Fueling Aviation in Antarctica
When it comes to aviation, ground support is often behind-the-scenes work that may go unnoticed but carries great importance. That’s true, even more so, when ground handling is supporting flights into one of the most remote places in the world.
Situated at McMurdo Station within Ross Sound in Antarctica, Chad Goodale is a fuels supervisor employed by the Antarctic Support Contract. The primary contractor at the station is Leidos and he is employed by PAE as a subcontractor. As their client, the National Science Foundation funds his company’s work.
“As fuels supervisor, I’m responsible for overseeing logistics, quality assurance, training and implementation of fuel services to support the US Antarctic Program mission,” Goodale explains. “On a daily basis, I meet with the staff to assign daily tasking, cover a safety topic and address lessons learned.
“Each day fuel samples from the airfield and heliport are tested within our laboratory for quality assurance.”
A Chilly Introduction to Aviation
In 2004, Goodale was graduating from college and saw his friends heading into the workforce.
“I decided on a different path,” Goodale says.
Working at a sandwich shop in Fort Collins, Colo., at the time, Goodale coordinated with his manager, who had experience deploying to Antarctica each season.
“He put me in touch with the human resources department. I attended their job fair and the rest is history,” Goodale says.
Goodale was not previously experienced in aviation or petroleum products prior to being deployed to Antarctica.
“I was first exposed to aviation when I joined the US Antarctic Program as a fuels operator in October of 2013. I was immediately exposed to both military and civilian aircraft such as C-17 GlobeMasters, LC-130 Hercules, Twin Otter, DC3 Baslers, Bell 212 and A-star Helicopters,” Goodale recalls.
However, his experience designing large-scale irrigation systems for retail shopping centers and other developments prepared him for comparable concepts.
“The principles within the fuels department are similar, including fluid dynamics such as flow rates, friction loss calculations and pump types,” Goodale explains. “The major exception is it's fuel and not water. Additional considerations come into play as well as the need to understand how fuel acts differently than water, and the need to focus on static build-up and above ground impacts of expansion and contractions within pipelines.”
Sub-zero Work Conditions
The harsh environment prompts quick learning, primarily how to stay warm while working all day.
“The work is hard, and the hours are long, but the community of people whom surround you make it all worthwhile,” Goodale explains. “Attitude is key. Maintaining a positive attitude can take you far.”
While the schedule is prone to daily changes, Goodale and his team will have three LC-130 morning lines and two LC-130 night lines. The Twin Otters and Baslers vary depending on the time of the year but can fly in and out up to eight times per day.
“In McMurdo, we have two airfields – one is a skiway, which the LC-130s, Twin Otters and Baslers fly out of. The second airfield is an ice runway,” Goodale explains. “The surface is as dense as a paved surface to support the weight of a C-17 GlobeMaster, Airbus A319, C-130 and 757.
“Over the course of a 16-week flying season, we typically see 70-80 flights reach the South Pole to deliver valuable cargo resupply, science cargo and over 80,000 gallons of fuel to resupply fuel reserves in preparation for the fast-approaching winter,” he continues. “Every year, we have various deep field camps with required resupply flights of fuel and cargo. The number of flights to each camp varies annually, but the latest field camp we’re supporting is the Thwaites project, which is a collaborative effort between the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the United States Antarctic Program (USAP).
Last year, alone, Goodale’s team delivered more than 50,000 gallons via LC-130, along with cargo. According to Goodale, that is equivalent to 50 flights.
Much of the work performed by Goodale’s team is considered sustaining, but they have seasonal projects as well.
“Each year, between September and October, we lay a 6” layflat Angus Chemicoil hose 7.5 miles from McMurdo Station to the William Field skiway,” Goodale says. “This project takes over six weeks from start to finish. Following its completion, the hose line is used to transfer 80,000 to 160,000 gallons a week throughout the season. In a typical year, we’ll transfer 1.2 to 1.5 million gallons of AN-8 through this pipeline.”
Throughout October and November, Goodale and his crew drain bulk tanks that require cleaning or are slated to receive an API out-of-service inspection for recertification.
Then, starting in January, preparations are being made to receive a resupply tanker.
“Every other year, we receive a mass resupply of fuel to replenish our reserves,” Goodale explains. “On-station, we can bulk store a three-year supply of fuel, two years of operations reserves and one year as a contingency.”
In order to receive the tanker, Goodale says a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Cutter Polar Star is deployed to break the ice within the Ross Sound. The Polar Star is deployed from Seattle and once the ice breaking is complete, a fuel resupply is required.
“We’ll typically transfer 300,000 to 400,000 gallons to the ship,” Goodale says.
“Once the ice channel has been milled, the USCG Polar Star will escort the annual resupply vessel and tanker into the McMurdo pier,” he adds. “The first week of February is when the tanker is pier side. This evolution takes 72 to 96 hours to offload approximately 185,000 gallons of mid-grade unleaded motor gasoline (MUM), 850,000 gallons of JP-5 and 6.7 million gallons of AN-8.”
Following a safe completion, all efforts are then focused on shutting down operations in preparation for winter.
“The ‘fuelies’ work very hard to leave operations in the capable hands of our two winter-over operators whom will remain until the following October and look after winter operations,” Goodale says.
While some workers stay year-round, Goodale (like the majority of personnel) is deployed to Antarctica from October through February. During this time, the bulk of science is conducted and samples are collected. He spends the months of March through September in Denver, spending the northern hemisphere summer season by helping complete planning for the next deployment.
“I work on hiring candidates for the upcoming season, procurement of consumables, equipment and updating process and procedure,” he says. “It’s a very busy time of year.”
Within Goodale’s department, there are 24 personnel on staff in Antarctica during the peak season. These people are stationed in various places, including the helicopter refueling station at Marble Point – 60 miles away from McMurdo Station – and deep field camps stationed at the South Pole Station.
“We have five different positions starting at the top with the fuels supervisor, and then a fuels foreman, fuels coordinator, six fuel operator leads and 14 fuels operators,” Goodale says.
Challenges Presented by the Cold
It’s not surprising to learn the biggest challenge of ground handling aircraft in Antarctica is battling extreme weather conditions and adhering to environmental requirements.
“We’re constantly struggling to keep equipment from weeping,” Goodale notes. “Because Antarctica is a protected area, we’re responsible for mitigating any release into the environment. We take spills very seriously.
“In order to maintain such high standards, we implement a rigorous preventative maintenance and lifecycle replacement program,” he adds. “Our equipment is routinely inspected and repaired to operate in such harsh conditions as Antarctica.”
The ground support equipment (GSE) used by Goodale’s team is comparable to what’s used at other airports. However, the way it is used can sometimes vary. When it comes to the fueling process itself, the biggest difference is aircraft come to the fuel pits to receive fuel instead of a truck or hydrant parking alongside a plane at the gate.
“Because our runway and ramp are made of snow, we can’t have any permanent structures. So, we use portable tanks and 4” portable hoses to deliver fuel to aircraft,” Goodale says. “Our fuel is delivered via a 6” layflat Angus Chemicoil hose. The hose is laid over seven-plus miles and delivers an average of 1.5 million gallons over the course of a season.”
There are other unique elements of working in the southernmost area of the planet, beyond the cold.
“When I deploy, I can expect the sun to set for a few hours over the course of a few short weeks. When the sun does go down, there is still a bright glow upon the horizon,” Goodale explains. “By the third week in October, it’s 24/7 daylight until mid-February.”
It takes a specific personality and mental fortitude to work in Antarctica. During the peak season, the population at McMurdo station can exceed 1,000 people. But Goodale says the average number fluctuates between 750 and 850 people. But those people make the job worth it, he says.
“People ask ‘why?’” Goodale says in regard to working in an extreme climate. “Aside from the obvious, that it’s a unique place to visit, the biggest reason is the people. I have had the opportunity to meet and work side-by-side with some amazing people.”