Air Force cadet walks on top of bottom of world

  • Published
  • By Butch Wehry
  • Academy Spirit Staff
For 10 days in December, an Air Force Academy meteorology major here walked on top of the bottom of planet Earth with the U.S. Antarctic Program and the Air Force's Nation Science Foundation.

"My task was to discover and observe the numerous NSF research and scientific projects occurring at McMurdo Station and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station," said Cadet 1st Class Patrick Warfel. "Another primary duty was to observe the Air Force logistical operations to include airlift, cargo transport, weather, services, medical, and the mission and role of Air Force personnel deployed to McMurdo Station."

The program began last year with two midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy. Participation was opened this year to cadets from all service academies.

Competitively selected for the research internship through the National Science Foundation offered to oceanography, Meteorology, and physics majors from the U.S. Service Academies and staying a night at Christchurch, New Zealand, the cadet from Renton, Wash., was "on ice" from Dec. 21 to New Years Eve.

"I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Antarctica and perhaps the South Pole of the Earth," said the cadet who will attend undergraduate pilot training after graduation with the goal of becoming a pilot. "I always heard about the C-130's that takeoff and land with skis and was naturally curious how the Air Force manages to operate in such extreme conditions and remote locations."

He couldn't have chosen a spot further from home or the Academy. Antarctica is the Earth's southernmost continent, overlying the South Pole. About 98 percent of Antarctica is covered by ice which averages at least 1.6 kilometers, or one mile, in thickness.

On average, Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all continents. Since there is little precipitation except at the coasts, the interior of the continent is technically the largest desert in the world. There are no permanent human residents.

The trip took considerable advance coordination between academic departments, the Naval Academy, NSF, Government Travel Office, and numerous other individuals who made the trip possible.

"The Antarctic Internship is a week-long program under the sponsorship of Air Force Lieutenant General Loyd "Chip" Utterback, U.S. Air Force, the standing Joint Task Force - Support Forces Antarctica commander for Operation DEEP FREEZE and Dr. Karl Erb, the director of Polar Programs for the National Science Foundation," said Col. Neal Rappaport, Academy associate professor and head of the Department of Economics and Geosciences.

Cadet Warfel was competitively selected to participate in this program.

Midshipman Leah Jordan from the U.S. Naval Academy was the other service academy participant. They were joined at McMurdo by Col. Ian Biggins, the defense department liaison officer to NSF.

Before departing to Antarctica the cadet did his best to study up on the Antarctic Air Force mission, DEEP FREEZE, the U.S. Antarctic Program, and the current NSF studies occurring on the "ice".

McMurdo Station is in fact a little town.

Roughly 1,000 people live there throughout the summer season; approximately 150 are Air Force personnel, and the rest are contractors with Raytheon, employees of NSF, or scientists/researchers.

"I tried to meet as many people as I could during my short stay," Cadet Warfel said. "I spent most of my time with officers and enlisted personnel from New York's 109th Airlift Wing Air National Guard as well as with weather observers and forecasters from the McMurdo Weather shop.

New Zealand's Scott Base is around the corner from McMurdo station and I was privileged to spend time with the 'Kiwi's', as they are called, on a few occasions."

He found Antarctica much more impressive than he'd ever imagined.

"Little did I know Antarctica has the highest average elevation of all continents and it is 1.4 times the size of the U.S.'" he said. "There are mountain ranges, volcanoes, lakes, and rocks, not just ice. McMurdo Station is built on rock and dirt. I was impressed with the infrastructure of McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station."

Furthermore, he was amazed to see an entire town, powered by generators, thrive and bustle where the sun never sets.

"I expected the facilities to be fair at best, but this was not the case," the cadet said. "I had my own dormitory room, with a shared bathroom, a land line telephone, and even a TV with seven channels. We used pagers down there to communicate instead of cell phones. LAN Internet was available on station along with a two-lane bowling alley, and a rock climbing wall."

He was surprised to see how everyone worked harmoniously, military and civilians, crane operators and pilots, janitors and priests, scientists and firefighters, day after day to support the overall mission to explore, discover, research, and preserve Antarctica, the coldest, windiest, driest place on Earth.

"The landscape and geography of the continent was simply beautiful and amazing," Cadet Warfel said. "Flying to the South Pole, looking outside the cockpit window along the route, I witnessed the pure beauty and vastness of Antarctica from the Trans-Antarctic mountain range, to massive glaciers and melting sea ice."