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Delivering major capability in the Antarctic

The hum of engines and the sight of a distant airplane piercing the swirling snow had never been more warmly greeted by staff of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) than when they were at the peak of the long dark winter in June 2016.

Creating history by performing an airdrop of vital supplies to the AAD in mid-winter was the Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft from No. 36 Squadron.

The aircraft was forward-based out of Avalon Airport while awaiting suitable weather over the Casey drop zone, approximately 70 kilometres from Wilkins Aerodrome. The load was delivered using the A-22 High-Velocity Container Delivery System.

The successful operation built upon Defence’s summer airdrop of February 2016, and establishes the ability to provide all-season support to expeditions on the world’s most desolate continent.

Officer Commanding No. 86 Wing, Group Captain Adam Williams, said the resupply capability was a big step forward in performance and confidence for both organisations.

‘The airdrop delivered vehicles and plant equipment, medical supplies and—perhaps most desperately sought—personal mail from home,’ Group Captain Williams said.

‘We previously made an airdrop via a helibox in February 2016. Using a different airdrop method, such as the high-velocity drop, we can increase the loads and perform the airdrop with a higher tolerance for inclement weather.

This delivery system allows the loads to fall at a higher speed, reducing the time spent in the air and limiting the effect of the wind during the descent.’

To prepare for the operation, the Globemaster aircraft from No. 36 Squadron completed five trial flights to Antarctica between November 2015 and February 2016. Based out of Hobart Airport, the crews travelled a return journey of nearly 3,500 kilometres to Wilkins Aerodrome. They moved 109 tonnes of cargo to Antarctica through the five flights, including a 23-tonne tractor.

Group Captain Williams said another benefit of the expanded capability was the increased confidence for the AAD staff and their families in management of crises, especially for medical circumstances.

‘Simulated aeromedical evacuations were conducted by staff from No. 3 Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron during the mission,’ Group Captain Williams explained.

‘In addition, a sixth sortie was conducted to recover three Squirrel helicopters and 28 expeditioners after a blizzard damaged the supply ship Aurora Australis.’

Defence’s achievements in expanding to mid-winter operations also support other major national and Government priorities. The supply of fuel, equipment and rations, in particular, delivers major capability for vital scientific research.

‘The AAD assists with deep field science projects, and the fuel we delivered was used to support a key science project that investigated the contribution of the east Antarctic ice sheet to sea level rise,’ Group Captain Williams said.