Flight to the Ice [Dispatches from Antarctica]

Namesake of Pegasus Field. US Navy “Pegasus”, C-121 Super Constellation, crashed Oct 8, 1970 and still remains buried in the ice at the site. NSF Photograph by Steven McLachlan, 1966.

Namesake of Pegasus Field. US Navy “Pegasus”, C-121 Super Constellation, crashed Oct 8, 1970, and still remains buried in the ice at the site. (Photo: Steven McLachlan/NSF)

This is the second entry in the Armed with Science series, Dispatches from Antarctica. The series features Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan’s first-hand experiences on OPERATION: DEEP FREEZE, the Defense Department’s support of National Science Foundation research in Antarctica.

28 September 2010: Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station, Antarctica — flight to the ice.

But wait! It’s all about the science and inter-agency cooperation. When I accepted my assignment, I knew that. But it wasn’t until I reached the bottom of my third cup of tasty Kiwi coffee this early morning and looked around to see no other military uniforms that it hit me. This is not military business as usual. Hold that thought…

After check-in and security screening conducted by members of the New Zealand Defence Force, we boarded the C-17 Globemaster III. The Commander, Joint Task Force – Support Forces Antarctica, Lt Gen Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle (my boss’s boss), would travel roundtrip with us on today’s mission to mark the start of the austral summer season “main body.” Last month, C-17 maintenance and aircrew completed the first night-vision-goggle (NVG) passenger and cargo missions into Antarctica as part of the so-called WINFLY period.

Of the 64 passengers riding aboard ICE 08, only two of us were currently in the military: the chaplain and me. The rest were scientists, science support contractors, station management, and civilian helicopter crews. My forest green military parka contrasted sharply with the familiar bright red of the other participants. In Antarctica, the inter-agency is color-coded.

C-17 taxiing on Pegasus Field. NSF Photograph by Kevin Bliss, 2009

C-17 taxiing on Pegasus Field. (Photo: Kevin Bliss/NSF)

Layering cold weather parkas with oversize boots under gloves over hats in between thermals, we were hand-stuffed into the airplane’s oversized seats like warmly swaddled newborns. Five hours later, with the modified Bell 212 Hueyhelicopter puzzle-pieced in back of the passengers, we touched down at Pegasus White Ice Runway.

It stings. The first noseful of dry, cold, hard air clawed its way down my windpipe. Were it not for the still-running jet engines, you could hear the faint cracking of lips and nostrils. Steam spiraled from the fumaroles of Erebus forming a cottony tail in the sky. The handsome Royal Society Range posed behind us. All around us…the ice shelf of the Ross Sea.

C-17 offloading helicopter at Pegasus Field. NSF Photograph by Dominick Dirksen, 2008

C-17 offloading a helicopter at Pegasus Field. (Photo: Dominick Dirksen/NSF)

Bundled and stiff, lips stuck-dried to smiling teeth, we waddled from the airplane to Ivan the Terra Bus. Again we were swaddled. Contact frost from airplane breath grew ice fractals on the inside of frozen windows obscuring the 35 minute ride to the NSF Chalet at McMurdo Station.

Briefers from every part of “Mac Town” presented the how-tos, and how-not-tos, of the community. Finally, we were released to begin our work in Antarctica.

For Classroom Discussion: Aside from my personal gear, I had the privilege of toting the first 25 Antarctic Aeronautical Strip Charts produced by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) using new waypoint names in honor the dogs and ponies that helped pioneer this remotest of places. My purpose was to obtain signatures of the crew and stamps from the station on these commemorative charts. Who were the first people to travel to the South Pole? How did their selection of dogs or ponies contribute, or detract, from their journey?

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10 Responses to Flight to the Ice [Dispatches from Antarctica]

  1. macdoodle says:

    We want lots of pictures!
    Stay warm when ya can!

  2. Davidm Bresnahan says:

    I understood the first “main body” flight took place on 23 September when an Australian A-319 flew to McMurdo.

    • Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan says:

      Hi Dave,

      Long time no see. You are correct. The main body for the USAP’s austral summer science season did begin with the Australian Airbus A-319 flight on Sep 23. The blog hasn’t appeared on the DoD site yet, but I wrote a short feature last week on the international flavor of NSF’s program in Antarctica, including the excellent work done by the Australian partners.

      As inter-agency lead down here, the National Science Foundation had many options, both domestic and international, for bringing people and cargo to and from the ice. There’s an excellent photo of the A-319 aircraft here: , taken by a Cara Sucher, who leads some of the science support here.

      My blog to which you responded referred to the first C-17 main body flight for the DoD’s participation. I’ll specify such distinctions as we go forward.

      Any chance you’ll dust off the old parka and make an appearance on the ice this year?

      Thanks for the reply,

      • Davidm Bresnahan says:

        Ed would come back given the right opportunity. Why don’t you start a rumor with a comment at the next town meeting that you heard I was headed your way.

        Enjoying the posts. Keep them coming.

        Dave B

        • Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan says:

          Dave: George and Terry are both here, so that will be a good rumor to start. Provided my blogs pass muster with the DoD and NSF PA folks, you should see some decent coverage of funded science and Crary Lab activities in the next week.

          Once all the blog dates get caught up, I’d welcome any ideas you might have for features on this forum. Anything or anyone in particular you’d like me to visit?

          Thanks for the support.

  3. luis tula says:

    awesome look cool,but thanks 4 wonderfull job god bless america

    • Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan says:

      Thank you Luis. The NSF sets a superb tone down here and created a working environment where everyone has an opportunity to contribute to something really special for humanity. While the science teams are on the leading edge, all those supporting the mission, including military members, are part of the diverse human network. This mission brings out the best in people.

  4. Sdwhitney6 says:

    Wintered over in 1971-1972—-anybody that was thereor about that time

    • Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan says:

      71-72 season… Do you have any photos from that season that you might be willing to share with Dr. John Ohab of Armed with Science? As for people still in the program, we can probably narrow it down by age. Forgive my math in public, but I would presume that anyone here during the 71-72 season would be about 58 yrs old or older by now. I’m aware of at least 6 USAP participants over age 70, and many more in their 60s. I’ll start asking around.

  5. airconditioning says:

    While the science teams are on the leading edge, all those supporting the mission, including military members, are part of the diverse human network. This mission brings out the best in people.