Heavy-lift flights boost Antarctic capabilities

Records were broken at Wilkins Aerodrome in Antarctica this season with the landing of the largest aircraft ever on the ice runway — the 270 tonne C17-A Globemaster III – on 5 November 2015.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)-owned and operated aircraft went on to successfully complete a further four proof-of-concept flights over the course of the season, moving more than 109 tonnes of machinery and cargo into and out of Antarctica for the Australian Antarctic Division. A fifth flight was undertaken to recover three B3 Squirrel helicopters and 30 expeditioners, following the grounding of the Aurora Australis at Mawson late in the season.

It is the first time the RAAF has flown missions to the Australian Antarctic Territory since 1963.

Australian Antarctic Division Future Concepts Manager, Mr Matt Filipowski, said the success of the collaborative operation, which was five years in planning, demonstrated that heavy lift flights could fill a niche in the Antarctic Division’s operational and logistical needs.

“Our Airbus A319 moves people very well, while our ship moves large, bulk cargo in slow time very well,” he said.

“However, there’s a niche in the middle for high priority, outsize cargo that needs quick turnaround times and that’s too big to fit into the A319.”

For example, during the trial flights the C17-A, which can accommodate 72 tonnes of equipment, carried a 23 tonne tractor to Hobart for repairs and returned it to Antarctica two months later. Without this capability the tractor would have been out of action for two years, as it travelled to and from Hobart by ship.

Mr Filipowski said this capability could change the way Antarctic science projects are supported. In the 2014–15 summer, for example, Australian Antarctic Division scientists conducted an ambitious ocean acidification experiment that required the deployment by divers of scientific equipment beneath the sea ice off Casey station (Australian Antarctic Magazine 28: 8-9, 2015), as well as the delivery of containerised computer and engineering equipment and dive compression chambers to the station. This required the pre-positioning of equipment a year in advance of the project starting, followed by removal of most of the equipment by ship in the 12 months after the project had finished.

“With a heavy lift capability that entire project could have conceivably been lifted in one flight, delivered to Casey, and then returned to Hobart in a single season,” Mr Filipowski said.

“Instead we had some equipment sitting idle on station for 12 months, requiring resources and space on station, when it could have been put to use back home.”  

As well as time and resource efficiencies, the C17-A aircraft could support new scientific and operational capabilities.

“If we or our Antarctic neighbours wanted to conduct a traverse we could deliver heavy vehicles. We could deliver containerised laboratories for science projects. And we could develop an air drop capability to deep field science camps or stations,” Mr Filipowski said.

“We could also operate helicopters out of Casey for the first time in many years. At the moment they have to remain on station over winter because they’re locked into the resupply schedule of the ship — which is in turn dependent on the sea ice conditions. So that’s very expensive. But with the C17-A we could potentially get them in to start the season early, and pull them out at the end.”

These exciting possibilities do bring new challenges, however, which the proof-of-concept flights highlighted.

“The heavy lift aircraft brings in a great deal of cargo very quickly and one of our challenges is to efficiently move that cargo onward,” Mr Filipowski said.

“If the RAAF continue to support us we’ll need to work to improve this system and integrate it into our operational supply chains.”

While the Antarctic Division has a lot to gain from this collaboration, the relationship is not all one-sided, with the RAAF acquiring valuable cold weather training for their pilots and crew, and experience operating a new generation of highly automated aircraft in the extreme cold.

Director General Air Operations, Air Commodore Joe Iervasi, said that from a RAAF point of view the flights had been a huge success.

“We successfully moved over 109 tonnes of machinery and cargo both in and out of Antarctica, conducted an air drop of four heliboxes from 500 feet and simulated an emergency aeromedical evacuation,” he said.

“The opportunity to test the C-17A in these conditions has proven to be an invaluable experience for the Air Force to enhance the capability of this aircraft and Australia’s logistical and scientific capabilities in Antarctica.”

The proof-of-concept flights were completed in February 2016 and a full review is now underway by the Antarctic Division and RAAF. The Department of Defence intends to engage with the Department of the Environment and reach a Memorandum of Understanding regarding future support to the Antarctic Division, which will include C17-A airlift.

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division