Taking off from Perth just before midnight on August 19, a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-17A Globemaster III successfully air-dropped more than nine tonnes of supplies in Antarctica under the cover of darkness. Covering a distance of 11,000 kilometres, the 15-hour round trip was part of Operation Southern Discovery, the Australian Defence Force (ADF)’s support for Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) research in Antarctica. The supplies comprised vital equipment, fresh food, medical supplies, mail and gifts from loved ones to the 18 scientists, researchers and staff at Mawson Station.
Co-pilot of the C-17A, Flying Officer Jack Palmer said, “he flying conditions at Mawson drop zone presented some challenges. One of the unique challenges was the night-time aspect of the drop, which we accounted for in our pre-mission planning with the AAD. The mission was a unique experience and was very rewarding to be a part of. It was a great experience working with external agencies to Defence, as well as being involved in some more complex mission planning in order to get the job done.”
Because of the vast distance to the drop zone and back, an in-flight refuelling was required over the Southern Ocean from a RAAF KC-30A multi-role tanker transport. The mission spanned NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. More than three months of planning went into it, which was made more complex by the COVID-19 pandemic. Strict biosecurity measures were in place to protect against COVID-19, and to protect the pristine natural environment in Antarctica. Personnel from Army’s 176 Air Dispatch Squadron were required to quarantine in Tasmania for two weeks before they could get to work building the load.
Operation Southern Discovery is the ADF contribution to the whole-of-government, Department of Environment and Energy-led activity in the Antarctic Region – the Australian Antarctic Program (AAP). Operation SOUTHERN DISCOVERY is an enduring peace-time activity in support of the Australian Antarctic Division. It includes Australia’s national interests, which are based on the region’s scientific, environmental, strategic and economic importance. The ADF involvement in the AAP is consistent with the Antarctic Treaty’s prohibition of any military activity other than the provision of personnel or equipment in support of scientific or other peaceful purposes.
Operation SOUTHERN DISCOVERY covers approximately 7 per cent of the world’s surface and includes Antarctic locations, the Southern Ocean south of 60 degrees, the internationally recognised Australian EEZ of Macquarie Island as well as the territory of Heard Island and McDonald Island (HIMI). Operation SOUTHERN DISCOVERY occurs annually, and is primarily, although not exclusively, in support during each Austral summer period (i.e. November to March). Australia’s commitment to Operation SOUTHERN DISCOVERY, including the number of personnel involved varies periodically, with a larger contribution during the summer months.