McChord Airmen recognized for historic Antarctic mission

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
The C-17 Globemaster III aircrew members of "Ice 68" from the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings here were recognized by Gen. Raymond E. Johns Jr., the commander of Air Mobility Command, July 29 for their part in evacuating an ailing government contractor from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, June 28-30.

General Johns presented the Air Medal to Lt. Col. Robert Wellington, Maj. Dan Tarleton, Maj. Mike Parker and Chief Master Sgt. Harold Simpson, who are all from the 62nd Airlift Wing, and Lt. Col. Monty McDaniel, Chief Master Sgt. Jim Masura and Master Sgt. Scott Dellinger, who are all from the 446th AW.

"During this period, this crew's outstanding professional skill, knowledge and airmanship contributed immeasurably to the overall effectiveness and operational success of a historical Operation Deep Freeze mission," according to the award citation.

The aircrew began the planning for the emergency McMurdo mission at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on a short notice tasking. Sixteen hours after first receiving the tasking, they were off and flying in a C-17.

"This was a scenario we've worked on for many years," said Masura, a loadmaster who has flown on more than 80 Operation Deep Freeze missions.

"This was a pretty big deal," Masura said. "We don't normally fly there in June, but we were always prepared if we got the call. This time we did get the call and got the mission done."

The crew made their way to Christchurch, New Zealand. On the way, they loaded aeromedical evacuation and critical care air transport teams at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, before staging in Christchurch. Once at Christchurch, the crews received their required crew rest and soon after were off to Antarctica.

To land the C-17 on the glacier near McMurdo Station, the mission required the use of night vision goggles.

"Over the last four years, we have perfected the capability to use NVGs and reflective markers to outline the glacial runway at McMurdo Station," said Wellington, a C-17 pilot and mission commander. "This is a capability that no one else possesses."

McDaniel was the pilot who touched the C-17 down on the Antarctic ice. He said it was done just like they practiced it.

"We've trained and practiced enough with this that I knew there was no doubt in any of us that we'd get it done," McDaniel said.

The crew faced extreme challenges in the Antarctic environment, including temperatures of 42 degrees below zero. Also, the runway lights and markers hadn't been used since the normal flying season for Operation Deep Freeze missions ended in March. Thankfully, said Tarleton, a pilot on the mission, everything on the runway was operational when the aircrew arrived because of the efforts of the ground crews with Raytheon Polar Services.

Overcoming those obstacles, the aircrew successfully landed their aircraft on Pegasus Ice Runway using night vision equipment, marking the first time such a capability had been used outside of normal flying season as part of a C-17A mid-winter emergency evacuation in Antarctica, according to the award citation.

After arriving, the aircrew was only on the ground for 42 minutes while their critical-care patient was being prepared to fly back to New Zealand. The aircrew "quickly airlifted her to life-saving medical care less than 48 hours after departing their aerial port of embarkation nearly 10,000 miles away," the citation states.

"For me, it's an honor to be able to do a mission like this," said Dellinger, who was a loadmaster on this mission. "As aircrew members, we always practice, practice, practice for something like this mission."

While the aircrew did save the life of the contractor, the impact of their success went far beyond the original goal.

"As a result of these efforts, the Ice 68 aircrew simultaneously demonstrated a global reach capability never before displayed as part of Operation Deep Freeze," according to the award citation. "By exhibiting the competencies required to transit McMurdo Station in the heart of the Antarctic winter, the United States Air Force presents the National Science Foundation a mechanism to potentially expand its science and research support efforts with fewer seasonal constraints."

"The price of inaction in this situation may have had dire consequences," Wellington said. "Thanks to a great Total Force team effort, we were successful."

The Air Medal was established by Executive Order 8158, May 11, 1942. It is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the U.S. armed forces, distinguishes him or herself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.