Troops Carry Out ‘Cool’ Mission in Antarctica
By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2010 While the U.S. East Coast feels the closest it has come in many years to "extreme" weather, some servicemembers are facing real cold as they support the National Science Foundation's efforts in Antarctica.
Air Force Col. Paul Sheppard, commander of the 13th Air Expeditionary Group and deputy commander of Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica, provided details of the mission from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, on the Pentagon Channel podcast, "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military."
Sheppard discussed Operation Deep Freeze and the major contributions by servicemembers in support of the National Science Foundation, including coordinating strategic and tactical airlift, sealift, emergency response and aeromedical evacuation.
"Operation Deep Freeze started with the Navy in the mid-'50s and is a military-centric operation on the continent of Antarctica," Sheppard said. "Then, under international treaty, the world community started moving toward declaring the Antarctic an open continent for science research only, and no development. So … science started to take the lead for all U.S. interests in Antarctica."
The Defense Department provides logistics support, especially heavy airlift and sea power, that can't be contracted elsewhere, Sheppard explained. The military component in Antarctica makes up only about 10 percent of the manpower there, he said.
The extreme climate in Antarctica give Sheppard and his troops some unique challenges.
"Almost everything we work with is a piece of metal equipment. … We have to worry about metal fatigue and brittleness of metal -- we're talking about ships and airplanes and all the support equipment that goes along with that. And our big problem environmentally is temperature," Sheppard said.
He said the limited weather forecasting available on Antarctica creates a problem or two, both in temperature management and in planning and carrying out operations.
"That's what gives us our biggest problem operationally and safety-wise -- not knowing for certain what the weather trends are going to be over the course of the day or week," he said. "So blizzards -- we call them ‘Herbies’ down here, the massive blizzards that have hurricane-force winds -- those type of events create a danger for us, for aviation and every aspect of life on the continent."
Newcomers to the camp, military and civilians, undergo a few nights of on-site survival training, a course known at McMurdo as "happy camper school." Program participants camp in the snow, build snowcaves and learn how to protect themselves from extreme conditions. The military crew also goes through barren-land training in Greenland, learning to survive in a number of simulated scenarios.
"If you're going into the field, you get training," Sheppard said. "But if you're staying here in at McMurdo and you're working within the infrastructure of this town, then you don't need the extreme weather survival training."
Sheppard himself has had to use his survival training. During one mission to place a fuel cache in an open-snow area, an axle on his plane shattered.
"Cold weather makes metal brittle, and this axle had been manufactured incorrectly, and it broke,” he said. “And the nose wheels went up into the wheel well of the airplane, and the plane fell down on top of the nose ski, luckily.
"I no longer had an airplane,” Sheppard said. “I just had a huge snowmobile, and there was no place to go. So, we parked the airplane next to the fuel drums and shut down.
"We set up our camp, not knowing how long we'd stay there,” he continued. “And then we started to set up to stay for a long time before someone could come and get us. It was dead silence, and you realized you were someplace in the middle of nowhere and [had] no idea how you were going to get out of there or when you were going to get out of there."
Sheppard's story ends well. A rescue crew arrived 20 hours later and brought everyone to McMurdo safe and sound.
Another danger in Antarctica is crevasses, deep niches in the ice that can be fatal for a person on foot or a ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft in take-off. But the Defense Department and National Science Foundation have been working together for the past eight years on a crevasse detection radar.
They've also been developing equipment for their LC-130s that will allow for easier snow take-offs. By adding high-tech eight-bladed propellers with electronic propeller controls, Sheppard said, they'll be able to actually create some lift on the plane while it's stationary. This will allow a heavily laden plane to take off on snow easier, as the propellers are picking up some of the weight before takeoff.
Advances like these not only help to move cargo and save money on fuel, but also improve safety for the crews in Antarctica, Sheppard said.
"People don't realize that the continent itself has a land mass of the continental U.S., plus Mexico,” he said. “It's mind-boggling how large it is.” In his survival story, Sheppard recalled that he was relatively close to McMurdo, about 400 miles into the barren snow fields. But without the kinds of advances being made there, he said, "[everyone there is] at the mercy of the continent."
Much of the mystery of Antarctica comes from a broad lack of awareness, Sheppard said. For example, he said, most people don't know that most of the continent is covered with an ice cap that's up to two miles thick.
"The continent is at high altitudes, around 10,000 feet or higher, and that it is the coldest, windiest, driest, cleanest place on Earth,” Sheppard said. “And the geography of the continent is truly spectacular, with the ice caps and then the mountain ranges. And that's what the international community wants to do, is keep it that way -- the cleanest place -- and do science.
"And it has every natural resource that you can imagine down here – but no one can have it," he added with a laugh.
(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)