Noel Gillespie is a news writer from Christchurch, New Zealand and has been covering VX6 happenings since the 50s.
US NAVY'S TRAIL-BLAZING VX-6 ANTARCTIC SQUADRON MUST NOT BE
FOREGOTTEN. MID WINTER FLY IN'S AND REGULARLY SERVICING THE
CONTINENT DURING THE HOURS OF DARKNESS.
BY NOEL GILLESPIE
FREE LANCE AVIATION WRITER..
CHRISTCHURCH NEW ZEALAND
July 12 1999
As a free lance aviation writer, I have been covering the United State's "Operation Deep Freeze' since the late 1950's, during this time, their aviators carried out their tasks, on the frozen continent, often going far beyond the normal course of duty. Accommodating the harsh weather, loneness and isolation never ceased to amaze me. Their adaptability was almost second nature to them, not gung-ho, but more 'barnstorming'.
This early Antarctic would have paralyzed normal men- yet as your staff writer Guy Gugliotta's article last Thursday, under the Heading "Stranded, Sick at South Pole. The expression given was that it was the Air Force's big moment, without having any background knowledge of these 44 years the US Navy were involved.
While I do not, in any way, question the essence of the article, and the reason for the hazardous 14 hour non-stop 6,400-mile round trip to assist the unfortunate lady. Isolated for nine-months with 40 other National Science Foundation staff at the Amundsen-Scott base, who had discovered a women's worst nightmare- a lump on her breast.
I am disparaged against neither the Washington Post nor Guy Gugliotta, but after I received a torrent of e-mail messages from my many ex VX-6 Squadron friends, I thought it befitting that I set the record straight.
Without being apologetic in any way, regarding the role that early and not so early naval aviators played in Antarctic. Days before hi tech equipment, immediate rescue service and total inaccessible isolation in the winter months, no matter now serious the situation or injury were the order of the day.
In 1955, the Neptune's and R5D'd [DC-4's] departed from Christchurch, while the R4D's [Dakotas] took off for the ice from Dunedin, some 200 miles further south, with the assistance of Jet Assisted Take-off [JATO- each plan having 18 attached to the underside of the aircraft. Each rocket gave around 1,000 pounds of forward thrust, with normal flight operation. The R4D's maximum gloss take-off weight of 33,000 pounds.
On that first flight south, the R4D's encountered 20 knots headwinds, which was gobbling up the fuel at an unacceptable rate- it soon became evident that, that along with the two Albatrosses were in serious trouble. To make the journey safety, the aircraft needed to maintain an average ground speed of 115 knots, with the headwinds; the aircraft reported ground speeds of only 105 knots.
They turned back to New Zealand, had they continued they would have been 250 miles short of the McMurdo's ice runway, and certain death.The 'point of no return' is the point where there is no longer sufficient fuel for the aircraft to return to New Zealand. Five aircraft were lost in the Antarctic during the first year, including a helicopter fitted with additional internal fuel tanks, the R4D's made it to Antarctica the following year, "Deep Freeze II".
An example of these early naval pilot encounters was during the 1956 fly-in. LCDR "Gus " Shinn reported that he had lost control of his gyro-stabilized compass, the most important navigational equipment for Antarctic flying, without it, and no stars, the pilot could not steer his aircraft, and could wonder aimlessly until his fuel was gone- then a icy watery grave. Just ahead was Lt. Harvey Speed in another R4D in "Que. Sera Sera" [the aircraft later made aviation history by bring the first aircraft to land at the South Pole], who heroically revised his course and flew northwards until he picked up the disabled R4D on his radar. The two aircraft joined up in the dark, while Speed did the navigating for both. In doing so Speed jeopardized his own aircraft. Since he had used up much needed fuel to reach McMurdo, he ran the grave risk of a simple navigational error, or if the weather was bad on his arrival- could have spelled disaster.
Flashing through the pilot's minds as their R4D's left New Zealand, creeping along at 200 feet per second -what awaited them in Antarctica. Getting their "Gooney Birds" off some unprepared ice' runway' in some remote location in -85 degrees, no runway light, no boundary markers, no signal telling them were to land. Where the ice surfaces have been roughened by Antarctic winds, producing pattern in the snow called "Sastrugi".
The loneliest place in the world, would their engines fail? Would their skis freeze to the surface? would their landing gear survive the icy terrain. However tragedy struck the squadron when a Neptune bomber-the first aircraft to arrive at McMurdo that year, crashed on landing killing four crew, including Maine Captain Raymond Hudman, the leader of the para rescue team, and a survivor of another Neptune crash in the Venezuela jungle en route to Antarctic to rescue a downed Otter earlier in the year.
Those early Antarctic Naval aviators recall stories like these a thousand times over. I would suggest Commander James Waldron's book "Flight of the Puckered Penguins" Waldron was co-pilot to Commander Eddie Frankiewicz's R4D during 1956 and then promoted to the Squadron's executive officer on the death of David Carey, the pilot of the crashed Neptune. His graphic accounts of life on the ice and flying around the frozen forbidden continent are a must read for all.
In all, 45 aircraft were lost between 1955 and 75- killing 55 Americans mainly naval aviators. The navy flew millions of miles within the frozen continent to and from the United States, via New Zealand. Not only the extreme cold at the pole and other Antarctic outposts, crippled the aircraft's hydraulics, but froze the fuel lines and froze the skis to the ice- all in a days work for the navy.
As one VX-6er reminded me over the weekend, "Remember the C-141 Starlifter to come to the 'ice' and made a fly by checking out the runway, before making the first landing, we wasn't sure they were going to land or not. And the other Air Force flight made the 'Ice" in the 60's, just flying by, dropping mail and cargo and returned to New Zealand without landing-the winds were too rough or something."
"Just think, what we had to do without any options using C-121J's, LC-130F/R's and LC/47/117 [R4D's]. Not landing was definitely not an optional decision. It was damn difficult to make drops and fly bys, when you just have enough fuel for a one way flight. "Visibility during the black winter nights is always a hazardous problem, just as 'white-outs' were during the season. Who ever said the Antarctic weather or the continent was 'friendly' to any visitors." "Down there, very bad things could happen on the best of days, as many of us knew, every individual must keep his head - on right, and be aware of
potential hazards constantly"
Just like on the deck of an aircraft carrier, neither the sea nor the Antarctic is very forgiving. There is definitely a different 'mind set' between Naval pilots and their crews and the Air Force. Landing in a COD, helicopter, jet or whatever, on the deck of a pitching carrier requires nerves of steel and a solid 'can do' mind set. This is just the mind set, which had made VX-6 /VXE-6, so successful during its existence in the Antarctic. What a heritage. Up until the Squadron was decommissioned at Air Naval Station Point Mugu, California earlier this year, they were stationed in Christchurch, New Zealand for 44 years. ( P. Panehal )
The words of a VX-6 pilot - a naval reservist on active duty in the coldest place on each, are a fitting tribute to members of this unique flying unit-the Antarctica Development Squadron Six. "Flying here is different than anywhere else on earth. It is also an opportunity for an aviator to go where no man has gone before and few will get the chance. There is also a great tradition associated with the aviators who have served there.
In an interview with Lt. Col Richard Saburro of the New York Air National Guard's 107 Airlift Wing, Detachment 13, and now Commander of Deep Freeze" with this writer last year, was full of praise for the US Navy' "They blazed the trails, they were the pioneers of Antarctica, opening up the continent to exploration to today's more routine logistic operation - if one could describe Antarctic flying As routine. They remind me of the American westward movement. Covered wagons with trails turning into dirt roads paved highways with gas station and fast food outlets" he said.
During this time three mid winter flights into Antarctica, using ski-equipped C-130 Hercules, the first of these was in April 1961, to rescue a seriously ill Russian scientist and many rescues of downed aviators and working scientist on the continent. The 62nd Airlift Wing's C-141 Starlifter, from McCord Air Force Base, Tacoma, and Boeing KC-10 tanker jet took off from Christchurch International Airport at 10pm Sunday [New Zealand time], the hearts of all New Zealanders going out to the crews with 25 personnel aboard. Flying out on the mercy mission, 3200 miles away to the center of the Antarctic continent in sub zero conditions and pitch darkness- but spare a thought for the brave United States Naval aviator, who, without them and those who gave their lives- this mission to enable the Englewood employee to have a x-ray and biopsy, would not be possible.
The flight was made possible with in-flight refueling, about five hours into its mission. The aircrew had to locate the parachute drop-zone in the dark and extreme cold of the polar winter, and shove the valuable cargo on pallets , packed with the live saving equipment along with fresh vegetable, fruit and mail, out the side door, before dropping fuel levels had forced the C-141 to head back to Christchurch or South America. The C-141 skimmed the frozen continent twice just 250 meters from the ice surfaces. The drop was made at 5.10 pm Sunday [New Zealand time] in temperatures averaging minus 67 degrees. The crew wore specially made protective clothes to protect them against the freezing temperatures and oxygen mask to protect them against the thin Polar air- the South Pole is 3000 metres above sea level. Lt. Col. Richard Saburro said the pallets were marked with strobe and chemical lights to assist the South Pole NSF Staff to find them. While the runway was illuminated by a half-circle of flaming barrels to guide the air crew. A method used by the Navy since the late 1950's.
In the dead of night at the South Pole station, now in constant darkness until October, with temperatures as low as 73 below zero and Antarctic winds blowing at 95 km, the aircraft could not land at the Pole. Only the C-130 , and previously R4D's and on occasions the Douglas built Globemasters could land at the pole .
Mission complete, as the crew brought the Starlifter back to Christchurch late last evening [New Zealand time] A double crew was taken with a doctor in case hypothermia was suffered by the crew.
Great show -first class flight by the crew of the United States Air Force's C-141.....