Text © 1975 Ed Freeney, Jerry Schleining and Claude Lorius [Translation GD].
Pictures © 1977 Billy Perritt and Richar Sheehan, used with permission.
"Great God ! this is an awful place." — Scott (1868—1912), referring to the South Pole.
In december 1974, LCDR Ed Freeney of VXE-6 performed the first Touch-and-go landing at Dome C with a ski-equipped C-130. With his team they were the first people to reach Dome C. Thinking it was too dangerous he made recommendations to his commanding officer to not land any more planes there. The sastrugi were too well developed, it was too rough, there was no suitable place to land within a 30km radius. The VXE-6 squadron commanding officer could have refused the missions based on safety concerns, but he bowed to pressure from the National Science Foundation, who in turn was getting pressure from the US State Department who was getting pressure from the French Antarctic Program Director. It was all politics, so the first summer campaign was launched a few days after that.
VXE-6 (Antarctic Development Squadron Six) was the Navy squadron that provided support for the US Antarctic Program. The New York Air National Guard now provides this support.
Telegrams from Antarctica by Claude Lorius:
Right: The damaged nose of one of the crashed C-130s (image courtesy Billy Perritt)
On January 15th we close the camp. The resistant equipment is stored and flagged outside; we move inside the Jamesway tent everything we can including the snowmachine and the power generator. On the table we leave a welcome message and a bottle of Cognac. All the openings are sealed carefully to keep snow out of the shelter. Small dot on the horizon, the C130 flies towards us and lands; after unloading the drums we board: men, samples and books filled with notes.
At 19:00, clear sky, low wind, -30°C. The airplane runs on 3 or 4 km, leaves the ground briefly, touches again. And then everything happens real fast: an explosion, a piece of propeller through the cockpit, fire near the back door. We end up outside, stunned, with some survival gear that was at hand. One of the engines is burning. One of the JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) rockets that the plane uses to gather speed (necessary at this altitude) has exploded, set fire to one of the engines and tilted the plane that dug up in the snow, its forward skid broken. No time for philosophy: the pilot and copilot, a bit shocked, are in street shoes and we are several km from the camp. We start the snowmachine to get everybody back to the tent. We restart the fuel stove and at 21:30 everybody is warm. Coffee and Cognac; some already have headaches and stick to water. McMurdo has been warned with the radio. Nobody's been hurt.
At midnight two other C-130 land in succession. Cursory visit of the damaged plane for a first evaluation of the damage by the mechanics; I take this opportunity to recover my camera and notes left during the panic. A first airplane in which boarded some of the passengers and the previous crew tries several times to take off without using booster rockets. We see it leave the ground, fall back... it 'dances' more and more. One of the skids breaks off the plane. Here again the snow dampens the 'landing'... no casualties.
January 16th, 3:00, the last C130 is full. Called off its flight path to the south pole there were already passengers and an extra fuel tank on board. Full so dangerous ? I don't know because everything is done in a hurry, in a very tense situation. There are 43 people on board: the flight operational team, the crashed teams, the south pole passengers and the Dome C residents. All the american operations have been postponed: the last two C130 operating in Antarctica are circling above us. We tie everything up the sloping back door to lighten the front of the airplane as much as possible, where the skids are. Full throttle... one minute, two maybe that seem an eternity; ignition of the rockets and the plane takes off. General "Hurrah" followed by "Fuck You Dome Charlie". It was a near disaster but at 4:30 we land in the McMurdo fog.
But for two of us the campaign is not over yet. After many hesitation two flights are planned to Dome C. The americans want to evaluate the damages and see whether the crashed airplanes, expensive and impossible to replace unless on the long term, can be salvaged. We have to help them; at least by restarting the camp equipment that we know well. Those flights will be without surprise; after 3 hours of fear on the first flight the return will be a liberation. But also some doubts: those crashes leave us with little chance of performing our deep drilling.
Right: One of the crashed airplanes (LC-130 BUNO 319) during the recovery mission (image courtesy Billy-Ace Baker).
I truly don't feel qualified as any sort of authority on the Dome Charlie issues, but was involved with the Logistical Operations end of things at McMurdo Terminal Operations, we were all involved to some extent in the effort to recover the Two US Naval Air Craft "Downed" at Dome Charlie. Since I arrived on the "Ice" in 1975, that begins my frame of reference relating to Dome C.
After the crew of the downed C-130 containing the French contingent requested SOS assistance, the US Navy responded in the form of the United States Naval Air Delivery Squadron Six (VXE-6 is the Unit Designation)... The Squadron comprised seven LC-130 Aircraft (Ski Equip).
The first LC 130 on site crashed on take off... a second Aircraft was dispatched to recover the French and American Crews. This was successful. The next year, a crew was sent to Dome C to check the feasibility of recovering the LC 130... That Aircraft crashed on Take Off. Fortunately no one was hurt in any of these mishaps. That put two (and later 3) US LC-130 "Broken" on Dome Charlie.
In 1976, US Army Engineer Captain Timothy Sweeny was detailed to the Navy to establish an Air Strip and Camp at Dome Charlie to allow for a crew of civilian Airframe experts from Cherry Point, North Carolina and VXE-6 Maintenance types to come to Dome C to repair and recover the Aircraft.
Left: VXE-6 crew members working on an engine of the C-130 (image courtesy Billy-Ace Baker).
Countless sorties were flown into Dome C with tons of supplies and equipment to include a D4 tractor (that was left at the site and most likely is under years of snow by now). Captain Sweeny set up, established and ran the Camp with 12 Navy Seabees and VXE-6 maintenance personnel, one Chief Corpsman an one New Zealand mountaineer. They had a mess tent, sleeping quarters and maintenance facilities set up. Of note: They all had to spend days at the South Pole to Acclimatize prior to going to Dome C.
Right: Digging the snow under the propeller during the recovery mission (image courtesy Billy Perritt)
Ultimately, in 1976 two of the LC-130 Aircraft were recovered and rebuilt at Dome Charlie, to include new wings, engines, etc... and flown to McMurdo, then to Christchurch and shipped via water back to the US for refit. It was a very special event for all in the Command at the time.
The Chief of Naval Operation awarded all the personnel in the Command at the time the Meritorious Unit Commendation (Military Medal)... Only US Military personnel were awarded this medal with the exception of the 16 Civilian Technicians from Carolina. This was an extreme exception to military standards. But well earned by them and all those involved.
I personally visited Dome Charlie on a "Turn Around Flight" and spent a few hours on the ground there. Tourist were not a favorable entity at the time, as all space and weight went to priority cargo. My trip there was based on Captain Sweeny "rewarding me" for my involvement.
Why were the planes repaired and not just abandoned ? Two C-130 worth 19M$ against a repair mission evaluated to 3M$ pitting 50 engineer, technicians and support team members in a race against time: 12-hour shifts for the next 55 days to rebuild the airplanes and fly them back to McMurdo and then to New Zealand.
Left: The repair camp. Notice the dismantled wing and the space heaters and tubes going under parachutes (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
Ski-equipped LC-130s were introduced in 1960 and are still a closely guarded secret: foreign countries can purchase C-130s, but never with the skis. This provided the US Navy, then in charge of Antarctic support, the ability to support scientists basically anywhere on the Antarctic continent, as opposed to other countries who limit their access to the coast or heavy surface traverses.
Right: Re-attaching the wing (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
On January 15th LC-130F number 148319 was sent to retrieve the science team of frenchmen working at Dome Charlie. The surface was covered in sastrugi 6 to 24" high and 25 to 40' apart. Because of the difficulty of open-ski takeoff associated with the high altitude, a jet-assisted takeoff was used. A few seconds after it was fired, one rocket on starboard blew up, damaging the fuselage and starting a fire in the right inboard engine, the aircraft skidding in a half circle to a halt. The fire spread to the outboard engine and destroyed the wing. The crew and passenger escaped unhurt and the rest of the aircraft escaped serious damage.
Left: Re-attaching the wing (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
Another Hercules, LC-130R number 159129 in flight near McMurdo immediately responded to the assistance call by flying to Dome C. It was one of the 3 newest aircrafts in use in Antarctica at the time. It landed and picked up the passengers. In order to avoid the risk of JATO trouble it decided to take off without. The high elevation and lack of additional thrust resulted in a very long takeoff slide over rough snow. Just as it was to become airborne, the nose gear collapsed. The pilot brought it to a halt with only some buckling of the lower fuselage. Again, no one was injured.
Right: Re-attaching the wing (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
A third Hercules, LC-130R 159231, flew to the accident scene and evacuated everyone, this time using JATO. Loss of these two aircrafts seriously affected the science program in Antarctica. Other than some early C-130D ski-equipped Hercules with lower range and payload capabilities than the Antarctic models, the 3 remaining LC-130s constituted the world's only ski-equipped, heavy-lift aircraft capability. These damaged aircrafts thus were a unique national asset that could be replaced only by expensive new production. Investigation on the practicality of recovering the aircraft began immediately.
Following an inspection by Naval Air Systems Command engineers, a decision was made to repair and recover the aircrafts. Plans called for flying in an advance party early in November 1975 to prepare a camp and a skiway. The skiway was indispensable for two reasons: to eliminate the rough takeoffs and to permit LC-130 operations at greater weights.
Left: A trench that had to be dug to reach around the aircraft after only a year on the high plateau. Notice the parachutes covering the plane where hot air is blown allowing the technicians to work in better conditions (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
After the camp [7 buildings including a 20 meters long mess hall] and a skiway were prepared in mid-november, a repair team would be brought in. The team would rebuild the lower fuselage and nose gear of 129 and remove and repair the center wing section, the right outer wing panel and the starboard engines of 319. The working season would end in late january when deteriorating weather traditionally halts summer operations. This period appeared long enough to complete the repairs necessary to fly both aircrafts off Dome C to McMurdo and on to New Zealand or the USA for final repairs.
Right: View of the Jamesway camp (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
Field shelters, called Jamesways, for sleeping, eating, workshops and relaxation, would form the core of the camp. Generators, portable heaters and tracked vehicles (including a D-4 bulldozer) all transportable by LC-130, were assembled. A snowplane for smoothing the skiway and portable work shelters were purchased.
Left: C-130 with a construction frame around it (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
A new center wing section for 319 and repair kits for other damaged areas of 319 and 129 were ordered from Lockheed Georgia Company. The repair material lists were reviewed carefully since the lack of a part, no matter how small, would result in many days of delay while special (and expensive) arrangements would have to be made to fly in the part.
Right: Inside a tent the heater dominates the middle of the space (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
A repair team was assembled, combining the engineering expertise of Lockheed Georgia Company and craftsmen from Naval Aircraft Rework Facility, Cherry Point, North Carolina, each worker an expert in his field.
On 31 october at Dome C, a team set up Jamesways for quarters, activated generators and vehicles and began construction of the all-important skiway. A continuing of flights brought in other camp equipment and fuel.
Left: Temporary summer camp erected for the repair mission. The red device in the foreground is used to flatten the snow of the airstrip (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
On 4 november, after having delivered a large tractor, LF-130F number 148320 was damaged. A few seconds after ignition during the takeoff slide, a starboard JATO bottle came loose, traveled along the fuselage, hitting and tearing the skin and hitting a blade of the inward propeller. The bottle and the propeller shattered, sending debris into the fuselage behind the copilot's seat. 320 was brought to a quick stop and was evacuated. Once again, no one was hurt and there was no fire.
Now there ware 3 down. Operation Deep Freeze 76 had but two LC-130Rs, the minimum that could be operated safely to the stations with only skiways.
Right: C-130 and repair structure (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
The Dome C camp was evacuated on 16 november. Round the clock flights with the remaining LC-130Rs were made to South Pole Station to deliver supplies, including 100 000 gallons of diesel fuel thus assuring about a two-year life support capability for the station. A flight was made to Siple station, 1300 nautical miles from McMurdo, relieving the station crew that had been isolated for about a year.
Left: The temporary camp. 15 years later those tents were still there, abandoned 'as is', almost completely covered with snow, with food still on the plates. An antarctic ghost town (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
After completion of these essential tasks, preparation was made to reestablish the Dome C camp. To minimize the risky operations there, only 3 flights were planned to deliver the camp crew, the snowplane and other vital support equipment. Then both aircrafts would go to New Zealand for much needed maintenance while the snowplane was used to finish the skiway, which was expected to take about at least 10 days. After the aircraft returned from New Zealand, a Navy repair crew from the squadron would be flown to the camp with an engine and a propeller to replace those damaged in November. After other temporary structural and electrical repairs, 148320 would be flown to New Zealand for further repairs.
The new plan began on 7 december. Three flights were completed safely in about 10 hours.
Right: C-130 and repair structure (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
While planning for recovery of 320 progressed, it became apparent that enough time was available for the NARF/Lockheed team to try torepair 129 as was originally planned. This team arrived at Dome C with the Navy repair crew on 22 december 1975.
By the next day, the Navy crew had repaired the electrical wiring, started the 3 good engines and taxied 320 to a more convenient work area next to 129. During the next two days, this crew removed the damaged engine and propeller, installed and rigged new ones, and started the engine. At the same time, temporary structural repairs to the fuselage were being completed. On 26 december, 320 lifted off the skiway for McMurdo. This was the first time a downed aircraft had been recovered from the antarctic plateau.
Left: The trench. Although it snows only about 5cm every year at Dome C, heavy and dark objects tend to dig themselves in the snow much quicker. Add to this enough wind to form spindrifts and after just a year half of a plane is under packed snow you wouldn't want to shovel out (image courtesy Richard Sheehan)
The NARF/Lockheed team was equally busy. Under a draped parachute shelter, the extensive work continued of jacking up the nose of 129, removing the damaged structure and equipment from the lower fuselage nose area, and installing the new nose structure, fitting and trimming as necessary in the -10° to -40°F temperatures. Within a week equipment was in place: radome, crew entrance door, battery box, plumbing and so on. By 7 january 1976 the aircraft systems could be checked out. Then the props were unfeathered and cycled, the gas turbine compressor started, the bleed air system, the inverters, the oil cool flaps and the fuel pumps operated until, on 9 january, the engines were started. After having been on the ice plateau five days short of a year, 129 was brought to life and, five days later, it was flown to McMurdo station.
Even with the great technological improvements that have been made in antarctic operations, the harsh climate and environment still can catch the unwary. The accidents at Dome C provide renewed examples. Yet, through careful planning and implementation, these operations can be accomplished successfully. The recovery of two LC-130 Hercules from the high east antarctic plateau shows that it can be done, and is a tribute to those who took part directly as well as in supporting roles.
But the third part of this operation remains to be completed — an attempt to recover the third LS-130, number 148319, will be made during the 1976-1977 austral summer... Also the success of this rescue will prompt the rescue of another C130 crashed 15 years previously at D59 and now under a thick coat of snow.
Those pictures were sent to me by Michel Martin Onraet.
Right: 319 after crashing at Dome Charlie.
Left: 319 after crashing at Dome Charlie.
Right: Hole on the side of 319 where the propeller went through.
Left: The broken wing from the side.
Right: The broken wing from the front.
Left: The broken wing and its propeller laying on the ground.
Right: 319 seen from the back.
Left: Another view of the broken wing.
Right: The hole where the propeller went in is visible on the upper side of the body.
Left: A broken and tilted 319.
Right: Aerial view of 319 after a year at Dome Charlie.
Left: Another angle from the air. Repairs will start promptly.
Right: Digging 319 out before starting repairs.
Left: Towing 319 after clipping the other wing.
Right: 319 showing area of Jato damage.
Left: Worker bees at Dome Charlie LC-130 salvage camp.
Right: 319 being towed to camp for more repair work after fixing the wings.
Left: Taking a break at the Dome Charlie repair camp. Sign reads as follows: We've been doing so much for so long with so little that now we can do anything with nothing forever!
Right: New propeller for 319.
Left: Installing new engine on 319.
Right: CDR Desko CO VXE-6 (left) and Capt Lefty Nordhill task force commander (right) toast completion of 319 salvage work at Dome Charlie.
Left: Pilot and crew before initial test flight of 319, post-repairs.
Next: 3 years later, the first drilling at Dome C.