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Antarctic airlift overcomes polar hurdles

Cargo is loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III on Feb. 9, 2018, near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Members of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron operated aircraft while supporting the U.S. Antarctic Program through Operation Deep Freeze. (Courtesy Photo)

Cargo is loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III on Feb. 9, 2018, near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Members of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron operated aircraft while supporting the U.S. Antarctic Program through Operation Deep Freeze. (Courtesy Photo)

Cargo is loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III on Feb. 6, 2018, near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Members of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron operated aircraft while supporting the U.S. Antarctic Program through Operation Deep Freeze. (Courtesy Photo)

Cargo is loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III on Feb. 6, 2018, near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Members of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron operated aircraft while supporting the U.S. Antarctic Program through Operation Deep Freeze. (Courtesy Photo)

A Bell 212, operated by Antarctic New Zealand, is prepared to be loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III Feb. 17, 2018 near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Members of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron operated aircraft while supporting the U.S. Antarctic Program through Operation Deep Freeze. (Courtesy Photo)

A Bell 212, operated by Antarctic New Zealand, is prepared to be loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III Feb. 17, 2018 near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Members of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron operated aircraft while supporting the U.S. Antarctic Program through Operation Deep Freeze. (Courtesy Photo)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- For the first time in the 63-year history of Operation Deep Freeze (ODF), members of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron flew six daily missions in a row, making up for a troublesome weather situation.

“We were challenged with quite a few delays caused by winter storms, which put us behind to start the season,” said Lt. Col. Trace Dotson, the 304th EAS commander. “We were so far behind that our team flew six days in a row once the weather cleared.”

While working through weather issues, Airmen also had to overcome unexpected maintenance hurdles. But in another first, the 304th AES operated an upgraded C-17 aircraft, which comes equipped with navigation systems that proved to be reliable in the Antarctic, where knowing your exact location in whiteout conditions is of paramount importance.

"We unexpectedly got to test a Block 21 C-17 aircraft this year in Antarctica,” Dotson said. “We had a maintenance issue with our assigned aircraft that wouldn't allow us to fly it back to Antarctica, so we swapped aircraft in the middle of the deployment to a Block 21 C-17.”

In spite of these weather and maintenance challenges, the men and women of the 304th EAS came together as a team and accomplished the mission.

“We have amazing professionals at McChord who make it possible to support the National Science Foundation's research in Antarctica,” Dotson said. “Every problem we encountered was met with a ‘can-do’ attitude by our aircrew, our maintainers, and our support teams in the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings. It's a true honor to work with Airmen and partners that take pride in their work."

Because of their efforts, Airmen from the 304th EAS opened a new capability to support science and research conducted by the U.S. Antarctic Program by providing year-round access to the polar continent through mid-winter flights. This extended operating season enables additional experiments to be performed in the sub-zero temperatures at McMurdo Station.

"This last season was an absolute success," said Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Emmert, 304th EAS superintendent. "We really expanded our capabilities to demonstrate that we could move larger equipment during the mid-winter months.”

In addition to supporting ODF, members of the 304th EAS participated in the City of Christchurch’s biannual IceFest, which allows the New Zealand population to celebrate the start of the Antarctic season. The culminating event of IceFest is an Air Day where the people of Christchurch—where ODF missions are generated from—are invited out to the airfield.

"The people of Christchurch really look forward to Air Day and we were able to interact with more than 3,500 people from the community,” Dotson said. “The interactions between our aircrew and the local citizens really build on the amazing relationship we have with Christchurch and New Zealand as a whole."

Looking ahead to planning for the next season, McMurdo Station will begin a major rebuild in fiscal year 2019 that will last an estimated 8-10 years.

“This rebuild will consolidate many of the current 104 buildings down to around six buildings, increasing energy and logistical efficiency, reducing manpower needs and making for a more efficient environment in which to conduct science,” Dotson said.

The Air Force will play a vital role in these planned renovations, as they will be responsible to transport much of the personnel, equipment and supplies so the construction projects can be completed on time. But if the actions of the 304th EAS are indicative of things to come, Airmen will continue to thrive and succeed in one of the most environmentally challenging locales in the world.