YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Snow and runways aren’t usually a good combination, but a melting flight line has kept the plows busy at the main U.S. base on Antarctica this year, according to a National Science Foundation representative.
Pegasus Field, used by U.S. Air Force LC-130 ski planes and wheeled C-17 Globemasters, is little more than a groomed and marked section of permanent ice shelf across the bay from McMurdo Station, the largest of three bases that the U.S. has built to facilitate scientific research.
Wind-blown dust that absorbed heat during the Antarctic summer’s 24-hour-a-day sunlight caused so much degradation that wheeled aircraft couldn’t land there for a month, said the NSF’s George Blaisdell, who is overseeing U.S. research on the frozen continent this season. But adding large amounts of snow, combined with cooling temperatures, has allowed the C-17s to resume work.
Alaska Air National Guardsman Master Sgt. Tyler Sutton, who spent a month maintaining cold weather survival gear for airmen in Antarctica this season, said melting ice made commuting from McMurdo to Pegasus a challenge.
“It would take a minimum of an hour and as long as three hours depending on the weather just to get to the flight line,” he told the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Arctic Warrior newspaper last week.
Despite the difficulties, six LC-130s from the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing and an Air Force C-17 out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., spent several months transporting more than 1,200 scientists and workers and millions of pounds of supplies to camps all over Antarctica.
One hundred twenty Guardsmen are flying the LC-130s to move personnel and supplies.
The LC-130s transported two disassembled helicopters from McMurdo to Pine Island Glacier, a research site 1,000 miles away — a treacherous trip for choppers over featureless terrain, Blaisdell said.
The LC-130s also transported autonomous underwater vehicles that scientists plan to use to explore some of more than 250 lakes discovered beneath Antarctic ice sheets.
On Jan. 28 U.S. scientists announced that they had penetrated Lake Whillans, a half-mile under the ice.
They think it may contain undiscovered life forms that have survived in one of the world’s most extreme environments.
With the perpetual darkness of the Antarctic winter drawing near, 80 sailors will man a floating ice pier at McMurdo to unload a cargo ship bringing supplies for next season, Blaisdell said.