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Airmen reflect on Deep Freeze mission

Record-setting performance

Aircrews from the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings of McChord Field offload cargo from a C-17 Globemaster III at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in March 2012. /Courtesy photo

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(62nd AW PA) - Airmen from the 62nd Airlift Wing, in conjunction with Reserve partners from the 446th AW, recently completed a record-setting Operation Deep Freeze season.

The ODF season began Aug. 20, 2011, with late winter flights known as WINFLY, and consisted of a 35-person team delivering supplies to the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Consistent C-17 Globemaster III airlift support began Sept. 28 and ended March 4.

As the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, Team McChord conducted a record-breaking 74 missions in support of ODF, six more than any previous season. The crews also broke the record for amount of cargo delivered by transporting 6.33 million pounds, 1.37 million pounds more than any previous season.

"I personally think it's impressive that a squadron with only one airplane moved more than six million pounds of cargo in such a short amount of time to one of the most remote, inhospitable environments on Earth," said Lt. Col. Bret Keenan, ODF commander from October 2011 to February 2012.

Team McChord also conducted the first-ever C-17 operational South Pole airdrop and a mid-winter medical evacuation out of McMurdo using night-vision goggles.

In addition to breaking records and conducting first-time missions, the 304th EAS logged 877 flight hours, conducted 158 sorties and transported 5,155 passengers.

While transporting more than five thousand people, Keenan noted a few significant passengers including the King of Malaysia, the Air Mobility Command commander and a group of ten penguins.

After hours of coordination between Team McChord leadership and the National Science Foundation, the decision was made to transport ten juvenile Emperor penguins on Dec. 5, 2011, from a remote location in Antarctica to Seaworld in San Diego, Calif.

During the five-hour flight from McMurdo to Christchurch, New Zealand, the cargo compartment was kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit for the penguins' comfort.

"The penguin movement was definitely one of the most unique missions we've ever flown," said Keenan. "Doctors and attendants were tending to them throughout trip and I'm glad to say they all arrived safely."

Aside from the rare penguin movement, day-to-day Antarctic operations present an array of challenges. This season included particular unexpected obstacles.

"General challenges that we expect for this mission include weather, fuel planning and the scheduling," said Keenan. "During the last three weeks of the season, we added four missions to carry an extra one million pounds of cargo that was supposed to be delivered via ship. In addition to that extra challenge, we were also running against the clock and flying more frequently because the season ends at a certain point."

Along with unpredictable variables like weather, the team must also operate with a constantly rotating crew.

"We operate at the minimal manning level while still providing safe and continuous support," said Keenan. "The average is about 35 deployed at one time, including staff, crew, maintenance and life support."

Consisting of both 62nd and 446th AW personnel, a total of 239 members of Team McChord deployed during the main ODF season, swapping out seven times in three to four week increments.

"The Reservists are the continuity within this mission," said Keenan. "The active duty component is constantly moving around and working on different missions. With the Reservists, some of their members have been doing Operation Deep Freeze for years. It's invaluable to have that experience when we're down there. To do it as safely as we do, this mission would be impossible to conduct without them."

An array of experience levels are combined to execute the ODF mission, from veterans to first-timers. Master Sgt. Norman Hurley, ODF loadmaster, experienced his first ODF trip this past season.

"I felt very well prepared prior to going down there," said Hurley. "As always, safety is our biggest priority and we practice the two-person concept at all times. The system is set up so you know what to expect, and the sequence of events is spelled out very clearly. It was a very rewarding experience."

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