Near the bottom of the globe, an American crew took off from a New Zealand runway to help a stranded British ship.
In one of the most treacherous reaches of the earth, a crew comprised of units based at McChord Air Force Base were the heroes Friday.
The Argos Georgia, a British fishing trawler, was stuck since Christmas Eve amidst floes near the Ross Ice Shelf deep below the Antarctic Circle. A broken engine piston left the ship without main power for six days. Dangerous icebergs weren’t far off. Two low-pressure systems were approaching the area, and Lt. Col. Jim McGann, the commander of Operation Deep Freeze, didn’t need Doppler radar to know that the trawler’s 25-person crew was in trouble.
"You could see two big sets of dark clouds coming in," he said. "And once that gets rocking, those icebergs look even more dangerous. Those guys were going to be in a lot of trouble if they didn’t get any help."
Other options to save the stranded crew would take at least 10 days, so on Friday night, a C-17 Globemaster III with an Air Force crew comprised of units from McChord Air Force Base took off from Christchurch, New Zealand, and airdropped the engine part to the trawler.
McGann received a call Friday from New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center asking for help. The request from the owner of the ship’s company went through several layers of bureaucracy – submitted through the British Embassy, and then approved by Pacific Command, Transportation Command and the Air Mobility Command – before the situation was designated an emergency and approved.
This time, the machine worked quickly.
"They approved it in 18 hours," he said. "That’s pretty spectacular."
The airmen purchased the engine parts from a local marine store and picked up parachutes from McMurdo Station. Crews palletized the equipment and attached buoys on them. The C-17 flew at about 135 mph and as low as 300 feet above at the surface as it approached the ship, and it dropped the 15-by-7½-foot pallet at just after 10 p.m. New Zealand time. The crew recovered the shipment in about five minutes.
The mission took about 10 hours.
"I’ve flown more than 50 missions down here, and yesterday’s mission was one of the most spectacular I’ve ever flown," McGann said.
The 118-foot vessel, registered in the British overseas territory of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, was on a long-haul fishing expedition.
Operation Deep Freeze is a joint mission with crews from the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings based at McChord Air Force Base assisting the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Antarctic Program. They’re there six months a year to airlift supplies to research stations in Antarctica.
"We have a motto: ‘Global Reach,’ " McGann said. "And yesterday’s mission demonstrates that we can be anywhere in the world in hours. It demonstrated we can do it, and that we do do it."