‘Not good enough’: Defense Forces personnel stranded in Antarctica for a month

The crew of a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) C-130H Hercules (NZ) carried out a medical evacuation (medevac) of Antarctica, a challenging mission given the daylight window was rapidly closing in April 2024.

The staff members were finally able to leave on April 17 thanks to a medical evacuation.
Photo: Supplied / NZDF

This story was updated at 4:49 pm on 02/05/2024.

Bad weather and aircraft availability left 12 Defense Forces personnel stranded in Antarctica for a month with an increasingly short window to leave before winter.

The crew of a Hercules plane finally managed to fly them home on April 17 as part of a medical evacuation for an American at McMurdo Station.

That was four weeks after they were supposed to leave on March 18.

ACT Defense Party spokesman Mark Cameron said if it hadn’t been for that flight they would have been stuck there even longer.

However, the Defense Forces said a US C-17 had been arranged to transport the remaining passengers back to Aotearoa.

During the summer season, over 200 Defense Forces personnel participated in Operation Antarctica working across multiple teams providing crucial logistics and maintenance support to teams in Antarctica, New Zealand and the United States.

The Defense Force said some of the Scott Base support team deployments lasted about six months and that personnel spent most of their time on the ice.

A deployment to Antarctica included different experiences, from learning to survive in temperatures as low as -40°C to exploring the environment.

Mark Cameron, ACT party member

ACT Party Defense Spokesperson Mark Cameron.
Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The summer season was supposed to end in March and the remaining 12 employees were supposed to return on March 18, but that couldn’t happen and they were stuck.

The Defense Force said numerous weather delays and aircraft availability constraints prevented its return.

“Flight operations to Antarctica are complex and require careful consideration of runway condition, weather, daylight windows and even solar flare activity that can disrupt communications.

“As such, there are often extended periods when aircraft cannot safely reach Antarctica.”

It could be particularly difficult during the spring and autumn equinox periods, when rapidly changing weather, along with diminishing natural light windows, led to more flight cancellations, he said.

NZDF aircraft have varying limitations in flying safely to Antarctica, which hampered the team’s return.

The NZDF said the last safe day for the Boeing 757 to fly to Antarctica was March 22, just four days after the deployment was supposed to end.

That day a failed attempt was made.

The Hercules, which the team eventually managed to travel on, had a longer travel window to Antarctica.

The crew of a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) C-130H Hercules (NZ) carried out a medical evacuation (medevac) of Antarctica, a challenging mission given the daylight window was rapidly closing in April 2024.

Photo: Supplied / NZDF

In recent times, the Defense Forces had also battled critical staff shortages, delays in the supply chain of aircraft parts and some becoming obsolete.

In 2021, Hercules managed to safely perform a winter flight for medical evacuation using night vision goggles to land.

At the time, Auckland RNZAF Base Commander Group Captain Andy Scott said: “Flying to Antarctica is one of the highest risk missions we undertake due to the lack of diverted airfields and the inability to get down and back.” without refueling fuel.

“Therefore, crews are highly trained to analyze the situation in terms of weather and airfield status before making a decision to proceed.

“Flying in winter presents even more challenges due to extreme cold, rapidly changing weather, and little to no visual warning of changes that would be ‘seen’ in summer.”

The ACT Party’s Cameron said he was in contact with the team in Antarctica and said the whole situation was very difficult for those on the ground.

He said they were concerned that if there hadn’t been a medical emergency, they wouldn’t have been able to get out when they did.

They may have been stranded longer at an isolated research station, separated from loved ones, with plummeting temperatures and no certainty about when or how they would get home.

The NZDF said despite having a flight scheduled for the remaining passengers, they used the Hercules as an opportunity to return the team home.

Cameron said the team had also told him there was a lack of communication between NZDF officials.

“And by virtue of that, these few people felt metaphorically, you could say, abandoned.

“(Not good enough.”

The Defense Forces rejected him.

“There has been regular communication with our staff in Antarctica, who, as NZDF professional service personnel, also understand that there may be weather-related or other delays during deployment.”

The team’s return marked the end of the Antarctic season for the NZDF.