Airmen In Deep Freeze
by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Dominic Tyler
In 1955, the United States began a series
of continuous operations in support of the National Science
Foundation mission in Antarctica.
Operation Deep Freeze, an
inter-continental mission located in one of the coldest and most
austere environments on the Earth, has been in place since the
1950’s. Year after year, people travel to Antarctica in the name of
science, exploration, and for a historically unique human
U.S. Air Force Maj. Matthew Wimmer, 56th
Operations Group flight surgeon, was selected for a temporary duty
assignment in support of ODF.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Matthew Wimmer, 56th Operations Group flight surgeon, in front of an LC-130 aircraft on the flightline of Amundson-Scott South Pole station, Antarctica, in 2021. The LC-130 is equipped with retractable skis that allow the aircraft to land on snow and ice as well as on conventional runways. The U.S. Air Force has provided intercontinental airlift support to the National Science Foundation research stations in Antarctica since the 1950’s. (U.S. Air Force photo)
“The medical personnel selected
to deploy for ODF are the best of the best,” said Maj. Andrew
Fisher, Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica chief of medical
services. “Maj. Wimmer’s extensive operational experience in
providing care in austere environments was a big contributor to his
Wimmer aided in six emergency medical
evacuations and provided medical assistance on the ground at two
primary Antarctic research hubs ... McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott
South Pole Station.
“Something you learn being out there on
the ice for any amount of time, is that things can go very wrong,
very quickly,” said Wimmer. “It’s an eight hour flight to the
closest medevac station, so all the steps have to be thought out
well in advance before we decide on the best course of medical
In the Austral Summer, from November to February, when
the temperatures often drop into the teens at McMurdo, the Air Force
provides intercontinental airlift with the LC-130 cargo planes.
These aircraft are equipped with retractable skis and JATO rockets
that allow the aircraft to take off and land on snow and ice, as
well as on conventional runways.
“Working in that
environment, [during Operation Deep Freeze] was a unique experience
to say the least,” said Wimmer. “As a physician, I learned a lot
about medical evacuations in unregulated areas. The weather is
always a factor when determining the course of action we take. Due
to the remoteness of the deployment, it’s all on our team including;
our AE nurse and technician to stabilize the patient, decide on
medical procedures and validate them for transfer.”
to the United States Antarctic Program, Antarctica in the winter can
be one of the windiest, coldest, driest, and most remote places on
the planet, making it difficult for anyone to travel to and from the
continent. Additionally, at an elevation of 9,300 feet, the South
Pole Station has an average monthly temperature in the austral
summer of -18°F and -76°F in the austral winter.
the weather conditions, Wimmer noted the remoteness of the continent
being extensively noticeable, which limited his ability to
communicate with the rest of the world.
The McMurdo Station in Antarctica, in 2021. The research station is the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program, established by the National Science Foundation in December 1955. The U.S. Air Force has provided intercontinental airlift support to the National Science Foundation research stations in Antarctica since the 1950’s. (U.S. Air Force photo)
“Social media and
most civilian forms of email weren’t accessible because all internet
bandwidth, limited to less than that of a single cell phone
stateside for the entire station is used to send essential research
data from the continent,” said Wimmer. “In the military, we’re used
to working with what we’ve got, but the isolation there was still
unlike anything I’ve experienced.”
Though the conditions
could seem uninhabitable to some, Wimmer spoke on many remarkable
experiences to be had on the continent.
“One of the most
exciting things for me was supporting world class research,” said
Wimmer. “My team and I learned about various topics including
microbiology, marine biology, astronomy, astrophysics, geology,
volcanology and more during the National Science Foundation
presentations given by the researchers.”
To add to his
newfound knowledge of Antarctica, Wimmer also found the area offers
amazing wildlife, great hiking, beautiful scenery, and a supportive
community unlike any other.
“The community at these research
bases have an exclusive perception of the planet,” said Wimmer.
“Those that live there have built an incredible community over the
years that the majority of humanity have yet to lay eyes on.”
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