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National Science Foundation
Byrd's Flight
Airlift is the Key
Science is the Result
Byrd's Flight Revisited
photograph of LC-130 cargo plane.

An LC-130 cargo plane in the pristine skies above Antarctica.

Credit: Peter West, National Science Foundation

Airlift is the Key

In the century since the first flight at Kitty Hawk, aircraft have opened previously inaccessible areas to exploration and have become invaluable tools to advance scientific understanding of Antarctica. They are the key link in the logistics chain that makes science possible.

They move people, allowing scientists and support personnel to quickly cross the thousands of miles of ocean that separate Antarctica from New Zealand. In fact, almost everyone who travels to Antarctica under NSF auspices does so on an aircraft, most often on a ski-equipped military cargo plane.

They move cargo—thousands of tons of it—across the more than 800 miles that separate the South Pole from the Antarctic coast, thereby permitting the construction of a sophisticated new scientific station that bears the names of Amundsen and Scott.

They are data collectors and flying laboratories for a variety of science missions. For example, they allow scientists to study the outlines of immense lakes buried thousands of meters below the Antarctic ice sheet and the chemistry of the skies above the continent.

And they are sometimes airborne ambulances, taking critically ill people safely to medical treatment.

Aircraft are both a mainstay and a lifeline in Antarctica, serving not only as transport, but also carrying almost everything needed to maintain human life in the world’s most unforgiving terrain. They “pay their way” in NSF’s Antarctic research program. And they have literally saved lives, removing patients from the icy grasp of what is frequently called the “Harsh Continent.”

Extreme Landing

photograph of passengers and cargo.
As an aircraft approaches the Pole, passengers crane to get a view out of the small portholes. Passengers share the noisy hold with cargo. Their “extreme cold weather gear” (parkas and orange bags) is pictured on the right.

Credit: Peter West, National Science Foundation

They also land on perhaps the most unusual airport on earth. Unlike almost any other airport, the South Pole is inaccessible year-round to anything but ski-equipped planes. Aircraft also must be capable of tolerating the extreme cold of the southernmost spot. In fact, it is so cold there that aircrews do not shut off the engines while on the ground.

Yet planes have been landing at the Pole for almost 50 years, ever since Navy Lt. Cdr. Gus Shinn became the first pilot to touch down there on October 31, 1956.

Shinn landed the ski-equipped R4D-5 (a Navy version of the venerable DC-3) named "Que Sera Sera” at the pole as temperatures hovered near minus 51 degrees Celsius (minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit). He kept the engines running while Navy Rear Adm. George Dufek stepped out of the plane to become the first person to stand at the Pole since Robert F. Scott's party of British explorers more than 40 years earlier.

Many Craft, Many Missions

photograph of Air Force C-130 cargo plane.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 cargo plane loads passengers in Christchurch for the flight to Antarctica.

Credit: Peter West, National Science Foundation

Each August, as spring arrives on the southernmost continent, the return of aircraft to the skies over Antarctica marks the beginning of the research season. During “Winfly,” U.S. Air Force transport planes, battling strong snowstorms and high winds, bring cargo and personnel to McMurdo Station. The Winfly planes are the first to land at McMurdo in six months. These annual missions bring scientists into McMurdo at the beginning of the austral spring to conduct time-sensitive research, such as monitoring ozone depletion.

Starting in October, U.S. planes, assisted by wheeled Royal New Zealand Air Force transports, tackle the logistics of bringing the scientific and support workforce, which numbers in the thousands, from New Zealand to operate the U.S. Antarctic Program for the austral summer.

As manager of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), NSF maintains the infrastructure, from building fuel tanks to grooming skyways, that supports this air fleet.

“Hercules” cargo planes are the workhorses of the USAP, transporting not only scientists, support personnel and equipment, but also everything needed to carry out one of the world’s most challenging feats of engineering; rebuilding NSF’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. For transportablility, nearly every component needed to build the station must be sized to fit within the confines of a Herc’s cargo bay.

The 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard flies NSF’s science-support missions, not only in Antarctica but also in Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic. The 109th is the only military unit in the world to fly the ski-equipped planes.

But Hercs have been a feature of the USAP since the 1960’s, when the airlift was managed by the U.S. Navy’s VX-6 Squadron. In 1993, the Navy announced its decision to withdraw, citing new global priorities related to the ending of the Cold War. That decision led to the changeover to aircraft flown by the Guard, which previously had supplied its "ski-birds" to support NSF science on the Greenland ice sheet.

The Hercs are only part of the air fleet required to run the world’s largest Antarctic research program. Over the years, the U.S. Air Force's 452nd Air Mobility Wing, based at March Air Force Base in California, has provided logistics support at the beginning and the end of the austral summer with C-141 jet cargo aircraft. The 62nd Airlift Wing from McChord Air Force Base in Washington state has provided C-17 Globemaster aircraft.

Smaller aircraft too, are vital to the science mission.

Since 1996, Petroleum Helicopters Inc. of LaFayette, Louisiana, has operated a fleet of four helicopters at McMurdo Station, NSF’s logistical hub in Antarctica, to support field research activities in the Ross Island region and elsewhere. For some remote field camps, NSF relies on DeHavilland DHC-6 "Twin Otter" aircraft flown by Kenn Borek Air Ltd of Calgary, Canada. Capable of landing at rough, unprepared locations, these aircraft also are used as airborne platforms for remote sensing and aero-geophysical surveys such as the mapping of Vostok, a subglacial lake deep in the Antarctic Interior.

The Hercs and the Twin Otters are the mainstay of scientific research carried out over much of the Antarctic continent, an area larger than the continental United States. But the aircraft also have served as literal lifelines for three critically ill members of the USAP.

In 1999, an Air National Guard Herc evacuated Dr. Jerri Nielsen, the South Pole physician, to New Zealand. Dr. Nielsen who was spending the winter at the station, was suffering from breast cancer. More recently, Twin Otters flew to the South Pole in historic evacuation flights. In 2001, South Pole physician Dr. Ronald Shemenski was evacuated in the gathering dark and falling temperatures of the austral spring. In 2003, another worker was flown out of the Pole earlier in the year than ever before.

Humanitarian missions aside, it is research that keeps these aircraft in Antarctica year after year.

By Peter West
Aviation Opens Antarctica A Special Report