Troops Carry Out ‘Cool' Mission in Antarctica
(February 16, 2010)
|WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2010 – While the U.S. East Coast feels
the closest it has come in many years to "extreme" weather,
some servicemembers are facing real cold as they support the
National Science Foundation's efforts in Antarctica. |
Air Force Col. Paul Sheppard, commander of the 13th Air
Expeditionary Group and deputy commander of Joint Task Force
Support Forces Antarctica, provided details of the mission
from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, on the Pentagon Channel
podcast, "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for
the Modern Military."
Sheppard discussed Operation Deep Freeze and the major
contributions by servicemembers in support of the National
Science Foundation, including coordinating strategic and
tactical airlift, sealift, emergency response and
"Operation Deep Freeze started with the Navy in the mid-'50s
and is a military-centric operation on the continent of
Antarctica," Sheppard said. "Then, under international
treaty, the world community started moving toward declaring
the Antarctic an open continent for science research only,
and no development. So ... science started to take the lead
for all U.S. interests in Antarctica."
The Defense Department provides logistics support,
especially heavy airlift and sea power, that can't be
contracted elsewhere, Sheppard explained. The military
component in Antarctica makes up only about 10 percent of
the manpower there, he said.
The extreme climate in Antarctica give Sheppard and his
troops some unique challenges.
"Almost everything we work with is a piece of metal
equipment. ... We have to worry about metal fatigue and
brittleness of metal -- we're talking about ships and
airplanes and all the support equipment that goes along with
that. And our big problem environmentally is temperature,"
He said the limited weather forecasting available on
Antarctica creates a problem or two, both in temperature
management and in planning and carrying out operations.
"That's what gives us our biggest problem operationally and
safety-wise -- not knowing for certain what the weather
trends are going to be over the course of the day or week,"
he said. "So blizzards -- we call them ‘Herbies' down here,
the massive blizzards that have hurricane-force winds --
those type of events create a danger for us, for aviation
and every aspect of life on the continent."
Newcomers to the camp, military and civilians, undergo a few
nights of on-site survival training, a course known at
McMurdo as "happy camper school." Program participants camp
in the snow, build snowcaves and learn how to protect
themselves from extreme conditions. The military crew also
goes through barren-land training in Greenland, learning to
survive in a number of simulated scenarios.
"If you're going into the field, you get training," Sheppard
said. "But if you're staying here in at McMurdo and you're
working within the infrastructure of this town, then you
don't need the extreme weather survival training."
Sheppard himself has had to use his survival training.
During one mission to place a fuel cache in an open-snow
area, an axle on his plane shattered.
"Cold weather makes metal brittle, and this axle had been
manufactured incorrectly, and it broke,” he said. “And the
nose wheels went up into the wheel well of the airplane, and
the plane fell down on top of the nose ski, luckily.
"I no longer had an airplane,” Sheppard said. “I just had a
huge snowmobile, and there was no place to go. So, we parked
the airplane next to the fuel drums and shut down.
"We set up our camp, not knowing how long we'd stay there,”
he continued. “And then we started to set up to stay for a
long time before someone could come and get us. It was dead
silence, and you realized you were someplace in the middle
of nowhere and [had] no idea how you were going to get out
of there or when you were going to get out of there."
Sheppard's story ends well. A rescue crew arrived 20 hours
later and brought everyone to McMurdo safe and sound.
Another danger in Antarctica is crevasses, deep niches in
the ice that can be fatal for a person on foot or a
ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft in take-off. But the Defense
Department and National Science Foundation have been working
together for the past eight years on a crevasse detection
They've also been developing equipment for their LC-130s
that will allow for easier snow take-offs. By adding
high-tech eight-bladed propellers with electronic propeller
controls, Sheppard said, they'll be able to actually create
some lift on the plane while it's stationary. This will
allow a heavily laden plane to take off on snow easier, as
the propellers are picking up some of the weight before
Advances like these not only help to move cargo and save
money on fuel, but also improve safety for the crews in
Antarctica, Sheppard said.
"People don't realize that the continent itself has a land
mass of the continental U.S., plus Mexico,” he said. “It's
mind-boggling how large it is.” In his survival story,
Sheppard recalled that he was relatively close to McMurdo,
about 400 miles into the barren snow fields. But without the
kinds of advances being made there, he said, "[everyone
there is] at the mercy of the continent."
Much of the mystery of Antarctica comes from a broad lack of
awareness, Sheppard said. For example, he said, most people
don't know that most of the continent is covered with an ice
cap that's up to two miles thick.
"The continent is at high altitudes, around 10,000 feet or
higher, and that it is the coldest, windiest, driest,
cleanest place on Earth,” Sheppard said. “And the geography
of the continent is truly spectacular, with the ice caps and
then the mountain ranges. And that's what the international
community wants to do, is keep it that way -- the cleanest
place -- and do science.
"And it has every natural resource that you can imagine down
here – but no one can have it," he added with a laugh.
By Ian Graham|
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
Special to American Forces Press Service
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