Runway ends with Antarctic Medal

After 12 years working in often remote and tropical environments for the Australian Defence Force, former diesel mechanic, Matt Filipowski, never suspected he would end up with a pivotal role in ice runway construction in Antarctica. Nor did he suspect it would lead to an Antarctic Medal.

But a path to the white continent appeared when Matt took a job in the engineering workshop of the Australian Antarctic Division in 2001. Here he gained new skills in preparing vehicles for cold environments and sealing them against snow ingress. He also prepared vehicles and equipment destined for Wilkins Runway — the landing site for Australia’s new Antarctic air service.

Then in late 2003, Matt went south as the Runway Construction Supervisor, responsible for all facets of ice runway construction, the runway crew, and transport between the runway and Casey station, about 70km away.

The three-person team (up to seven people worked at the site in subsequent years) lived in a simple camp of shipping containers converted for sleeping, eating and ablutions. Camp comforts were minimal, with a small bedroom each, a communal area and an iridium satellite phone for contact with Australia and Casey station. The footprint of the camp was designed to be small for ease of operation, to minimise environmental impact, and to reduce cleanup after a blizzard.

The crew worked 12–14 hour days, seven days a week, with the occasional trip to Casey for food and fuel and a break from the remoteness and austerity of their camp. Initially, they worked closely with the experienced United States runway crew, to learn the art and science of constructing an ice runway — a compressed snow pavement atop glacial ice.

'When we weren’t working, we were sleeping or eating,' Matt says.

'It was hard work, but it was challenging and satisfying. There was a strong sense of the significance and uniqueness of what we were doing, which was a big motivator, especially in times of frustration or challenge.'

Among the frustrations were the weather, and cold-related equipment breakages.

'Sometimes it would take a whole day to dig the vehicles out of the snow after a blizzard. Other times, if a part needed replacing and we didn’t have one available, we had to wait for delivery on the next ship,' Matt says.

However, Matt says one of the biggest challenges for him was managing people in the unbroken, flat, white expanse of the runway site, where there was no other visual stimulation and no physical stimulation, such as a gym or games area.

'Most people managed the remoteness and confines of the camp well, but we all needed to have a break from the site occasionally,' Matt says.

'You learn a lot about yourself in these environments. You learn where your zenith of tolerance starts and finishes, and your coping mechanisms. In Antarctica you will be tested to the maximum of what you can cope with. But you do get to know what your capabilities are and others’ expectations of you.'

In early 2007, after four summers in Antarctica (and two years of his life), Matt and his team finally graded the last of the glacial blue ice on the 4000 x 100 m ice runway. Later that year Matt was amongst the first people to land on the runway in the A319 aircraft.

'When we landed for the first time I was excited, relieved and satisfied. Until that moment we were never 100 percent certain it was going to happen. It was a fantastic culmination to the five years of hard work for the runway crew and all those that supported us — at headquarters, at home, in Antarctica, and in other Antarctic programs.'

In June this year Matt received the Antarctic Medal, which is awarded to individuals for ‘outstanding service in scientific research or exploration, or in support of such work, in the course of or in connection with an Australian Antarctic Expedition'.

'It is an honour to receive this individual award,' Matt says, ‘but for me it also recognises the committed and supportive team who worked with me, both in Antarctica and Australia.'

At the announcement of the award Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, said:

'Matt has developed a vast knowledge of Antarctic operations and his leadership in the field has been of the highest order. He is an exceptional example to expeditioners, and during the long, hard slog to build the runway, he maintained a positive outlook in often difficult circumstances. His efforts have helped Australia maintain its leading role in Antarctic science'.

Matt is now the Mechanical Supervisor at the Australian Antarctic Division, responsible for supervising the mechanical maintenance staff in Antarctica, and managing the fleet of Antarctic vehicles and the repair and rebuilding of machinery. However, he will continue to provide advice and support for the on-going maintenance of the runway during air operations.

Matt is taking a break from the white continent this summer to enjoy some of his other passions; mountain biking and fresh fruit. But he expects the lure of Antarctica will draw him back soon enough.

'I’m looking forward to the challenges this new job will bring, but the unique challenges of working in Antarctica are difficult to replicate. It’s an environment I work well in, and I hope I'll return.'

Corporate Communications, AAD