Air Force’s support to Operation Southern Discovery in Antarctica for this season took off with the delivery of some heavy duty caterpillars.

A C-17A Globemaster departed Hobart on November 15 for Wilkins Aerodrome in Antarctica in the first of three missions in a week, and delivered Caterpillar Challenger traverse tractors.

Each tractor weighs about 27 tonnes, and is more than 3.5m high and nearly 4.5m long.

The tractors were modified by a Hobart-based engineering company to withstand the harshest weather conditions on Earth.

The Challenger tractors are an integral part of the Australian Government’s commitment to researching the ice core, which is part of the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20-year action plan.

The tractors are capable of towing an entire mobile research station deep inland from Casey research station with fuel, food supplies, accommodation, scientific facilities, power generation and infrastructure to support 16 people drilling an ice core dating back one million years.

Commanding Officer No. 29 Squadron Wing Commander Dion Wright said the current COVID-19 climate made this one of the most challenging seasons for his team delivering the supplies.

“Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we have had to take additional measures to prevent COVID-19 from reaching Antarctica, including maintaining the safety and welfare of the personnel involved with the Australian Antarctic Program, such as quarantining and strict movement control and additional sanitisation of crew vehicles,” he said.

“The relationship forged between 29 Squadron and the Australian Antarctic Division has meant that we have worked extremely well together under difficult circumstances to enable delivery of critical supplies to the ice.”

Operation Southern Discovery has become routine and part of the annual flying program, but the nature of this mission remains highly unique and specialised.

Luckily, the squadron team is cool under pressure and well versed in keeping up with the high tempo during the Austral summer. It is also flexible in supporting the needs of the operation.

“As a squadron, we have been supporting missions to Antarctica for five years with air base support for military aircraft, air-load movement co-ordination and cargo delivery support,” Wing Commander Wright said.

“I am extremely proud of the dedication and commitment of our members to ensure the pristine and protected landscape of Antarctica is preserved through our missions.”

Temporary Commanding Officer No. 36 Squadron Squadron Leader Brett Aaker said this year was the fifth Operation Southern Discovery season supported by RAAF C-17A Globemasters.

“Operation Southern Discovery has become routine and part of the annual flying program, but the nature of this mission remains highly unique and specialised,” Squadron Leader Aaker said.

“As a testament to the C-17A and the people who operate and support it, 36 Squadron remains ready to operate to this harsh climate at a moment’s notice with a high mission success rate.

“The majority of Operation Southern Discovery missions involve the transport of equipment, supplies and vehicles between Australia and Antarctica.

“There also continues to be evolving opportunities to provide vital assistance to bespoke activities, such as complex air-drop tasks, or providing essential resupplies of remote scientific and exploration efforts.”

Further C-17A missions to Antarctica are scheduled for February and March next year before the Austral summer comes to an end.