Did we get 20,000 pounds of corn dogs yesterday via air-drop?

For the first time ever, a C-17 conducted an air drop of dry food yesterday at the Pole. The drop was a test for both Boeing and the Air Force to see if the airplane’s computers could handle navigation and drop computation this close to the Pole. A pair of Air Force officers and a handful of Kiwi Army soldiers have been on station for four or so days preparing for the drop. We ate lunch with the Air Force officers the other day and gleaned some valuable insights into the why and how of the drop.

Basler at the South Pole

The C-17 airdrop was originally scheduled to occur around 20:30 local time last night, which put it hard on the heels of three arrivals and departures from the skiway. Around 20:00 I put on a slew of my ECW gear and went out to the skiway to watch the fun. The evening started with the arrival and departure of an LC-130 Hercules. After that, a plane known as a Basler came in to land. The Basler is basically a DC-3 with a fancy paint-job and modern five-blade turboprop engines. Just minutes after the Basler landed, another Twin Otter came in to land, joining the one from the British Antarctic Survey that has been flying in and out of the Pole for the past couple days.

What I didn’t know, because I’d been outside to watch all these landings and take-offs, is that the air drop had been pushed back to 21:30 or later. So, I ended up sitting around the RF pad for roughly an hour waiting for the air drop. Finally, about 21:30, word came over the radio that the C-17 was ten or fifteen minutes out.

The C-17’s cargo was about 70,000 pounds of food. The local wags started wondering if there was a pallet of nearly 20,000 pounds of corn dogs in amongst all that food. The plan was for the plane to come in about 1,000 feet, make one pass over the drop zone, circle back around, and then release the food on the second pass. Meanwhile, the Kiwi Army guys and the Air Force officers were stationed in the drop zone in piston bullies and on snow mobiles.

The C-17 is an impressively big plane when it flies overhead at 1,000 feet. The first pass was uneventful, and the circling around process took about ten minutes which had all the spectators wondering if the air drop had been called off for some reason.

C-17 Airdrop

Eventually, the plane came around for its second pass. As it neared the drop zone, drogue chutes started appearing from the back of the plane and soon food cartons were falling through the sky. Shortly after being pulled out of the back of the plane by the drogue chutes, the main chutes opened and the food cartons floated softly to the snow and ice. The crowd on the RF pad let out a spontaneous cheer (hey, who doesn’t cheer a successful air drop?). Then, the show was over.

I trudged back to the station, which took about twenty minutes. By the time I got back to my room I was feeling the cold since I had been out in -45°F wind chill, standing on snow and ice, for over two hours. ECW gear is good, but it isn’t perfect.