Antarctic cargo flies further with mid-air refuel

Pallets of supplies attached to parachutes drop from the tail end of a C-17A aircraft.
Nine tonnes spread across 15 pallets were dropped from the Royal Australian Air Force C-17A. Parachutes are collected and reused after each airdrop. (Photo: Barry Becker)
Davis Chef, Kerryn Oates, unpacks a box of fresh lemons.

The first mid-air refuelling of a heavy-lift C-17A aircraft, high above the Southern Ocean, enabled a pre-season airdrop of supplies to Davis research station in September.

The refuelling of the C-17A, completed by a KC-30A ‘Multi-Role Tanker Transport’, enabled the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to parachute nine tonnes of telecommunications equipment, food, medical supplies and mail on to the sea ice near the station.

Australian Antarctic Division Future Concepts Manager, Mr Matt Filipowski, said the flight was the final phase in a “proof of concept” to deliver supplies to Antarctica outside the summer shipping season, and extend the reach of aircraft in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

“Last year we completed our first mid-winter airdrop of supplies to Casey research station and our first remote airdrop of fuel to the Bunger Hills in support of a science project,” Mr Filipowski said.

“The mid-air refuelling has allowed us to extend this capability to Davis, which is a further 1400 km from Casey and about a 10 000 km round-trip from Hobart.

“In the future, this capability will allow us to pre-position equipment and supplies for station and science projects, to all our Antarctic stations and deep inland, before the shipping season starts.”

Flight Lieutenant Justin McFadden, who captained the C-17A during the airdrop, said that while air-to-air refuelling was a standard procedure for the RAAF, this was the first time it had occurred over the sub-Antarctic region.

“We refuelled about three hours into the flight at an altitude of 22 000 feet and a speed of 500 km per hour. This allowed us to continue the remaining four hours to Davis for the airdrop and return to Hobart,” Flight Lieutenant McFadden said.

“When we neared the drop zone we descended to 5000 feet and slowed to about 270 km per hour, and deployed 15 pallets of cargo in padded containers, each weighing about 700 kg.”

Prior to the C17-A’s arrival, Davis Station Leader, Kirsten le Mar, and her team prepared a 1.5 × 1 km drop zone.

“The sea ice was about one metre thick, which is above the minimum 60 cm required to drop this weight of cargo,” Dr le Mar said.

“We used a forklift to load the containers on to a sled, then towed it back to station for unpacking.

“We’re now enjoying some fresh lemons and potatoes, and reading letters from home.”

The airdrop capability will now be integrated into the Antarctic Division’s standard operating procedures.

Wendy Pyper and Nisha Harris
Australian Antarctic Division