SWANTON, Ohio – In 1914, when the unfortunate crew of the ship Endurance attempted the first land crossing of Antarctica, Sir Ernest Shackleton wrote, “We were helpless intruders in a strange world, our lives dependent upon the play of grim elementary forces that made a mock of our puny efforts.”
More than 100 years later, Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Carter echoed Shackleton’s words, describing a barren landscape devoid of color, just snow, ice and volcanic rock; a foreign world, where the sun never rises or sets, but instead, circles the sky overhead.
“It’s a harsh environment,” Carter said. “The continent itself is always actively trying to kill you.”
Carter, an occupational safety and health manager assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, spent two months in Antarctica on a mission to improve safety procedures for the Airmen of the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, giving them a better chance to survive and operate in the most inhospitable place on Earth.
The Airmen in Antarctica support Operation Deep Freeze, the military component of the U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation.
His journey began in Detroit. From there, he flew to San Francisco, California to Auckland, New Zealand, and on to the International Antarctic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand, before heading to his final destination, McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
The entire journey of more than 9,000 miles took only 30 hours to complete, a speed Shackleton and his crew would surely have found astounding.
“When you get off that plane and you first step on the continent, it feels like you’re on a different planet,” Carter said. “You’ll go from hundreds of miles of flat snow to jagged mountains and 400-foot snowbanks. It doesn’t look like anything else you’ll ever see.”
During his time in Antarctica, Carter reviewed operations and made recommendations to enhance the risk management program. He conducted facility inspections, assessed cargo and fuel operations on flying missions to the South Pole, and built safety training programs for station personnel.
He helped establish a new quarterly exercise for emergency responders at McMurdo Station, allowing them to get hands-on practice responding to various aircraft incidents they might encounter during operations in an unforgiving environment, such as aircrew rescue and responding to aircraft fires. He worked with the station fire department to develop new procedures for logistics and cargo, specifically when handling hazardous materials. He also worked to improve safety conditions with the mission to the South Pole.
“It’s so cold there that they can’t shut down the engines on the aircraft or they risk not being able to restart them,” Carter said. “So, the engines are still running, they’re unloading cargo, fuel, personnel, and when they’re doing that, the crew that is outside the aircraft have to unplug their headsets, because they are hardwired into the aircraft. So, anytime you cut off audio or visual communication with people around a running aircraft, you increase the risks and hazards.”
Carter ran a thorough hazard analysis on the South Pole mission and recommended corrective actions up through U.S. Pacific Air Forces, the command responsible for the Antarctica mission, stressing the need for wireless communication systems for the aircrew.
Located in the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctica was in the middle of its summer season while Carter was there. Most of the temperatures were in the 30s at McMurdo Station. But the temperatures at the South Pole, which is located approximately 800 miles South of McMurdo Station, frequently dropped as low as 15 below zero before wind chill. With wind chill, the temperature often dropped as low as 45 below zero, similar to the temperatures felt across the U.S. during a recent polar vortex.
“When it’s that cold, it makes a lot of the operations really difficult,” Carter said. “You can’t have any of your skin exposed, or else you risk frostbite within five to 10 minutes. It adds a degree of difficulty that the 109th has adapted to very well.”
Carter was impressed by the maintenance crews he observed during his time in Antarctica. Not only had they adapted to extreme weather conditions, but their teamwork and communication skills were exceptional.
“They’ve got a lot of visual communication, cues and commands they give each other. They’ve worked so well and so long together that they almost know what the other person is going to do without having to worry about it. They are very, very good at their job.”
Antarctica presents a difficult challenge for the men and women of the airlift wing who operate in an environment as unforgiving today as it was in 1914, and the hazards are just as dangerous.
“Any misstep down there could cause some real serious problems,” Carter said. “You are pretty much cut off from the rest of the world, because of the limited communication, how difficult of a location it is to get to, and depending on the weather, you might not even be able to get off the continent, even if there’s a medical emergency. If we had to medevac somebody out and the weather wouldn’t allow an aircraft to take off, you’re stuck there. The interdependence is really key, and it helps everybody carry on to get the mission done.”
Cargo aircraft are essential to keep McMurdo Station and its personnel operating, and the runway for those aircraft presented a unique challenge. While airports across the world have asphalt runways, the airfield at McMurdo Station is made of compacted snow on top of sea ice.
“The airfield is on the ice, and the ice is constantly moving,” Carter said. “The runway had moved five feet in a month-and-a-half, because of the ice shifting.”
They removed the old runway markers and used GPS to determine where the runway should be, re-groomed the snow with specialized machines and replaced the runway markers at the correct location. When visibility is high, the runway markers can guide a pilot onto the runway without a problem. However, when visibility is low, the pilots often can’t see those markers and rely solely on their GPS navigation instruments to land the aircraft safely. An aircraft missing the runway in Antarctica by five feet could result in a catastrophic mishap.
Carter’s experience in Antarctica left a lasting impression on him.
“If we can do some of the maintenance and fly some of the missions we did in Antarctica, the most inhospitable place on the planet, we can definitely do it anywhere,” Carter said.
“It’s a once in a lifetime experience that helped broadened his horizons,” said Lt. Col. Scott Schaupeter, chief of safety at the 180FW. “He brings those lessons back here, and it enhances our own mission.”
“It’s always great to see when an Airman has the chance to execute a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said 180FW Commander Col. Kevin Doyle. “Not only did it help out Operation Deep Freeze by increasing operational risk management processes and procedures, but the experience he brings back can only help the 180th Fighter Wing and our safety program.”