Australian Antarctic Division Operations Manager, Robb Clifton, in Antarctica.
Australian Antarctic Division Operations Manager, Robb Clifton, manages a team that plans and delivers the Australian Antarctic Program’s operations. (Photo: AAD)
Robb standing on the sea ice next to the ship Aurora Australis, with a trailer full of expedition kit.The Aurora Australis grounded at Mawson station in 2016.Robb addresses the media.The Airbus and a Basler aircraft at Wilkins Aerodrome, AntarcticaL'Astrolabe moored off Macquarie Island with king penguins in the foreground.

With the 2016–17 Antarctic summer season in full swing, Australian Antarctic Division Operations Manager, Robb Clifton, convenes the weekly Season Operation Coordination Group meeting. In the room are the Division’s experts on shipping, aviation, station and field operations, science planning, engineering and polar medicine. On the phone are the station leaders from Australia’s three Antarctic stations and Macquarie Island, and representatives from the Bureau of Meteorology and Department of Defence.

The meeting is short, sharp and to the point, as participants summarise the key activities of the past week, what’s coming up, and any potential issues with delivering the season’s operational and scientific priorities.

It’s just one of many meetings Robb facilitates each week, with a calm competence and friendly manner that belies a heavy responsibility – keeping up to 60 science and infrastructure projects, multiple aircraft, four stations, field camps, and one or two ships, operating as planned.

But the former Australian Army Special Forces Officer, mountaineer, and Antarctic station, field and voyage leader, has plenty of experience and training to draw on.

“Applying a rigid military model to this role may not work so well, but there are useful skills that translate very well, including leading by example, being flexible, dealing with change and understanding people,” he says.

“The challenge for us at Head Office is to maintain a connection with the on-ground field operations and not forget what it’s like at the other end.”

As Operations Manager, Robb leads and works with an operations team of up to 20 people in Hobart, and coordinates and collaborates with many more in Hobart, Antarctica and around the world. The team is responsible for planning and delivering the Australian Antarctic Program’s operations in the Antarctic, sub-Antarctic and Southern Ocean.

 “We spend a lot of time in discussion with groups of people, to establish a broad season plan and detailed concept of operations for individual projects, which outline the season’s priorities and how they’ll be achieved,” Robb says.

“We try and plan as much as we can before the season starts, but we always need to make running adjustments, as we’re impacted by the ‘A’ factor – adverse Antarctic weather or events. So weekly and even daily meetings are required to tweak the plan and try to maintain the original objectives and outcomes.”

While Robb’s team undertake much of the tactical work, he still wakes every morning with little or no certainty around how his day will unfold.

“In this job, if you need to control or know everything, you won’t sleep at night,” he says.

“You need to be fairly comfortable with uncertainty and be able to delegate and accept risks that you don’t fully control. You just have to put good systems in place and trust in your team.”

Testing times

Over the years the team has been tested. In October 2015, for example, the first voyage of the season was just hours away from departure when an expeditioner on Macquarie Island fell ill, requiring repatriation to Australia. While expeditioners bound for Davis cooled their heels in Hobart for six days, the operations team, alongside polar medicine, supply services and others at the Division’s headquarters and on station, swung into ‘Crisis Management and Recovery’ mode, to get the sick expeditioner safely home and the season back on track.

Later that season, in February 2016, the Aurora Australis broke free of its mooring lines at Mawson during a blizzard and ran aground in Horseshoe Harbour. While marine scientists and other personnel on the ship and at Mawson research station were immediately affected, the incident had a domino effect on expeditioners at Davis research station, who were waiting to return home on the ship. Among the complex logistics required to recover the season was assistance from the United States to fly Davis expeditioners to McMurdo on their LC 130 aircraft. From there they were flown home on the Antarctic Division’s Airbus (A319).

Meanwhile, personnel stranded on the ship were transferred to Mawson research station by barge, and then to Casey two weeks later by the Japanese ship, Shirase, for an onward journey to Wilkins Aerodrome. Helicopters were returned to Australia from Wilkins by the Australian Defence Force’s C17 aircraft, and remaining people and cargo were collected by the Chinese ship Xue Long from Davis and returned to Australia.

While the big puzzle pieces were falling into place, a range of behind-the-scenes support plans were being implemented, covering such things as marine pollution, wildlife impacts, medical needs and station food supplies. Multiple contingency plans for different assets were developed and discarded as the situation evolved. Last, but not least, the Aurora Australis was assessed for damage and deemed safe to return home with a skeleton crew.

Robb says standard operating procedures, crisis management plans, strong relationships with external stakeholders, clear goals, and a flexible approach to achieving those goals, allows the team to deliver a good season in most years, and recover a bad one.

“We have a clear structure where we all know our roles,” he says.

“Even during a crisis, a lot of our work is about coordination of the different parts – helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, ships, personnel – to get the job done and devise solutions. How do we keep achieving our goals with less resources? It’s a bit like our business-as-usual model, but it’s faster and more intense.”

Cooperative spirit

Cooperation with international Antarctic partners plays a key role in the team’s success too. Australia works closely with French, Italian, American, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and New Zealand programs, sharing resources, such as whole aircraft or ships, seats on planes, traverse capabilities and medical expertise.

“Most seasons we utilise the French ship L’Astrolabe to resupply Macquarie Island, and in return we’ll fly French expeditioners to Concordia,” Robb says

“We provide our A319 to the United States for flights between Christchurch and McMurdo. We fly Chinese expeditioners on the Airbus to Wilkins and then across to Zhongshan Station by Chinese or Australian Basler. We’ve even provided A319 flights to the Norwegian program from Cape Town to their runway at Troll. And this year we sub-chartered our Basler to the New Zealand program.”

It’s all part of the spirit of cooperation enshrined in the Antarctic Treaty, which is critical in an emergency, but it also has financial and operational advantages, reducing the cost of operating in Antarctica and allowing countries to do more with less.

Changing capabilities

Australia’s operational capabilities in Antarctica have increased significantly over the past 10 years, since the introduction of intercontinental flights (via the A319) between Hobart and Wilkins Aerodrome in 2007, and increasing use of Twin Otter and Basler aircraft between stations. The A319 allows more people and cargo to flow between Australia and Antarctica, with connections to ships or smaller aircraft once in Antarctica. More recently, the Antarctic Division has partnered with the Royal Australian Air Force to use their heavy-lift C17-A Globemaster to deliver and retrieve heavy vehicles and outsize cargo that’s too big to fit in the A319 (Australian Antarctic Magazine 30: 24-25, 2016). In late 2016, the C17-A was used to airdrop supplies into deep field.

“Aviation has caused a paradigm shift in the way we operate in Antarctica,” Robb says.

“Previously, operations were essentially quarantined to individual stations and run by the station leaders. Now we’re dispatching aircraft from our headquarters at Kingston, and all the stations are heavily connected to each other. So our operations are now more integrated, flexible and busy.”

Things are set to become a whole lot busier with the integration of the new icebreaker into the operations model in 2021 (Australian Antarctic Magazine 31: 2-6, 2016). Robb is also keen to see the Antarctic Division’s traverse capabilities return, and a scoping project is currently underway to determine what an Australian traverse capability might look like.

“Getting a traverse capability back will enable us to support deep field projects such as our ambition to drill a million-year old ice core,” Robb says.

“I think a combined aviation-traverse model, such as the one used during our Aurora Basin ice coring project in 2014, would be very powerful. The traverse allows you to get heavy equipment into a remote field site, while people, lighter equipment, and scientific samples can be moved quickly in and out by air.”

It’s an exciting time for the Australian Antarctic Program, with new cooperative arrangements, operational capabilities and technologies coming on-board in rapid succession. It all makes for busier and more complex seasons, which means more pressure points. But Robb says the Antarctic Division team has these covered.

“The last thing I want is for me or anyone else to be the single point of failure. So we’ve put good systems in place to ensure that other people can come in and do my job or other’s. That’s vital for my own health and for the organisation. Technology lets you do an interesting and exciting job wherever you are, but it’s critical that at times you can shut it all down.”

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division