The first of roughly 500 airmen have begun flying in ski-equipped planes to Antarctica to begin the Air Force's annual Operation Deep Freeze mission.

Each year, the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing flies hundreds of missions providing airlift within Antarctica as part of Deep Freeze. The operation is the military component of the National Science Foundation-run U.S. Antarctic Program. 

In a Wednesday release, Air Mobility Command said 23 airmen and two ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft left Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, New York, Tuesday. The first LC-130 to depart from Stratton took off Oct. 14 and is now in Christchurch, New Zealand, readying for the last leg of its journey before arriving in Antarctica. And two more LC-130s will take off within the week, AMC said.

By the time the operation ends in February 2017, six LC-130s will have deployed and brought 500 airmen to Antarctica, with roughly 120 deployed at any given time, AMC said. The Air Force said there will be between 300 and 350 missions during the operation.

Deep Freeze LC-130

Airmen unload fuel and cargo from a New York Air National Guard LC-130 during a 2005 mission to Antarctica as part of Operation Deep Freeze.
Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Efrain Gonzalez/Air Force

The 109th airmen will fly from McMurdo Station -- the logistics hub of the Antarctic Program, established 61 years ago on bare volcanic rock on Ross Island -- to transport scientists, support, fuel, medical supplies, and other necessities. AMC said during the last season in 2015 and 2016, the 109th flew about 3,900 researchers and support staff, 4 million pounds of cargo, and 1.2 million pounds of fuel to research stations throughout Antarctica.

AMC also said the crews will fly missions to support the Common Science Support Pod ice imaging system, with IcePod equipment that can measure the depth of an ice sheet.

In the release, AMC said the LC-130's ski landing gear makes it a one-of-a-kind aircraft and allows it to land on snow and ice.

"Just the capability of landing heavy on the snow is a unique operational capability that only the United States has [and] that only we have at this unit," Col. Christian Sander, 109th Operations Group commander, said in the release.

Stephen Losey covers Air Force leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times.

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