New York Air National Guard crews return from South Pole Season

109th Airlift Wing completes 25 years of service on Antarctica

STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, SCOTIA, N.Y. (03/22/2013)(readMedia)-- Several Capital Region aircrew members of the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing returned to Schenectady County Airport here Thursday night after a long trip back from Antarctica. The unit's redeployment marks the 25th anniversary of Antarctic operations for the 109th Airlift Wing.

The return of the final "skibird" marks the official end of the unit's support to Operation Deep Freeze for this year and a milestone for the wing.

The 109th Airlift Wing made its first trip to Antarctica in January 1988, supporting the Navy mission at the time. The wing made its first full year of Antarctic operations in 1989. Since then, the 109th completed 25 seasons of flying in one of the harshest environments in the world with an accomplished safety record, resulting in no fatalities or excessive aircraft damage. While operating in this hazardous region, the wing completed a ten-year average of more than 3,000 flying hours each Antarctic season, more than most Air Force units complete in an entire year of operations.

Antarctic operations for the 109th have evolved over the years. In 1988 the unit deployed two aircraft, assisting the Navy who had supported the South Pole mission since 1969. The Navy transferred that mission to the Air Force in 1989 and since that time the 109th Airlift Wing has been responsible for all the heavy airlift on the continent.

"We started out doing just pole missions with the Navy handling the camp lifts," said Senior Master Sgt. Mike Messineo, a flight engineer who served on the first mission in 1988. "All the crew used to be together in one room in bunk beds. We called it the ant farm."

Flight operations in Antarctica are conducted in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Through the Division of Polar Programs in its Geoscience division, NSF coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent and aboard vessels in the Southern Ocean. The agency is also responsible for providing all of the logistical support required to carry out that research.

"When we go out to the deep field there are always challenges," said Maj. Joseph J. DeConno, an LC-130 navigator and chief of current operations. "A great deal of hard work goes into planning and executing every deep field mission but it pays off knowing we are supporting the NSF with new discoveries all over the continent! It's some of the most challenging flying I've ever experienced and every flight is unique," he said.

The 109th has played an integral part establishing the remote camps, often the first aircraft and personnel to ever arrive in that part of the continent. Over the past 25 years, the 109th Airlift Wing helped establish more than 100 remote sites for exploration and research. This year, 14 sites were active, including South Pole Station. Sustainment of these remote locations requires the capability of the heavy airlift aircraft to provide enough fuel, equipment and supplies to keep researchers safe and able to conduct their work. All of the field camps and the South Pole Station require ski take-offs and landings and many have ungroomed surfaces, supportable only by the skibirds of the 109th Airlift Wing.

An example of the capability of the LC-130 skirbird is the South Pole Station. Completed in 2008, nearly all of the construction material needed to build the station was carried in by the 109th. To complete the station, the wing flew more than 925 flights transporting more than 24 million pounds of cargo.

This year's 2012-13 season the 109th Airlift Wing completed 310 total missions, flying 2,219 hours and transporting 6.4 million pounds of cargo and fuel, the equivelant weight of 428 adult male African elephants. The wing also airlifted 3,602 passengers to and around the frozen continent.

An unprecedented wind storm buried the primary landing field near McMurdo Station on December 7, 2012 and a dark layer of mineral dust caused roads and the airfield to deteriorate. Conditions became unstable for the wheeled aircraft that normally support the station, such as the U.S. Air Force C-17 or the Australian Antarctic Program's Airbus A-319. All transportation to and from the continent was left in the hands of the 109th Airlift Wing for the next seven weeks.

"We always encounter obstacles during the challenging Deep Freeze season, but this year's were significant because of the unusual natural event that cut off the continent from normal support," said Pacific Air Force Maj. Gen. Russell J. Hardy, Director of Operations, Plans, Requirement and Programs. "The LC-130s stepped up, proving that military support to the U.S. Antarctic program is vital."

The 109th Airlift Wing deployed six ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft to Antarctica in late October 2012, the start of the summer season at the South Pole and based at the McMurdo Station. Crews fly from the Sea Ice Runway or Pegasus Field airstrips.

"I am continually impressed with teh professionalism and performance of the members of the 109th," said Maj. Blair Herdick, LC-130 navigator and chief of Antarctic operations at the wing. "This year was a particularly challenging year for us due to the number of deep field open snow camps, weather, supporting an increased number of flights between Christchurch and McMurdo and the detiorated conditions of Pegasus Field. We overcame all of these challenges and had another successful year. I am more proud than ever to be a member of the 109th."

NOTE TO EDITORS: Photo imagery of the unit support to the Operation Deep Freeze mission is available for download on the unit website,