Supporting Science to the Extreme: Lt. Col. Mark Doll

This is the fourth part of our series featuring servicemembers working on OPERATION: DEEP FREEZE, the Defense Department’s support of National Science Foundation research in Antarctica. Special thanks to Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan, Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica, for co-producing this series.

Lt.Col. Mark Doll with his personally-owned ski-plane, a 1946 Aeronca Champ on skis, in Sacandaga Resevoir, NY.

Lt.Col. Mark Doll with his personally-owned ski-plane, a 1946 Aeronca Champ on skis, in Sacandaga Resevoir, NY.

Lt. Col. Mark Doll is the Air National Guard Liaison to the National Science Foundation and an LC-130 ski-plane pilot.

1.  What is your job, and from what unit are you deployed?

I am the Air National Guard Liaison to the National Science Foundation. In this capacity, I ensure the National Science Foundation has access to the Air National Guard resources needed to support its Office of Polar Programs‘ science and logistics activities in the Arctic and Antarctic. Most prominent are the ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules; the largest ski aircraft in the world. Also, Air National Guard is the focal point for the National Science Foundation’s reimbursement for all DoD services, including the MSC ships, the C-17 support, annual fuel procurement and other joint support services. While I am currently assigned to the National Guard Bureau, I am a long-time member of the 109th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard, and have been flying the LC-130 since 1996.

2.  How does the extreme environment impact your job?

The extreme environment is the reason why we are here. The 109th Airlift Wing is the only unit equipped to fly and land in remote, open-snow landing sites across Antarctica and the Greenland Icecap. This capability allows National Science Foundation to support remote science stations and camps with the speed and flexibility that only airlift can offer.

3.  What is your favorite part about being in Antarctica?

There isn’t one single favorite part; it’s a combination of a few. One is the simple fact that we are operating at the bottom of the world in a harsh, cold environment; and we do it well. Our exemplary safety record combined with the high operations tempo is a result of experience, training and hard work by all; and we are all proud to be part of that team.

Second, it the stark beauty of our surroundings. At first glance, Antarctica seems to be only white snow and brown rocks. As you acclimate to your surroundings, you see varying shades of white and blue in the snow. Because of the lack of vegetation, brown rocks further display many colors in unique patterns rarely seen in other parts of the world. During the latter part of the summer season, we see an abundance of wildlife (abundance is a relative term) – Emperor & Adelie penguins, seals, Orcas, Minke whales and Skuas. And with the close of the summer season, as 24-hour light succumbs to 24-hour darkness, the sun circumscribes a lower path around the sky and shades of orange begin to dominate the sky.

Finally, the realization that we are continuing a century-old tradition of exploration of Antarctica; and face the same challenges of the early explorers.


A new LC-130 outfitted with the np2000 8-bladed propellers that Lt. Col. Doll helped bring to reality.

A new LC-130 outfitted with the np2000 8-bladed propellers that Lt. Col. Doll helped bring to reality.

4.  What are some of the unique challenges of living and working in Antarctica that most people wouldn’t think about?

The obvious challenges are the cold, ever-changing weather and the remoteness of our operation. However, most people don’t appreciate how dangerous the cold can be. We routinely experience temperatures in McMurdo lower than -15 to -20 degrees Celsius; and it is getting lower as the season closes. In remote camps, particularly sites like South Pole station on the high polar plateau, the temperatures are -40 degrees Celsius and decreasing. Maintaining and operating aircraft can be very dangerous. There are no aircraft hangars and few shelters from which to escape the cold.

The aircraft and other mechanical equipment constantly need special attention to ensure they continue to operate. This time is year is particularly risky. If an aircraft breaks at a remote camp, the time to affect repairs results in even lower temperatures. For example, at South Pole during this week, the daily temperature drops approximately 1/2 to 1 degree Celsius each day as the sun descends on the horizon. By the end of next week, it will be close to -50 degrees Celsius. These temperatures are not forgiving of those who are unprepared.

5.  Any advice for those east coast U.S. people currently experiencing the “Snowpocalypse”?

Be prepared. As a native of upstate New York who is experienced is operating in the polar regions, I can say the best advice is to be prepared. There is no shortage of information and advice on how to prepare for a storm. Heed that advice, take advantage of the time off work and school, and enjoy the snow!

[Dr. John Ohab is a new technology strategist at the Defense Media Activity.]