After five months away, members of the Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing won’t be coming home this month as scheduled.
Their deployment has been extended a few more weeks so they can fly 1,100 U.S. researchers and support staff out of Antarctica as the southern hemisphere’s summer season comes to a close, the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia reported Friday.
Usually, the National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program uses C-17 Globemaster III jets from the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord Air Force Base in Washington state for the task. But the snow and ice runway in Christchurch, New Zealand, that the jets land on is too soft to support their weight this year.
That’s because mild January temperatures and strong winds have combined to form melt pools as deep as 2 feet in some areas of the runway. Winds blanketed the airfield and the area around it with volcanic dust and dirt, which caused the snow and ice to melt faster. Even though temperatures are cooling, the runway’s current condition won’t allow any wheeled aircraft, even the C-17, to land or take off.
The 109th Airlift Wing’s ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft are capable of such feats, though. But they can only fit a maximum of 35 to 40 people on an intercontinental flight, so it will take up to seven missions each day to redeploy research and support personnel to New Zealand. The flights will begin next week.
Forty-three tons of cargo will also be transported from McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center, to New Zealand.
“The unique capabilities of our aircraft have made it possible for scientists to do their work and get the most of the Antarctic summer research season,” said Wing Commander Col. Shawn Clouthier in a news release. “I am proud of our airmen that have deployed this season and the dedication and hard work they have and continue to put into this season.”
Normally, the men and women of the 109th return to Stratton Air Guard Base in Scotia right about now to begin preparing to fly science support missions to Greenland.
The extended deployment will cap an already busier-than-usual season for the wing, which has deployed 479 Air National Guard members to Antarctica since the season began in October, with about 150 on duty at any time.
The wing normally deploys six LC-130 aircraft and six crews to fly missions. This year, it deployed seven aircraft and additional crews and maintenance personnel to handle extra missions the C-17s have been unable to fly since November because of the melting runway.
The 109th has already completed 38 more missions than its usual 181 this season. It will complete 284 before it’s done, for a 57 percent increase in workload.
“Without the efforts of our air crews and ground crews, the 2013-2014 research season would not have been as successful,” said Clouthier.
The U.S. Antarctic Program almost deferred many of its research projects in and around McMurdo Station during the partial federal government shutdown in October 2013. That would have involved running three U.S. research stations in caretaker-only mode. But once budget problems were resolved, the program moved ahead with as much research as possible.