While on a recent federal research mission in Antarctica, Scott Farley saw elephant seals and watched an iceberg form — moments he recalls as highlights of the trip.

Farley, of Anacortes, spent November and December in Antarctica as part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission, which measures ice at the Earth’s poles in order to track changes as the global climate warms.

For Farley, a retired Navy pilot who spent years flying P-3 Orion aircraft out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, the expedition meant unpredictable weather and temperatures as low as about -40 degrees.

Farley and a crew he assembled through his company Fidalgo Aeronautical Services flew an aircraft outfitted with skis to enable it to land on Antarctica’s icy terrain.

They departed Nov. 11 from Wisconsin, where the DC-3 turboprop aircraft was built, and landed in Antarctica six days later after stopping along the way to refuel, Farley said.

In Antarctica, they were joined by a team of scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Kansas and NASA.

The pilots, mechanics and scientists spent about six weeks flying over Antarctica’s sea ice, mountains and glaciers — a seemingly unending world of white, Farley said.

“The most memorable was flying into Shackleton Glacier. We would land on the glacier itself and it was beautiful. We had these mountains right next to us,” he said.

Flying for science

After retiring from the Navy in 2009, Farley established Fidalgo Aeronautical Services in 2012 to connect the small network of specialty pilots such as himself with contract jobs.

“We provide contractor crews for companies that have very unique aircraft that don’t usually have a lot of qualified pilots,” he said.

Most of the company’s work so far has been for surveys and what’s called airborne science, primarily for NASA.

“It’s a really small, really tight-knit group of people. It’s a high demand area and there aren’t a lot of people who do this type of thing,” Farley said.

The pilots and mechanics who joined him in Antarctica are from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

For the pilots, the contract jobs are about their skill, the adventure and the missions.

“The coolest thing about this is we’re not going to get rich doing airborne science, but it’s bigger than ourselves. It’s really important research they’re doing,” Farley said of NASA’s Operation IceBridge.

The project

Operation IceBridge is the largest airborne survey of Earth’s polar ice and when complete will result in an unprecedented three-dimensional view of polar ice sheets, sea ice and glaciers, according to the mission website.

Joe MacGregor, a lead scientist for Operation IceBridge, said the project began in 2009 and will continue through 2019.

Primary missions are flown March through May over Greenland, and October through November over Antarctica.

Patrick Lynch, spokesman for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said the IceBridge mission done with the help of Fidalgo Aeronautical Services was added this year in order to survey the South Pole.

The name IceBridge reflects the temporary nature of the project, which was designed to fill a gap in available satellite imaging of Earth’s polar ice.

IceBridge flights began collecting data in 2009, given that NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, called ICESat, was operating beyond its expected run time, according to NASA representatives. The satellite was decommissioned in 2010 and a new satellite, ICESat-2, is planned for launch this September.

In the meantime, IceBridge flights have continued collecting data showing rapid changes in the polar regions.

To get that data, specialized aircraft are equipped with tools that map the surface, thickness and distribution of ice on land and sea, according to NASA.

The data

Operation IceBridge data has helped scientists keep tabs on melting glaciers and collapsing sea ice, improved the mapping of sea ice depth and revealed bedrock and rivers hidden beneath the frozen masses.

Goddard’s Lynch said those details are needed to help scientists understand how changes in ice will influence sea level rise, as well as how the changes will influence weather patterns throughout the world.

IceBridge has helped show that melt from glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland is contributing to sea level rise, MacGregor said. It has also helped show that melting sea ice in the Arctic is accelerating the warming and melting cycle in that region.

Melting sea ice can affect circulation patterns in the ocean and atmosphere, affecting weather not just in the Arctic, but also in the U.S.

Steve Tanner, who manages Operation IceBridge data at the the National Snow & Ice Data Center, said of the many air and satellite missions for which the center manages data, Operation IceBridge stands out as one of the more important, Tanner said.

Planes flown for Operation IceBridge use lasers, sensors and other mapping tools to determine the height and breadth of sea ice. Tanner said the planes are also equipped with cameras that have collected about 5.5 million images of Arctic and Antarctic landscapes.

“Flying over these regions every year you can see the changes that are happening, both the subtle changes and the big changes,” he said.

The mission

With NASA’s P-3 Orion unavailable for the South Pole survey mission, Farley helped plan how to complete the mission without it.

He located a suitable plane and partnered with Airtec — an aviation research company based in Maryland — to purchase and prepare the plane for the mission.

The plane was built using the body of a C-47 the Army Air Corps used during WWII. It was about 85 percent brand new by the time it was ready for the mission.

After getting the plan to Antarctica, Farley’s team lived alongside scientists in dorms at the U.S. research facility McMurdo Station.

He said the scientists and pilots operated as a team during the mission. They rose at 5 a.m. about six days a week, discussed the weather and plotted their route for the day.

“The biggest hazard down there is the weather. It’s really hard to forecast and can turn really bad really quick,” Farley said.

The team handled mishaps — sometimes daunting in the biting cold — together.

“We had to repair a ski one time and jacking the plane up in the snow ... everything you do down there is a lot more difficult,” Farley said.

Flights averaged 6 to 8 hours, with longer flights to the South Pole or Shackleton Glacier occasionally taking up to 16 hours.

Those long days allowed for quick data collection.

“(Flying) allows you to really accelerate the collection of data that we need ... to understand why the ice is configured the way it is and better prepare us to understand how it might change in the future,” NASA’s MacGregor said.

The mission with Fidalgo Aeronautical Services marked MacGregor’s first Antarctica fly-over experience. He said he was impressed with the success of the mission and would like to work with Fidalgo Aeronautical Services and the Airtec plane in the future.

“We covered a lot of ground, we surveyed a lot of glaciers, we flew all the way around the South Pole and that was one of our primary objectives, so we are quite happy about that,” MacGregor said.

A pilot’s life

Since he was a boy, Farley knew being a pilot was his calling.

“My dad was a Navy pilot and it’s something I wanted to do since I was 4 years old,” he said.

The Navy eventually brought Farley to Whidbey Island. It’s here that his family wanted to stay.

“We’ve been all over and this is home for us now,” Farley said.

When he retired from the Navy in 2009, Farley contracted with NASA to fly a P-3 Orion for a mission to Greenland in 2010 and established his Anacortes company two years later.

The company’s first job was repairing old cargo and firefighter aircraft, and getting them to new owners.

Through Fidalgo Aeronautical Services and as a solo contractor, Farley has flown missions throughout the world, including in the Arctic, Africa, Iceland and Norway.

Later this year, he is destined for Africa and the Philippines for a NASA atmospheric science project, and then he’ll head back to Greenland for another Operation IceBridge mission.

Farley said while each mission is an adventure, the recent trip to Antarctica marked his first time flying a plane that was on skis and was hands down his favorite mission.

“There are big mountains and it’s right on the water and it’s not every day you see a chunk of ice break off and an iceberg form right in front of you,” he said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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