109th Airlift Wing 25th Antarctic Anniversary

  • Published
  • By 2nd. Lt. Colette Martin
  • 109th Airlift Wing
The last crew of 109th members landed their ski-equipped C-130 aircraft at the Schenectady County Airport Wednesday night after a long trip back from Antarctica marking the 25th anniversary of Antarctic operations for the 109th Airlift Wing.

The return of the final "Skibird" marks the official end of the Operation DEEP FREEZE mission for this year and a great milestone in history for the unit, the Air National Guard, and the Air Force.

The 109th Airlift Wing made its first trip to Antarctica in January 1988, at that time supporting the Navy mission. 1989 marked the first full year of Antarctic operations for the unit. Since 1988, the 109th has completed 25 seasons in one of the harshest flying environments in the world with a great safety record and no Class-A mishaps, a standard few units can claim. While performing in this hazardous region, the unit has completed a ten-year average of over 3,000 flying hours each Antarctic season, more than most units complete in their entire year of operations.

Antarctic operations for the 109th have seen many changes over the years. In 1988 the unit sent down only two aircraft, assisting the Navy who had been working the mission since 1969. In 1998, the Navy transferred full operations to the Air Force, and since then the 109th has been responsible for all heavy airlift on the continent.

"We started out doing just pole missions with the Navy handling the camp flights," said Senior Master Sgt. Mike Messineo, a flight engineer who was on the first mission in 1988. "All the crew used to be together in one room, in bunk beds. We called it the ant farm."

Flight operations in Antarctica are conducted in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation. Through the Division of Polar Programs in its Geoscience division, NSF coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent and aboard vessels in the Southern Ocean. The agency is also responsible for providing all of the logistical support required to carry out that research.

"When we go out to the deep field there are always challenges. A great deal of hard work goes into planning and executing every deep field mission but it pays off knowing we are supporting the NSF with new discoveries all over the continent!" said Maj. Joseph J. DeConno, LC-130 navigator and chief of current operations. "It's some of the most challenging flying I've ever experienced and every flight is unique."

The 109th has played an integral role in establishing the remote camps, often being the first aircraft and people to ever set foot on the landing sites. Over the past 25 years, the 109th has helped establish over 100 remote sites. This year, 14 sites were active, including the South Pole station. Sustainment of operations in these far remote locations requires the capability of the heavy airlift aircraft to provide enough fuel, equipment and supplies to keep researchers safe and able to conduct their science missions. All camps and the South Pole require ski take-offs and landings, and many have ungroomed surfaces. The 109th Airlift Wing is the only unit in the world that has aircraft with this capability.

An example of the capability of the LC-130 Skibird is the South Pole station. Completed in 2008, nearly all the construction material required to build the new station was carried by the 109th. To complete the station, the unit flew over 925 flights transporting over 24 million pounds of cargo.

This 2012 - 2013 season the unit successfully completed 310 total missions, flying 2,219 hours and transporting 6.4 million pounds of cargo and fuel, the weight of 428 adult male African elephants. The 109th also airlifted 3,602 passengers to and around the frozen continent.

On December 7 the primary landing field near McMurdo station was buried by an unprecedented wind storm and a dark layer of mineral dust caused the road and ramp to deteriorate. Conditions became unsuitable for wheeled aircraft, such as the United States C-17 and Australian Antarctic Program's Airbus A-319. All transportation to and from the continent was then left in the hands of the 109th for the next seven weeks.

"We always encounter obstacles during the challenging ODF season, but this year's were significant because of the unusual natural event that cut off the continent from normal support," said Pacific Air Force Maj. Gen. Russell J. Handy, Director of Operations, Plans, Requirements and Programs. "The LC-130s stepped up, proving that military support to the U.S. Antarctic Program is vital."

The 109th deployed six ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft to Antarctica in late October. LC-130 hub operations were based at McMurdo Station and flown out of either the Sea Ice Runway or Pegasus Field.

"I am continually impressed with the professionalism and performance of the members of the 109th," said Maj. Blair Herdrick, LC-130 pilot and chief of Antarctic operations at the 109th. "This year was a particularly challenging year for us due to the number of deep field open snow camps, weather, supporting an increased number of flights between Christchurch and McMurdo, and the deteriorated condition of Pegasus Field. We overcame all of these challenges and had another successful year. I am more proud than ever to be a member of the 109th."