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Operation Deep Freeze: Airmen in Antarctica

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dominic Tyler
  • 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz.-- In 1955, the United States began a series of continuous operations in support of the National Science Foundation mission in Antarctica. Operation Deep Freeze, an inter-continental mission located in one of the coldest and most austere environments on the Earth, has been in place since the 1950’s. Year after year, people travel to Antarctica in the name of science, exploration, and for a historically unique human experience.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Matthew Wimmer, 56th Operations Group flight surgeon, was selected for a temporary duty assignment in support of ODF.

“The medical personnel selected to deploy for ODF are the best of the best,” said Maj. Andrew Fisher, Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica chief of medical services. “Maj. Wimmer’s extensive operational experience in providing care in austere environments was a big contributor to his selection.”

Wimmer aided in six emergency medical evacuations and provided medical assistance on the ground at two primary Antarctic research hubs—McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

“Something you learn being out there on the ice for any amount of time, is that things can go very wrong, very quickly,” said Wimmer. “It’s an eight hour flight to the closest medevac station, so all the steps have to be thought out well in advance before we decide on the best course of medical care.”

In the Austral Summer, from November to February, when the temperatures often drop into the teens at McMurdo, the Air Force provides intercontinental airlift with the LC-130 cargo planes. These aircraft are equipped with retractable skis and JATO rockets that allow the aircraft to take off and land on snow and ice, as well as on conventional runways.

“Working in that environment, [during Operation Deep Freeze] was a unique experience to say the least,” said Wimmer. “As a physician, I learned a lot about medical evacuations in unregulated areas. The weather is always a factor when determining the course of action we take. Due to the remoteness of the deployment, it’s all on our team including; our AE nurse and technician to stabilize the patient, decide on medical procedures and validate them for transfer.”

According to the United States Antarctic Program, Antarctica in the winter can be one of the windiest, coldest, driest, and most remote places on the planet, making it difficult for anyone to travel to and from the continent. Additionally, at an elevation of 9,300 feet, the South Pole Station has an average monthly temperature in the austral summer of -18°F and -76°F in the austral winter.

Aside from the weather conditions, Wimmer noted the remoteness of the continent being extensively noticeable, which limited his ability to communicate with the rest of the world.

“Social media and most civilian forms of email weren’t accessible because all internet bandwidth, limited to less than that of a single cell phone stateside for the entire station is used to send essential research data from the continent,” said Wimmer. “In the military, we’re used to working with what we’ve got, but the isolation there was still unlike anything I’ve experienced.”

Though the conditions could seem uninhabitable to some, Wimmer spoke on many remarkable experiences to be had on the continent.

“One of the most exciting things for me was supporting world class research,” said Wimmer. “My team and I learned about various topics including microbiology, marine biology, astronomy, astrophysics, geology, volcanology and more during the National Science Foundation presentations given by the researchers.”

To add to his newfound knowledge of Antarctica, Wimmer also found the area offers amazing wildlife, great hiking, beautiful scenery, and a supportive community unlike any other.

“The community at these research bases have an exclusive perception of the planet,” said Wimmer. “Those that live there have built an incredible community over the years that the majority of humanity have yet to lay eyes on.”