Emergency Air Drop, Night Vision Goggles and Barrels of Fire

The folks wintering in Antarctica have had a rough season. In June, right around midwinter, an employee at McMurdo was ill enough that the National Science Foundation had to medevac them to Christchurch for treatment. This is pretty rare, and only carried out in the most extreme of situations. (Read the official news report here and check out a firsthand report by a McMurdo winterover here.)

And now, the US Air Force has performed a successful air drop of “urgently needed medical supplies” for a Pole winterover. This was the first emergency air drop to Pole in almost ten years, and the very first performed with a C-17. The Air Force flew the 800 miles to Pole, and using night vision equipment to spot the drop zone lit by the ground crew with burning 55-gallon drums, they aimed two 200-pound cargo pallets equipped with parachutes and pushed them out of the C-17.

From inside the C-17. Photo credit Chief Master Sgt. Jim Masura, antarcticsun.usap.gov
The drop zone in the distance, a few hours after the drop as seen from the station. Photo by Christy Schultz

It goes without saying that we’re crossing our fingers for the crew at South Pole in their dark isolation; the first plane sill won’t be able to land until late October. I’ve heard that it’s easier to mount a rescue expedition to the international space station than it is to get to the South Pole in the winter (but don’t have a source on that, so don’t quote me–does anyone know?). From what I can tell, the combined forces of the South Pole air drop team and the US Air Force was a perfect match, and everything went as well as could possibly have been expected, and the winterovers’ practice during the summer season really paid off.

South Pole air drop ground crew. Photo by Christy Schultz
Dan the Fuelie supervises the burn barrels in a summer air drop practice last season. 12-11-2010

This article in the Antarctic Sun has really interesting information on the logistics of the air drop: “Personnel used GPS coordinates to place each barrel at a precise location for the drop zone, located about two miles from the main station. It took heavy equipment operator Rob Shaw about 30 hours to groom, or flatten, the snow around the drop zone.”

The weather at Pole during the air drop was rather warm according to the article, about -70F; from what I understand, nearly none of our vehicles run at below -80F, and many won’t run under -55 or so. The current temperature is back down to -90F. I’m not sure what they do if they have to perform an air drop in colder temps when the heavy equipment really just won’t run.

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