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Travelling to the ends of the earth all in a day's work

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Rich Curry
  • 507th Air Refueling Wing
Flight Safety is serious business in the Air Force and for one Air Force Reserve organization it's so important, they're willing to go to the ends of the earth.

Or at least one of them...

Five members of the 507th Air Refueling Wing's 1st Aviation Standards Flight departed Oklahoma City this week enroute to Antarctica to conduct airfield inspections. The mission of the 1st Aviation Standards Flight is to perform flight inspections of navigational-aid radar and instrument procedures at military and civilian installations in the United States and overseas. Working in tandem with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the flight operates from the Will Rogers International World Airport in Oklahoma City.

This year employees from the FAA and 1st ASF are travelling to Antarctica to inspect the airfields located there, including the one at the pole, making sure they are safe for use by C-130s, C-17s and helicopters ferrying supplies and thousands of scientists with the National Science Foundation.

Three of the flight's reservists, MSgt. Kirk Babcock, MSgt Lori Pink and MSgt. Brad Elliot departed the states on October 12 crossing the dateline to arrive at Christchurch, New Zealand on October 14. There they received their cold weather gear. The group will then travel on via either C-17 or C-130 to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Reservists Lt. Col. William Geiser and Major Brett Vanmeter will fly a Federal Aviation Administration's Challenger 601 aircraft from Oklahoma City to McMurdo. The aircrew departed the area on October 10th and arrived in Christchurch on October 15. There the crew will conduct some routine flight inspection work. On October 20, the team will then fly the Challenger CL-601 to McMurdo.

McMurdo Station is Antarctica's largest community. It is built on the bare volcanic rock of Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island, the farthest south solid ground that is accessible by ship. Established in 1956, it has grown from an outpost of a few buildings to a complex logistics staging facility of more than 100 structures including a harbor, an outlying airport (Williams Field) with landing strips on sea ice and shelf ice, and a helicopter pad.

The station accommodates 1200 people in summer and 200 in winter. The station covers nearly 1.5 sq. mi. (4 between Hut Point and Observation Hill. There are aboveground water, sewer, telephone, and power lines linking buildings.

Sergeant Babcock is the team leader for the 15- member FAA team. While an Air Force Reserve non-commissioned officer, he is the FAA Antarctic Flight Inspection Program Manager, Aviation Systems Standards in civil service. "I am the lead for the Antarctic mission," he said. "It does get sort of confusing for people because I do go down to the ice under military orders but having the same job in the FAA (Flight Inspection
Program) as in the Air Force makes that possible. In my reserve life I am a Master Sergeant with the 1ASF. My job is a Mission Specialist."

Babcock said the main sponsor for this mission is the Federal Aviation Administration. "They are ultimately in charge of this mission by request from the National Science Foundation and Commander , Operation Deep Freeze (Air Force) ." The total crew of people this year is 15 and consists of six pilots, four mission specialists, three maintenance personnel, and two members in support roles.

This will also be the first year the team will use the Challenger aircraft operationally to conduct the inspections. "Last year we took a Challenger CL-604 down to McMurdo to do a feasibility test," Babcock said. "The test was successful so this year we are taking the Challenger
601 down to also do some tests but primarily to certify the navigation aids (navaids). The only place we can land the Challenger at is at Pegasus Airfield (15 to 20 miles from McMurdo). The other airfields are packed snow and can only be used by ski-equipped aircraft. Flying the Challenger will eliminate the need to use the ice-box. (a palletized calibration equipment compartment previously flown in C-130 aircraft to inspect navaids.) This year we have shipped the ice-box down there only as a backup."

Babcock said this season the team will inspect six major navaids and eight instrument procedures at three airfields. The airfields we will be inspecting this year are Pegasus Airfield and Williams Airfield at McMurdo as well as the South Pole Airfield at the South Pole. "The navaids are two Microwave Landing Systems (MLS), two TACANS, and three PAPI lights," Babcock said. "The NSF does not have any Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) in Antarctica. They use the MLS for the Air Force support aircraft. They do use Global Positioning Systems down there and it works really well. We will be inspecting GPS approaches at the South Pole and around McMurdo. At one time GPS wasn't very usable in Antarctica because of the lack of satellites but since they have added to the satellite constellation it is a very good form of navigation in Antarctica. It is used by ground vehicles and science monitoring equipment as well as aircraft."

Working in Antarctica presents several unique challenges. Average temperatures on Antarctica range from minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the interior during the winter to 36 degrees along the coast in the summer.
Winds can gust up to 200 miles per hour, carrying grit into unprotected areas. Because Antarctica has very dry air, large amounts of static electricity can be generated, particularly when the wind is strong.
Static electricity can instantly destroy unprotected electronic equipment.

"Static electricity is a huge problem down there. To say it is very dry is an understatement." Babcock said. "They crews take all the needed cautions involved with working with static but for the most part I think it is more of a problem with us individually because as we go around our lives down there we are constantly getting shocked from all the dryness and static."

This trip will be Babcock's seventh trip to Antarctica. "I think the thing that impresses me the most is the beauty and peacefulness of such a harsh environment," he said. "One day it can seem harmless and the next day it is complete white-out blizzard that without the proper protection you won't survive. My daily activity involves getting up, working out at the gym, eating, working, eating, working, eating, working, then sleep (for a few hours.) Repeat the next day. Since we are down there for such a short time (20 days) I spend a lot of time working to get the job done so we can get home to our families."