SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic celebrates 20th year on the Ice Supporting NSF Operations in Antarctica
By Diane Owens, SSC Atlantic Public Affairs
The Microwave Landing System at the newly commissioned Phoenix Airfield (NZFX) is one of many systems currently supported by the SSC Atlantic Polar Programs Integrated Products Team; a U.S. Air Force C-17 is parked behind it. (SSC Atlantic photo)
For the past 20 years, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic employees have provided meteorology services, air traffic control, systems engineering and maintenance, ground electronics maintenance, information technology/security and operational logistics support in Antarctica. Their work enables scientists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct ground-breaking research.
“We are very proud to be teammates in the critical science mission at the boundary of human existence on the planet, said SSC Atlantic Commanding Officer Capt. Scott Heller. “In a world challenged by global warming, understanding what is happening at our world's poles is more important than ever. The science in Antarctica has always been essential... today it is even more urgent. Our employees contribute to the safety of members of the scientific community and keep them productive,” he added.
In October 1997, SSC Atlantic assumed all air traffic control and operational meteorology responsibilities from the decommissioning Naval Support Forces Antarctica and continued to be the engineering services provider for aviation, meteorology and communications systems. SSC Atlantic employees and contractors have provided these services for 20 consecutive years.
Approximately 45 SSC Atlantic government personnel and contract employees spend the austral summer season “on the ice” at McMurdo Station providing required services, with a minimum staff of four or five contractors remaining on-site during the austral winter.
In addition, the SSC Atlantic Remote Operations Facility (ROF) in Charleston, South Carolina, provides operational forecast services to support all U.S. assets on the continent of Antarctica. The ROF also provides air traffic control services and general support for Antarctic flights. Individual pilot briefings are provided using video conferencing tools from Charleston to Christchurch, New Zealand, before any southbound mission.
Antarctica, which wasn’t discovered until the nineteenth century, contains vast mountains layered in a mile or more of ice and an active volcano, and has an ever-changing land mass as ice melts and reforms. The terrain and rapidly changing extreme weather presents unique challenges to researchers and support personnel alike.
SSC Atlantic meteorologists must consider a myriad of factors when predicting weather for pilots, ship captains and station or camp support personnel on the continent of Antarctica. Frigid temperatures, strong winds, crystalline snow (smaller than a grain of sand), glaciers, mountainous terrain, snow storms, white-outs, icebergs, fog and blizzards all present unique challenges and hazards. They must also factor in extreme elevation changes; flights departing from McMurdo Station’s sea-level air fields may land at stations or camps at altitudes of 10,000 feet more.
Intercontinental flights generally originate in Christchurch, New Zealand, which is 2,415 miles north across the Southern Ocean. Adding to the complications of normal forecasting is the length of time it takes to complete a flight from New Zealand and the ever-increasing chance that unpredictable weather can impact aircraft. Forecasters calculate the point of safe return for each flight as the last location that a pilot can return to the point of origin with sufficient fuel, in the event of sudden weather changes. Pilots occasionally do turn around and return to the departure site, but these “boomerangs” cost the taxpayer for used fuel, wear and tear on the aircraft, and labor for everyone from aircrews and passengers to logistics ground personnel on each end. Accurate weather predictions by SSC Atlantic forecasters are essential to avoid the high cost of aborted missions, delayed flights and personnel safety – and to enable cargo and supplies delivery, as well as routine operations. Meteorologists study near real-time satellite images, numerical models, time-lapsed weather information and input from human observers to generate forecasts.
Air traffic control
Three airfields near McMurdo Station are built on snow and ice to support heavy-lift wheeled aircraft (e.g., C-17 Globemasters) and skied aircraft (e.g., LC-139 Hercules). Williams Field (NZWD) is a snow airfield specifically for skied aircraft. Pegagus Field (NZPG) and the new Phoenix Field (NZFX) have hard ice surfaces and can support wheeled operations. Each location has unique operational requirements and challenges and serves a specific purpose for the USAP.
SSC Atlantic air traffic controllers are responsible for the safe flow of air traffic in and out of these airfields. NZWD has a small air traffic control tower built atop skis and equipped with all necessary communications and meteorology systems for controlling aircraft approaching or departing the airfield. In addition, air traffic controllers also manage the McMurdo Sector of the Auckland Flight Information Region from McMurdo Air Traffic Control Center -- augmented by Charleston ROF personnel.
Employees work around the clock and track thousands of aviation operations in Antarctica each year including inter- and intracontinental fixed wing flights and all McMurdo-area helicopter operations. There is no longer an air traffic control radar at McMurdo and all control is provided under nonradar control rules. However, by using technology and leveraging products across other government agencies, such as Automated Flight Following from National Forest Service, controllers’ situational awareness is greatly improved. Further enhancements will continue as aircraft and infrastructure continue to reach the 2020 compliance requirements for operating in national airspace.
Meteorology Administrator Art Cayette monitors the performance of SSC Atlantic forecasting and observation services for the U.S. Antarctic Program at the Remote Operations Facility in Charleston, South Carolina. (SSC Atlantic photo)
In recent years, SSC Atlantic expertise has been tapped to assist with NSF cybersecurity efforts. Government and contractor personnel help NSF to develop security policy and monitor compliance. As part of this effort, aviation and meteorology teams rely on proper cybersecurity planning to ensure robust and well-planned contingencies are in place.
Over the years, SSC Atlantic employees from Charleston ROF provided meteorological and air traffic control services for several successful evacuation flights off the continent during austral winter, when air travel is generally suspended.
Due to the maturity of the ROF, these operations have been more like routine support than emergency actions. Requirements and planning are different for these missions but once the evacuation is approved and begins, SSC Atlantic provides the same level of quality the special mission pilots and crew receive at any other time of the year.
Matt Rushing, Polar Program Integrated Product Team lead, is responsible for all SSC Atlantic polar programs systems engineering and operational support provided to NSF, including necessary systems and services for aviation, meteorology, communications and numerous supporting functions. He attributes much of the program’s success to employees’ dedication, experience and collective length of time on the job. He noted that the team is planning for the future and trying to bring in new professionals to learn from experienced colleagues so they can take the reins someday.
“A lot of work is done with very few people ‘on the ice’ since many tasks are done remotely, and this encourages innovation by SSC Atlantic personnel in technology, the use and application of technology, and in providing routine support.” He noted that polar program participants are some of the most well rounded at the center because they gain so many different skill sets. Many people continue their careers supporting the warfighter in center leadership roles. Extreme cold weather engineering expertise and other knowledge gained in the program benefits the Navy as a whole.
“It’s a dangerous and unique environment to work in, and it’s not for everyone,” Rushing added. At times polar support can be highly stressful but through it all, SSC Atlantic’s safety record is excellent.
Rushing also noted that personnel deployed to Antarctica develop symbiotic relationships with polar scientists, and are able to apply current scientific findings to their work, while scientists benefit from employees’ technical expertise and experience.
Meteorology administrator Art Cayette, who provides government oversight to polar contractors, was stationed in Antarctica during his active duty Navy days, and 30 years later he continues to be passionate about his work keeping personnel safe. “It’s the most humbling occupation ever,” he said.
Coy Johnson, who managed the first Antarctic radar installation in the 80s, retired from SSC Atlantic and continues to work in the Air Traffic Control Sub-Portfolio as a contractor. He recalls that McMurdo Station was quite “rustic” in the early days, and that it took eight hours to travel by U.S. Navy Hercules LC130 ski-plane from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo.
Retired Navy commander Dave Kelch, senior operations advisor to the Polar Programs IPT lead and the competency lead for Aviation Command and Control Operations, said, “People in the polar programs are dedicated, and they’re very good at what they do. They love what they do and they’re pros.” Before joining the SSC Atlantic team as a Navy civilian, Kelch was the Navy’s Head of Airspace and Air Traffic Control in Washington, D.C.
Rhona North, SSC Polar Programs information system security manager, has spent time in Antarctica, and recalls that, after donning cumbersome outdoor gear and goggles to protect her eyes, she once transported updated IT equipment from one building to another on a sled. That’s an experience few IT professionals encounter.
SSC Atlantic Executive Director (ED) Christopher Miller (SSC Atlantic photo)
SSC Atlantic Executive Director Chris Miller flew to Antarctica in 2012 to see first-hand the work done there and to meet the staff. “Antarctica is extremely hard to describe in words and must be seen to be appreciated,” he said. “It’s an incredibly remote, stark and desolate continent where you can see and experience nature at its most dramatic. It also remains almost exactly as it was long, long before human beings ever arrived. The environment enables unique and critical scientific research.”
SSC Atlantic’s first 20 years partnering with NSF in Antarctica have been an unqualified success; its employees look forward to continuing their support enabling scientific research and keeping operational systems up and running during the next 20 years “on the ice.”
As commanding officer Heller said, “At one level, polar support is one effort among 850 other concurrent efforts at SSC Atlantic that make our world safer, but on another level, the science at the poles has the potential to address the most important questions of our time.”