Guardsmen, ski-equipped planes begin annual migration to South Pole

A LC-130 Skibird with the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing, departs for McMurdo Station, Antarctica, from Stratton Air National Guard Base, Scotia, New York Oct. 18, 2016. This is the 29th season that the unit will participate in Operation Deep Freeze, the military component of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. William Gizara)

A LC-130 Skibird with the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing, departs for McMurdo Station, Antarctica, from Stratton Air National Guard Base, Scotia, New York Oct. 18, 2016. This is the 29th season that the unit will participate in Operation Deep Freeze, the military component of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. William Gizara)

STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Scotia, N.Y. -- Airmen and ski-equipped aircraft from the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing have started their annual journey to Antarctica.

Two ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft and 23 Airmen left Stratton Air National Guard Base on Tuesday, October 18 to participate in the wing’s 29th season supporting Operation Deep Freeze, the military component of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation.

The first LC-130 to leave Stratton departed Oct. 14 and is now in Christchurch, New Zealand – the last stop before Antarctica. Two more planes are scheduled to depart Stratton within the week.

Throughout the season, which runs through February, a total of six LC-130s and 500 are expected to deploy, with between 300 and 350 missions planned. About 120 Airmen will be deployed on the ice at any one time.

The unique capabilities of the ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft make it the only one of its kind in the U.S. military, able to land on snow and ice.

“Just the capability of landing heavy on the snow is a unique operational capability that only the United States has - that only we have at this unit,” said Col. Christian Sander, 109th Operations Group commander.

The primary mission of the 109th AW is to provide airlift within Antarctica, flying to various remote locations from McMurdo Station. Crews will transport scientists, support, fuel, supplies, medical supplies and more throughout the season.

Last season, the 109th AW supported Antarctic research efforts by flying an estimated 3,900 researchers and support staff plus about 4 million pounds of cargo and 1.2 million pounds of fuel to research stations across Antarctica.

Crews will also once again be flying missions in support of the Common Science Support Pod (CSSP) outfitted with IcePod science equipment. IcePod, an imaging system that can measure the depth of an ice sheet, was flown for the first time in Antarctica in the 2014-2015 season, and was deemed one of the biggest successes of that year.

The harsh Antarctic climate is probably the biggest challenge crews face each year, but constant training throughout the year enable these Airmen to overcome the demanding environment.

Just last month, an LC-130 crew with the 109th AW was awarded the Air Force Association’s Earl T. Ricks Award for outstanding airmanship in January 2015. According to the award citation, the crew successfully landed the aircraft in zero foot ceiling and zero miles visibility near Williams Field, Antarctica. The snow and the horizon were the same color, and there were no shadows causing the crew to be effectively blind looking outside the aircraft