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 700kg.”

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.