Mid-air refuel extends reach of Australian Antarctic Program

people on sea ice
The expeditioners marked out the drop zone on the sea ice in front of Davis station (Photo: Barry Becker)
drilling sea iceC-17 in airplane dropping load of cargoParachutes landing on groundCrate on sea iceParachute on sea iceChef smelling lemons

20th September 2017

A mid-air plane refuel has extended Australia’s ability to reach its Antarctic stations and enabled a pre-season airdrop of supplies to isolated expeditioners.

The Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III took off from Avalon airport in Victoria yesterday for the 10,000 kilometre round-trip to Australia’s Davis research station.

It was refuelled by a KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport during the mission, high above the Southern Ocean.

Australian Antarctic Division Future Concepts Manager, Matt Filipowski, said the additional fuel meant nine tonnes of cargo could be parachuted on to the sea ice near Davis research station.

“The airdrop included fresh food, medical supplies and mail for the 17 expeditioners who have spent the past six months wintering at the station,” Mr Filipowski said.

“It’s hoped, in the future, this capability will allow us to pre-position equipment and supplies for station and science projects before the shipping season starts, so it’s all ready to go when the first summer expeditioners arrive.”

RAAF Flight Lieutenant Justin McFadden, who captained the C-17A, said it is the first time Australia has conducted air-to-air refuelling over the sub-Antarctic region.

“We refuelled about 3 hours into the flight at an altitude of 22,000 feet and a speed of 500 kilometres per hour. This allowed us to continue the remaining 4 hours to Davis for the airdrop and return to Hobart,” Flight Lieutenant McFadden said.

“Nearing the drop zone, we descended to 500 feet and slowed to about 270 kilometres per hour, before deploying 15 pallets of cargo in padded containers, each weighing about 700 kg.”

On the ground, Davis Station Leader, Dr Kirsten le Mar, and her team, prepared a 1.5 x 1 kilometre drop zone on the sea ice.

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

“Conditions on the ground were ideal for the airdrop; it was overcast, minus 18 degrees and light winds.

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

This new capability will enable the Australian Antarctic Division to airdrop supplies year-round, if required, to all of its Antarctic research stations and deep into the interior of Antarctica.

[Video]

Davis Airdrop

Video transcript

Dr Kirsten le Mar:
For station, the airdrop means a greater connection to Australia and less remote. The team feels very excited to be involved in this first airdrop for Davis. We have been measuring sea ice and grooming the roads out to the drop zone. The greatest challenge has been the sea ice, we have had 20 blizzards this year and our sea ice has broken out twice to date. What we are most looking forward to is mail and fresh fruit and it’s fantastic for the AAD to have this capability into the future.

Matt Filipowski:
We are undertaking this airdrop to deliver cargo to Davis station, which is something we previously haven’t been able to do. The C-17A can’t do this alone, so an air-to-air refuel is required to actually achieve this, so this is a first for the Australian Antarctic Program. The cargo that will be dropped in this airdrop is predominantly food stuff, so mainly dry food and some cooking items such as potatoes and things like that. Also included in the cargo is some telecommunications equipment and medical stores. For us to be able to reach Davis station and potentially Mawson station outside of our normal operating time of year is very exciting for the organisation.

[end transcript]