrived at McMurdo station, it was moved onto ships or other aircraft and transported to the United States where military and NSF members properly disposed of it.

“This year’s priority was to dig out the pallets leftover from previous years,” Wiggand said.

The team’s working period was extended from the typical 10 days to 35 in an attempt to catch up on the excess cargo, he said.

NSF contractors worked alongside the retrograde cargo team using skid steer loaders, bulldozers, shovels and brooms to dig out the pallets and rebuild them.

Some pallets had almost 300 pounds of snow on them, Cruz said.

The team had to be extra cautious when removing the pallets from large banks of snow, called berms, as the bottom of the pallets were covered in ice and were at risk of sliding off of the track loaders, Cruz said.

“In years before, we could just focus on building pallets. Removing all the snow and ice made this trip much more physically demanding,” she said.

With South Pole temperatures often reaching minus 40 degrees, the team’s work pace was significantly impacted, Wiggand said.

“You can’t move as well because of all the cold weather gear. The gloves are thick so it’s hard to grip straps and loosen frozen buckles,” Wiggand said.

“Everything is a challenge there with the environment – from the dryness to the altitude, to the cold. Even walking is a challenge,” he said.

Deploying annually for Operation Deep Freeze, Airmen from the 109th frequently work in frigid conditions.

“These members truly operate in the most austere conditions and do it with professionalism and pride,” said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Mann, the senior enlisted leader of the 109th air transportation function, whose members are nicknamed “port dogs”.

“The below freezing weather that they work in shows just what ‘port dawgs’ can do,” he said.

The retrograde cargo team assembled more pallets than they initially expected, which was a great feat considering none of them had deployed together before, Cruz said.

“We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas there, and with the limited internet service we were pretty isolated. We all bonded and became a well-oiled machine by the end of it,” she said.

“No other port team in the Air National Guard does what these folks do, and they continue to make great accomplishments year after year. This work in such austere conditions is what sets 109th Airmen apart from their peers,” Mann said.