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A groundbreaking first for the RAAF and the Australian Antarctic Division

Scientists from Japan and Australia have met to discuss the future of Antarctic research."

When a team needs new materials or equipment, a resupply mission can be a simple way of providing those provisions. On the other hand, when that team is in Antarctica, things become much more complicated. 

In early June 2016, however, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) made history with the first midwinter airdrop to the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). The success of this drop completely revolutionises the way teams in Antarctica can operate during the long polar winter.

One of the worst winters on the planet

A number of people don't enjoy winter - it's colder, there can be quite a bit of snow and ice, and the days are shorter. These conditions, however, are at their extremes in Antarctica. 

Winter temperatures at the scientific bases fluctuate between -10 and -30 degrees Celsius.

According to the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, the temperature at the south pole gets down to -49 degrees Celsius on average in the winter months, while temperatures at the scientific bases close to the coast fluctuate between -10 and -30, according to the British Antarctic Survey. 

Depending on the time of year, Antarctica also gets precious little sunshine. At Casey station, where the supply drop occurred, there were only approximately three hours of daylight during midwinter in 2015.

Taken together, these conditions make the Antarctic winter rather inhospitable and treacherous to navigate.

Wintering in at the stations

Traditionally, due to the weather conditions on the continent, travel to Antarctica is nearly impossible during the winter. According to David Nold - a safety engineer from Antarctic Support Associates - traffic in and out of Antarctica is halted between February and the end of August. Stations are cut off from outside support during these months, he said in a question and answer session with the American Museum of Natural History.

The Australian stations generally receive supplies between October and March by ship and plane, before the worst of the winter conditions set in. Once the last transport is off the continent, those on the continent must survive only on what is on hand.

Most supplies reach Antarctica by ship in the summer months.Most supplies reach Antarctica by ship in the summer months.

Planning for the airdrop

This winter limitation, however, is no longer as significant of an issue, thanks to the RAAF's successful midwinter supply drop. Made from a C-17A Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft, this is the second phase of testing the RAAF has completed on the continent - a previous successful drop was executed in February 2016.

"There were a number of challenging environmental conditions including freezing temperatures, darkness and a featureless environment."

The midwinter drop was completed by an aircraft and crew from the Number 36 Squadron, aided by personnel from Casey station. 

A suitable drop zone - about 70 kilometres from the station's Wilkinson Aerodrome - was scouted out by researchers from Casey. Once that location was established. RAAF crew members underwent significant simulation training to ensure that they were able to coordinate the location and timing for the airdrop - a necessary preparation, given the difficulties of navigating the winter landscape in Antarctica.

"There were a number of challenging environmental conditions including freezing temperatures, darkness and a featureless environment," said Flight Lieutenant Doug Susans.

Despite the navigational hardships, the airdrop was satisfactorily completed, with 1,500 kilograms of supplies in three containers delivered to the station.

The airdrop procedure

Before setting off on the drop route, the C-17A was standing by at Avalon airfield, waiting for confirmation of permissive weather conditions at the drop zone identified by the Casey team. Once they received the green light, the crew set off on its flight to Antarctica. Once over the drop zone, they were able to deploy the cargo via the A22–High Velocity Container Delivery System.

To make the drop, the C-17A had to slow down to approximately 270 kilometres per hour and descend to an altitude of around 5,000 feet. From there, the rear cargo door was opened, and the containers were released electronically. A static line between the packages and the aircraft deployed the parachutes as the cargo fell out of the back of the plane.

Once the containers landed, couriers from Casey located them, loaded them onto heavy machinery and brought them back to the station - about 10 kilometres away.

The airdrop was completed by a C-17A from the Number 36 Squadron.The airdrop was completed by a C-17A from the Number 36 Squadron.

Group Captain Andy Williams, commanding officer with the Number 86 Wing, noted that the high-velocity drop was instrumental in delivering the cargo without damage from the harsh weather.

"This delivery system allows the loads to fall at a higher speed, reducing the time spent in the air and limits the effect of the wind during the descent," he said.

This airdrop was able to deliver mail, parts for a snow tractor, medical supplies and other mechanical equipment. With this successful mission, the RAAF has shown that it is capable of meeting AAD resupply needs all year round.

Interconnect Systems has a comprehensive background in aerospace and defence engineering, being an industry leader for more than 20 years. It provides electrical interconnect products and solutions, including cable and wire harness manufacture. For more information on the best backshells and cable harness solutions, contact Interconnect Systems today on 1800 812 214 FREE.

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