Antarctica was a foreboding and challenging corner of the world when the first explorers arrived a little more than a century ago. Journeys south took months to complete by ship. More than one vessel spent an unexpected winter or two locked – and even crushed – in sea ice.
The rapid technological advances of the 20th century brought powerful icebreakers and long-range aircraft, making the remote continent more accessible.
Even in winter, when most of the continent is shrouded in darkness 24 hours a day, flights are still capable of reaching McMurdo Station, the largest research facility in the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). However, those flights are generally for emergency situations, such as an unexpected medical evacuation.
“We say we’re accessible year-round. We just don’t plan for it,” said Paul Sheppard, Operations and Logistics systems manager in NSF’s Division of Polar Programs, Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics.
That’s about to change.
NSF is testing a new model for supporting McMurdo Station – one that Sheppard has said could revolutionize the way the program operates in the future. The agency has scheduled a series of winter flights next year to McMurdo Station from Christchurch, New Zealand, which serves as the gateway to Antarctica for the USAP and several other national programs.
“It’s all proof of concept now,” he explained. “We have an idea of how we want it to go. We have to exercise the system, get comfortable with it, come up with how we’ll manage it, and then increase it.”
Traditionally, the summer field season runs from October to February. Each August, several flights are sent into McMurdo Station during an operation known as WinFly, for winter fly-in, which bring in new personnel and some cargo to prepare for the upcoming summer of science support.
In 2015, flights are scheduled to arrive at Pegasus Airfield, located on an ice shelf about 14 miles from Ross Island where McMurdo Station sits, in April, June and July.
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