(Antarctic Journal, Expeditions Polaires Francaises)

In 1988, a ski-equipped Lockheed C-130 took off some 800 nautical miles northwest of the McMurdo Station Antarctic Research Center. It was the first time the plane had flown since 1971 – because it was frozen in the ice below for the previous 17 years.


In 1971, the plane was making a resupply run to an international research mission at McMurdo Station when it crashed. These resupply missions gave the United States its active presence on the Antarctic Continent and allowed for the safe conduct of polar research. The 1971 crash tempered that movement. Only a handful of C-130s made the trip and the loss of one put stress on the others. It was declared a total loss, stripped for parts, and left in the ice.

They better rename this plane "Phoenix."(U.S. Navy photo, courtesy of Bill Spindler)

But not for long. New planes are expensive, after all.

UPDATE: The heroic warmbloods who worked and flew 321 reached out to me via Facebook. Check out the full story from their point of view over at Bill Spindler's website, South Pole Station.

The plane crashed on takeoff when a rocket booster struck an engine and destroyed one of the plane's propellers. The Navy had to take everything of value off the plane and then leave it where it fell, in a remote area of Antarctica known as site D-59.

That's where the plane was for 17 years until the U.S. military realized that it needed seven planes to make the resupply effort work. A new C-130 would have cost $38 million, according to a New York Times article from the time. The salvage operation only cost $10 million. The choice was clear and, in 1987, LC-130 321 was dug up out of the ice-covered snowbank that had formed over it.

You will never be as cool as this guy wearing shorts to dig a plane out of the snow in Antarctica. If you're this hero, email me. (Update: This is equipment operator Dan Check. It turns out "The heater in the D-6 worked quite well, and when the sun was out and there wasn't much wind, the digging site was quite warm.")

(Photo by Jim Mathews)

After being pulled out of 40 feet of ice and snow, the C-130 was restored at site D-59 until it could be flown to the main base at McMurdo Station. The dry air in Antarctica kept it largely free from corrosion and other threats to the airframe. Sadly, the costs didn't stop at $10 million. Two U.S. sailors were killed when another Hercules carrying spare parts for the refurbished Hercules in Antarctica went down on Dec. 9, 1987. Nine others were injured.

That crash only strengthened the Navy's resolve to repair and restore the 16-year-old plane. It gave the mission a deeper meaning for the Navy and the Polar Science Foundation.

321 at McMurdo Station in November 1960, the first of the VX-6 ski-equipped Hercs to make it to McMurdo.

(P. K. Swartz)

When the time came to get the restored plane in the air, it was manned by a five-person Navy crew. The mission began with a "buddy start" from another Navy C-130. The second plane used its prop wash to start the props on the restored C-130. Once a Lockheed engineer certified the plane would fly, and an ice speed taxi assured the crew would reach takeoff speed, the mission was a go.

The two planes flew to McMurdo Station and later, over to Christchurch, New Zealand. The plane was restored completely in the United States before resuming active polar service.