Delivering cargo to Antarctic stations is a tricky business with a high degree of logistics behind it. Most of the time, goods and parts are delivered by ship or by airplane during the Southern summer season. During the winter time, stations are usually on their own. The Australian Antarctic Division in cooperation with the Royal Australian Airforce had begun successfully to use C-17A cargo planes to deliver goods to the largest station Casey in East Antarctica. Now, they also successfully completed the first midwinter airdrop of material in Antarctica.

For the first time, delivery of goods, medical equipment and parts for a snow tractor at Australian Casey Station was conducted by airdrop using parachutes. The goods were then transported to the station with a functioning tractor. Picture: Katie Senekin, AAD
For the first time, delivery of goods, medical equipment and parts for a snow tractor at Australian Casey Station was conducted by airdrop using parachutes. The goods were then transported to the station with a functioning tractor. Picture: Katie Senekin, AAD

In complete darkness and with temperatures below minus 30 degrees, Australia has successfully undertaken its first midwinter airdrop to Casey research station in Antarctica. A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-17A Globemaster III dropped 1500 kilograms of cargo for the Australian Antarctic Division onto the Casey plateau on Saturday.

The sample cargo used consisted of 3 containers attached to a parachute system with opened automatically upon airdrop. The containers were strapped onto pallets to dampen the sudden impact upon landing. Picture: Chad Griffiths, RAAF
The sample cargo used consisted of 3 containers attached to a parachute system with opened automatically upon airdrop. The containers were strapped onto pallets to dampen the sudden impact upon landing. Picture: Chad Griffiths, RAAF

While the mission was designed as a capability test, it was able to deliver medical supplies, expeditioner mail and mechanical equipment to the wintering crew. The Division’s Future Concepts Manager, Matt Filipowski, said up until now access to Australia’s Antarctic stations has been limited to the summer months between October and March. “During winter Antarctica is cloaked in darkness and experiences extreme temperatures, which means we can’t reach our stations by sea or air,” Mr Filipowski said. “But with the new capabilities of the RAAF C-17A we can now drop essential supplies and equipment year round.”

The C-17A Globemaster III built by Boeing is an all-purpose transport plane and the RAAF holds eight of these. She has a maximum payload of 75 tons, a cruise altitude of 8’500 m and a cruise speed of 833 km/h. Picture: Jeff Gilbert, Wikipedia
The C-17A Globemaster III built by Boeing is an all-purpose transport plane and the RAAF holds eight of these. She has a maximum payload of 75 tons, a cruise altitude of 8’500 m and a cruise speed of 833 km/h. Picture: Jeff Gilbert, Wikipedia

Prior to the plane arriving, a team of Casey station expeditioners identified an area of the plateau for the airdrop. Three padded containers were deployed from the back of the plane using a parachute system and the goods were then transported back to station. “We were able to airdrop parts for a snow tractor which normally would not have been delivered until the ship or plane arrived in another six months. This is a really significant development, improving the logistical support we can provide to all our stations, Casey, Mawson and Davis, over the long winter period,” Mr Filipowski said.

The goods cannot be just lifted by the personnel but needs special handling as the weight can range from a few ten kilos to several hundred kilos or even a ton. Picture: Katie Senekin
The goods cannot be just lifted by the personnel but needs special handling as the weight can range from a few ten kilos to several hundred kilos or even a ton. Picture: Katie Senekin

Flight Lieutenant Doug Susans, a C-17A Pilot said the aircraft routinely undertake airdrops across the globe but this is the first time in winter in a polar region. “There were a number of challenging environmental conditions including freezing temperatures, darkness and a featureless environment,” Flight Lieutenant Susans said. “We undertook training in the simulators before mission to make sure we were familiar with the locations, timings and observations.”

The airdrop is a high precision operation and can only be accomplished by trained personnel and specific parachute system withstanding harsh Antarctic conditions. Picture: Michael Brill
The airdrop is a high precision operation and can only be accomplished by trained personnel and specific parachute system withstanding harsh Antarctic conditions. Picture: Michael Brill

The Globemaster took off from Australia early Saturday morning for the 10 hour, nearly 8000 kilometer round trip to Antarctica. This is phase two of a trial using the RAAF planes in Antarctica. Last season the C-17A made six successful trips to Australia’s Wilkins Aerodrome to provide heavy-lift cargo for the Australian Antarctic program.

Source: Australian Antarctic Division