Antarctic rescue mission for stranded squirrels

This article has photo gallery Published on Ms Dallas McMaugh (author), LSATA Tim Graham (photographer), LSIS Sarah Williams (photographer)

Location(s): Casey Station, Antartica

AS350 Squirrel Helicopters belonging to the Australian Antarctic Division, are prepared by 723 Squadron Aviation Technician Airframe maintainers, for transport back to Australia in 36 Squadron RAAF C-17 Globemaster III, A41-213. (photo: LSATA Tim Graham)
AS350 Squirrel Helicopters belonging to the Australian Antarctic Division, are prepared by 723 Squadron Aviation Technician Airframe maintainers, for transport back to Australia in 36 Squadron RAAF C-17 Globemaster III, A41-213.

Do you have a Squirrel helicopter you need recovered from Antarctica? Who you gonna call?...Who else but 723 Squadron!

The maintainers from the Squadron are definitely the ‘go to’ team when it comes to the AS350 Squirrel helicopter, so when the 

Australian Antarctic Division needed assistance removing three of them, Leading Seamen Aviation Technician Aircraft Jodie Khan and Tim Graham, along with Petty Officer Aviation Technician Aircraft Mark Anderson, took on a rare task.  

The team was collected from HMAS Albatross in a Royal Australian Air Force Globemaster and flown to Hobart. 

Successfully landing in colder conditions than previous flights, the C-17A Globemaster III touched down at Wilkins Aerodrome for the sixth time since November 2015.

Wilkins Aerodrome is near South Casey Station, a permanent base in Antarctica managed by the Australian Antarctic Division. The runway is located on a glacier and only operates during the Antarctic summer, so it was important to get the helicopters out before winter set in and the window of opportunity was closed off due to weather.

Leading Seaman Khan described herself as “over the moon” at the opportunity. 

“It was a once in a lifetime chance," she said.

"I’m from Queensland so I’m definitely not used to that level of cold but it was all part of the experience. 

"Even the departure briefs were different to our usual guidelines. 

"The Australian Antarctic Division gave us videos to watch which explained how to dress to stay warm, to vacuum our clothes to remove any seeds which may contaminate the environment and they also stressed the importance of not touching the penguins,” Leading Seaman Khan said. 

Leading Seaman Tim Graham shared the excitement. 

“It was a huge adventure going somewhere most people don’t normally get to go, but while we were going into the unknown in terms of wilderness and climate, we were on very familiar territory when it came to the task ahead of us,” he said.

Due to the tight timeframe, the pre-departure period was intense. 

“Morale is always high at 723 but everyone was very keen to help out in whatever way they could to ensure our success, “Petty Officer Anderson said. 

“Everyone at the Squadron pulled together to make this happen, they appreciated what a great opportunity this was.” 

As well as their expertise, the team provided specialised equipment including aircraft lashings, handling wheels, a special towing arm and loading ramps developed by the team specifically for loading Squirrel helicopters into a C17. 

“Working on ice presented a few unknowns for us but we were working with the Australian Antarctic Division team who were very familiar with that environment, so along with the Royal Australian Air Force, Navy worked together, sharing our individual areas of expertise and all with same common goal,” Petty Officer Anderson said. 

“It wasn’t entirely straightforward; our Squirrels are slightly different to the Australian Antarctic Division's which meant we had to readjust the ramps. 

"It was a bit tricky to get them lined up perfectly. 

"We were on the ground for just five hours, with 20 kilometres per hour winds and temperature of minus 17 degrees celsius. 

"But we were so focussed on the job it wasn’t until the end of the day that we could stop and take it all in.

“We were waiting on the runway and I was shuffling in the snow when I saw the light blue ice of the glacier below us which is when I really got my bearings and a sense of where we were.”