Several Capital Region aircrew members of the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing returned to Schenectady County Airport Thursday night after a long trip back from Antarctica.
The unit's redeployment marks the 25th anniversary of Antarctic operations for the 109th Airlift Wing.
The return of the final "skibird" also marks the official end of the unit's support to Operation Deep Freeze for this year and a milestone for the wing. Other planes and crews arrived back in Glenville over the past few weeks.
The 109th Airlift Wing made its first trip to Antarctica in January 1988, supporting the Navy mission at the time. The wing made its first full year of Antarctic operations in 1989. Since then, the 109th completed 25 seasons of flying in one of the harshest environments in the world.
Antarctic operations for the 109th have evolved over the years. In 1988 the unit deployed two aircraft, assisting the Navy who had supported the South Pole mission since 1969. The Navy transferred that mission to the Air Force in 1989 and since that time the 109th Airlift Wing has been responsible for all the heavy airlift on the continent.
"We started out doing just pole missions with the Navy handling the camp lifts," said Senior Master Sgt. Mike Messineo, a flight engineer who served on the first mission in 1988. "All the crew used to be together in one room in bunk beds. We called it the ant farm."
Flying operations in Antarctica support the National Science Foundation research effort, including resupply and personnel movements. Each year, the NSF and its researchers look for undiscovered territory, and after evaluation and input from 109th operators, new locations are chosen for landing sites.
"When we go out to the deep field there are always challenges," said Maj. Joseph J. DeConno, an LC-130 navigator and chief of current operations. "A great deal of hard work goes into planning and executing every deep field mission but it pays off knowing we are supporting the NSF with new discoveries all over the continent. It's some of the most challenging flying I've ever experienced and every flight is unique," he said.
This year's 2012-13 season the 109th Airlift Wing completed 310 total missions, flying 2,219 hours and transporting 6.4 million pounds of cargo and fuel, the equivalent weight of 428 adult male African elephants. The wing also airlifted 3,602 passengers to and around the frozen continent.
A wind storm buried the primary landing field near McMurdo Station on Dec. 7, 2012 and a dark layer of mineral dust caused roads and the airfield to deteriorate. Conditions became unstable for the wheeled aircraft that normally support the station, such as the U.S. Air Force C-17 or the Australian Antarctic Program's Airbus A-319. All transportation to and from the continent was left in the hands of the 109th Airlift Wing for the next seven weeks.
The 109th Airlift Wing deployed six ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft to Antarctica in late October 2012, the start of the summer season at the South Pole and based at the McMurdo Station.