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Operation Deep Freeze: Airmen deliver life-sustaining supplies to Antarctica while keeping it COVID-free

A C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., prepares to land at Phoenix Airfield, Antarctica, in this February 2019 file photo. Operation Deep Freeze (ODF) is the only military operation conducted in Antarctica and is carried out in part by Airmen from the 62nd Airlift Wing. (Courtesy photo by Art Gordon)

A C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, prepares to land at Phoenix Airfield, Antarctica, in this February 2019 file photo. Operation Deep Freeze, the only military operation conducted in Antarctica, is carried out by Airmen from the active-duty 62nd Airlift Wing and the Reserve 446th Airlift Wing. (Art Gordon)

A C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, lands at the Christchurch Airport in Christchurch, New Zealand, Aug. 7. Before conducting the Operation Deep Freeze mission, air crew and personnel went through a 14-day quarantine to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and maintain Antarctica as the only continent that hasn’t had a case of the virus. (Ron Rogers)

A C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, lands at the Christchurch Airport in Christchurch, New Zealand, Aug. 7. Before conducting the Operation Deep Freeze mission, air crew and personnel went through a 14-day quarantine to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and maintain Antarctica as the only continent that hasn’t had a case of the virus. (Ron Rogers)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --

A Total Force team of 30 Airmen departed Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to start a two-week quarantine period in Christchurch, New Zealand, Aug. 5, before conducting missions delivering supplies to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. 

The 304th Expeditionary Air Squadron is a deployed unit made up of Airmen from the active-duty 62nd Airlift Wing, the Reserve 446th Airlift Wing and one supply troop from the 627th Air Base Group. Their mission is Operation Deep Freeze, which annually delivers and retrieves scientists and their supplies to and from Antarctica. 

The 304th EAS worked with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the Christchurch Airport and the National Science Foundation to coordinate its arrival and subsequent quarantine before being able to carry out their mission.

“Antarctica is the last place on Earth that has been, and continues to be, COVID-free,” said Lt. Col. Brandon Tellez, 304th EAS commander. “The NSF teamed up with my unit and we came up with a plan to mitigate any potential transfer of the virus to any of the people we’re taking down there.”

They minimized as much as possible any interaction with the aircrews and passengers, and both parties wore masks. Additionally, they took an air transportable galley and lavatory that is essentially a bathroom and kitchen on a pallet that can be used by passengers, while the aircrew used the bathroom already on the aircraft.

The NSF has gone into a sustainment mode because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They are keeping the bare minimum number of people down there just to maintain the buildings and runway and conduct the science required to be done year-round,” Tellez said. “Our main goal this year is to successfully deliver the life-sustaining cargo for food, health and welfare reasons for the people who are staying down at McMurdo this year.” 

The 304th EAS conducts ODF missions throughout the year. The main season is typically September to November when they are taking people to Antarctica. They come back in February to retrieve most, but not all, the scientists and supplies. Then during June, July and August, the winter flying missions deliver life-giving supplies to those living on the continent for the full year. 

“Flying down in the winter presents a whole slew of different challenges for our team because of the volatile weather and low visibility with 24 hours of darkness,” Tellez said. “My crews are trained to fly into the Phoenix Airfield at McMurdo under night-vision goggles, where there’s special lighting that is specific to that runway. There’s no other C-17 or Air Force crews that are trained on this particular lighting set up they have down here.” 

The ODF air and maintenance crews are made up of Airmen from active-duty as well as Reserve units at JBLM. 

Typically, the only maintenance personnel who would fly down during the winter flying missions would be flying crew chiefs, but the 30-person team that flew down includes a full main-season maintenance package. 

If the team were to have any maintenance issues with the aircraft, it would cause significant delays due to a maintenance recovery team having to quarantine before they could conduct repairs. 

“So, what we did for this mission, which was a little non-standard, is we brought down our normal main season maintenance package with about one person from every specialty in maintenance down here with us,” Tellez said. “That way if anything goes wrong with the jet, we’re able to fix it without having to wait for a specialist to come out.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it poses, the ODF mission is still being supported safely by the McChord Airmen of the 304th EAS.

In September, the main-season team was scheduled to arrive from JBLM to quarantine in Christchurch and then begin the main-season deployment during Antarctica’s spring in early October. #ReserveReady

(Heineck is assigned to the 62nd Airlift Wing public affairs office.)  ■