Capt. Jon Waller’s previous flights to Antarctica lasted just long enough for a crew to unload and restock his C-17 Globemaster on a 10,000-foot ice runway.
That timing kept the engines warm and ready to go for sudden weather changes, but it didn’t give Joint Base Lewis-McChord pilots like Waller much of an opportunity to get a feel for the people and projects they supply at McMurdo Station on missions to the desolate continent.
This year, Waller was one of three Air Force pilots who accepted invitations to stay overnight. They checked out the facilities at McMurdo and talked with runway crews about how they can collaborate to improve their landings and takeoffs.
His three days on “the ice” gave him a greater appreciation for the dedication people bring when they sign up to work in Antarctica and a better feel for how each person’s contribution pays off in research that helps scientists understand the planet.
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“It was an absolutely amazing experience,” said Waller, 31, who returned from his mission last month. “I’ve never been anywhere where everyone was so committed to their jobs – determined to make it better when it’s already good.”
He also participated in a Defense Department blog based at McMurdo where he nonchalantly put the research-focused Deep Freeze flights on par with war zone missions that make up the majority of his work overseas.
“Flying in combat is pretty cool, landing on a dirt runway is a pretty cool, but flying down on here on the ice takes the cake,” he says in a video report at the Defense Department’s “Armed with Science” web site.
Crews from McChord Air Field have participated since 1997 in Operation Deep Freeze, an annual mission where they fly several times a week from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Antarctica. The 2,000-mile trip takes about five hours and can be called off mid-route if the weather turns for the worse and a landing would be too dangerous.
They haul everything from people to food to fragile research equipment for scientists from around the world. Lt. Col. Jim McGann, 48, of the 62nd Airlift Wing once brought a load of cod that were destined for genetic tests, research that was intended to show how the Antarctic cod produces its own antifreeze.
Odd packages like those can become hurdles for the C-17 loadmasters who manage them. They often are hurried to unload 35 tons of cargo as quickly as possible while finding room for people and materials headed back to New Zealand.
“Things don’t want to cooperate when it’s that cold,” said Senior Master Sgt. John Vojovich of Lewis-McChord’s 446th Reserve Airlift Wing, a loadmaster and four-time Deep Freeze veteran.
McGann’s flown so many missions on Operation Deep Freeze that the name on his uniform reads “Iceman.” At 87 flights into Antarctica, McGann figures he’s clocked the most miles there except for crews from the New York Air National Guard who pilot ski-equipped aircraft all over the continent.
Like Waller, McGann’s drawn to the challenge of flying missions that constantly test his abilities. He was the Deep Freeze commander during Waller’s recent mission.
“Antarctica is the most dangerous peace-time environment for us,” McGann said, ticking off abrupt wind changes, white-outs and flight instruments that don’t work near the South Pole as some of the regular obstacles Deep Freeze pilots encounter.
He’s also become deeply curious about the research he assists, from genetics to geology to climate change. He looks forward to the chances he has to talk with his passengers to pick their brains about what pulls them to the cold, dry expanse of Antarctica.
“It’s a very eclectic environment. We’re sitting down to dinner with everyone from physicists to cooks,” he said.
Those conversations motivate him to keep going back, too.
“The reason people are so focused and involved is that everyone understands that what they do is critical. This is vitally important not only to us as a country, but us as a planet,” he said.