The one thing to keep in mind when travelling to or working in Antarctica is that the weather always has the last say.
Schedules are flexible and specific flight times should be taken with a grain of salt and the knowledge that they could be bumped up or moved back by several days at the last minute. We were hoping to leave McMurdo for Pole yesterday, however all flights were given a 24hr weather delay. It’s still “condition 2” here this morning at -11F (-40F windchill) and 23knot winds. The limiting factor is visibility. Pretty much all the planes down here require 3 miles of visibility to fly, right now we have less than a 1/2 mile due to blowing snow.
Here in McMurdo the two topics of conversation for Polies are weather and flight schedules.
Until mid-late November the weather at Pole is too unpredictable to really count on scheduled flights – being either too cold or too windy to land. It’s great to get people in as early as possible to relieve the winter crews and to help prep for the flood of people at the beginning of summer, so we’re staged in Mac Town early, just in case they can get a plane in.
The military planes (and the Airbus) fly in from Christchurch, NZ, but the Twin Otters and Baslers fly down from Punta Arenas, Chile to Rothera Station (British Antarctic Survey) on the Antarctic Peninsula. From there they fly to Pole where they refuel again and finally head to McMurdo. The first flight arrived at Pole on October 17th and medevac’d the winter site manager Renée Douceur (as you’ve probably seen in the news). On Monday October 24th the first Basler from McM made it in to Pole bringing in 16 from the summer crew. The first Herc flight was this past Saturday October 29th with 40 summer people! The original plan was to send two Baslers, as they can fly in slightly colder weather, and there were several days of alternating plans, delays of various sorts, and changing passenger manifests. In the end, the Herc made it on Saturday, leaving just seven of us Polies back here in McM. The Magnificent Seven.
To be ready to fly at a moments notice we “bag dragged” on Friday. On flights to and within the continent everyone must wear the issued ECW and may bring only one of the issued orange bags as a carry-on. Everything else must be checked/palletized (put on a pallet to go as cargo). “Bag Drag” is a process of bringing everything that you have here up to the MCC (movement control center) where all the luggage to be checked is tagged and weighed and then each person is weighed on a giant scale – with their full ECW and carry-on. In some respects it’s nice to have all my luggage out of the way and be ready to fly, but meanwhile I’m living out of my one orange bag for however long it takes to get us and our pallet of luggage to Pole – hopefully a matter of days, but potentially weeks.
Meanwhile here in McMurdo, we’ve been training with some of the heavy equipment we’ll have, helping sort out food heading to Pole, working with other departments, and helping prep for the South Pole Overland Traverse (aka “SPOT” I’ll write more about them later on). I also had the chance to observe a C-17 flight from Christchurch. At the South Pole, and at Summit Station, Greenland, we work primarily with the ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules planes. Last year I flew to McMurdo from New Zealand on a C-17, so it was a new experience to see the loading/unloading process up close.
Some differences between the planes: The C-130 Herc is a four engine turboprop plane, 97ft in length and with a132ft wingspan. It can carry 92 passengers or 6 pallets up to 45,000lbs. The Hercs used down here by the NSF are ski-equipped so they can land on the relatively soft runways at Pole and Summit.
The C-17 Globemaster on the other hand, is 174ft long and with a 170ft wingspan that makes the Hercs pale in comparison. The one used here by the NSF is based out of McChord Air Base near Seattle. The C-17s can carry up to 18 pallets and over 170,000lbs. The flight I helped with brought in 10 pallets and 20 passengers. We loaded on a T-5 shipping container (5 pallets long) and a handful of other single pallets and passengers.
The Hercs at Summit and Pole are only on the ground for a short while and leave the props running to prevent the hydraulic systems from freezing up, this makes working around the plane very difficult: the air behind the plane is filthy from the exhaust and tiny particles of unburned fuel, the noise is deafening, and the wind generated by the props is freezing. The C-17 however shuts down their engines so it’s not bad at all. The yellow tubes you can see in the photos, running to the engines and the landing gear, are blowing warm air from diesel heaters to keep everything warm.
The runway in use here is on the sea ice – which despite being 88 inches thick can deflect 3-4 inches with the weight of the plane, equipment, and cargo. Surveyors continually take measurements around the plane during the cargo/fuel/pax operations to make sure the ice isn’t deflecting too far.
Unless weather or mechanical issues dictate otherwise McMurdo receives multiple flights daily of Twin Otters, Baslers, the Airbus, locally based helicopters, C-130 Hercs, and the C-17. At Pole we might expect a schedule of 3-4 Hercs a day and possibly a Basler or Twin Otter or two.
More photos can be found at: https://picasaweb.google.com/marie.mclane/Antarctica201112#