7 March 2019
On a continent reliant on aircraft for the majority of travel, Royal New Zealand Air Force refueller Corporal Tom Watson was a pretty important cog in the Antarctic machine over summer.
Usually based in the Operations Squadron at Base Auckland, Corporal Watson was deployed to McMurdo Station, working with the United States Antarctic programme, in October last year.
He was part of a contingent of about 220 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel who worked at Scott Base and the US National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station between October and February, making it the largest NZDF mission during the summer.
Scott Base, New Zealand’s permanent research support station on the continent, accommodates about 85 scientists and support staff, while McMurdo Station is the hub of United States scientific activity in Antarctica and is home to more than 900 scientists and support people during the summer.
“It’s really a different place down there – it’s like stepping foot on another planet,” Corporal Watson said. “But you do get used to it and the way of life – it’s just a lot colder.”
His role was to deal with any issues relating to fuel, whether it be at McMurdo Station or one of the airfields.
“We were supporting the flights that go to and from the various field camps and even to South Pole Station. So knowing that we were directly assisting them and they couldn’t get around without us made me feel pretty proud of the job we were doing.
“One of my first times out was to check one of the fuel caches that was out on the ice shelf. You look around everywhere and there’s nothing but flat ice everywhere. It was really nerve-wracking because without a plane there is no way home.”
Corporal Watson, who grew up in Mt Eden, always wanted to join the military and walk in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was in the New Zealand Army.
“But I have a love of aviation, so the Air Force was the natural choice,” he said.
This was the second summer Corporal Watson had spent in Antarctica and he said being sent there was a privilege.
“Antarctica is one of two places in the world where it’s completely devoid of civilisation, and that’s what makes it so special. It’s by itself and we’re trying our best to maintain it and study it and explore it.
“I’m proud of the work the NZDF is doing down there. It’s great knowing how much support we provide to the scientific community.”