In late January a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A dropped supplies by parachute to Wilkins Airfield, near the Australian Antarctic Division research station at Casey on the southern continent.
While this itself was not remarkable – RAAF C-17As have been flying Air-Land and Air Drop missions in support of AAD scientists on the ice since 2015 – the event marked the first time that two alternate parachute delivery methods were used.
In a single mission on January 27, the C-17A delivered a load using the Joint Precision Air Drop System (JPADS) of guided parachutes and two versions of the Low-Cost Aerial Delivery System (LCADS), which utilises non-reusable parachutes.
The drops were part of a trial to validate the feasibility of resupplying a convoy of vehicles, ahead of an AAD mission to traverse across the continent beginning next Antarctic summer. The traverse is in support of the Australian-led Million Year Ice Core project, which aims to drill an ice core 3,000 metres deep in Antarctica to recover million year-old ice.
Operation Southern Delivery
The RAAF’s current involvement in Antarctic operations is Operation Southern Delivery, which began in 2014 and has resulted in a series of C-17A resupply flights to Wilkins each Austral summer since 2015.
Southern Delivery is the ADF’s contribution to a whole of government activity, led by the Department of Environment and Energy, in the Antarctic region.
“It’s an enduring peacetime activity in support of Australia’s national interests and consistent with Antarctic Treaty prohibition of military activity, other than the provision of personnel and equipment for scientific or other peaceful purposes,” explained Wing Commander Dean Bolton, Executive Officer of 86 Wing at Amberley.
“We flew proof of concept missions to Antarctica in the 2015-16 season and since then we’ve been flying between six and eight missions per season over the Austral summer period.”
While the Air-Land mission is the preferred method of resupply, Air-Drop is not as contingent on good weather and can enable rapid resupply of personnel who are not near an ice runway.
The Million Year Ice Core project traverse is expected to begin in the next (2020-2021) season and should the convoy become immobilised on its journey, or otherwise in need of rapid resupply, accurate aerial delivery is an important contingency.
“We have performed a number of tactical airdrops in Antarctica already, but the difference between with the mission in January was it was to support a convoy which is underway. Usually with airdrop we provide our crews with detailed drop zone surveys, which are provided by personnel with specific training,” WGCDR Bolton said.
“The first part of our task was carried out pre-mission and we provided training to AAD headquarters in Hobart and personnel on the ice on how to establish a drop zone.”
An aspect to the mission was to validate procedures relating to late notification of an intended drop zone, so a Rapid Drop Zone (Rapid DZ) element was incorporated into the January 27 flight. This method requires personnel on the ice to advise their position and a drop zone survey is then generated remotely.
A further element practised On-Call drop, in which the drop zone party at Wilkins informed the crew of their position when the C-17A was about 20 minutes out, at top of descent, and the crew dropped on the supplied GPS co-ordinates.
“We are contingency planning; the guys on the ice plan to be self-sufficient but we want to be prepared, so the mission essentially tested the hardest, most dynamic and fluid, methods,” WGCDR Bolton added. “It was the first time Australia has done On-Call delivery and Rapid DZ on the ice, so the first drop used On-Call methodology and the crew then repositioned for a Rapid DZ, for which we gave them the drop zone survey just prior to launching, and then they performed a JPADS drop.”
JPADS and LCADS
JPADS is already in use with the RAAF, being employed by both the C-17A and C-130J Hercules and will soon be cleared for use by the C-27J Spartan.
The system is essentially a kit fitted to a standard container delivery system (CDS). It uses a GPS system which receives up to date information from the aircraft before release and is aided by steerable parachutes. It is capable of being dropped up to 24,000ft and suitable for retrieval and re-use. The drop on the January 27 mission occurred from 10,000ft and landed within 30 metres of its intended target.
LCADS is widely used by the US Air Force, but has only recently been acquired by the ADF, in small numbers, for use in trials. It uses low-cost parachutes which arrive from the manufacturer pre-packed and are intended to be a one-shot delivery system.
The system comes in two forms - a low velocity parachute typically dropped between 1,000ft and 3,000ft; and a high velocity parachute, which can be employed between 3,000ft and 25,000ft,” explained Wing Commander Cameron Clarke, Commanding Officer of the RAAF’s Air Movements Training and Development Unit (AMTDU). “The nominal profile in Antarctica would be the high velocity LCADS dropped from around 3,000ft, which provide a safety buffer for surrounding terrain and – because the HV system is in the air column for a shorter period - improved accuracy.
Clean and accurate
“The real benefit is that LCADS is purchased as a ‘plug and play’ system, which comes already packed from the manufacturer and we attach it to a load and drop it. Because it is a low-cost ‘one shot’ system it allows the AAD to bag them up as rubbish and send them back to Australia on the ship and they don’t have any specialised handling requirements on the ice.
“The other reason they’re very attractive is, because they are a brand-new parachute every time, they are very clean.”
This latter point is very important in pristine environments such as Antarctica and in the lead up to the January 27 mission, AMTDU and Army’s 176 Dispatch Squadron (who assemble many of the loads) partnered with the AAD to develop procedures for loads which will be dropped onto the ice. This included measures such as sterilising hangar floors where the loads are built up and then wrapping it in plastic.
“We’re developing procedures now that are not just applicable to Antarctica, there are other pristine environments in our region where we may want to conduct resupply – in Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations for example,” WGCDR Clarke said. “We will now have best practices to ensure against biosecurity hazards.”
This article first appeared in the April 2020 edition of ADM.