Air Transportation Specialist I (aka Cargo)

Myself sitting in the 953 loader “Sundog” waiting for a plane to land. Photo taken by Genevieve (Her blog can be found at:

This season I’m working as an “Air Transportation Specialist” or ATS-1 in Cargo. Pretty much everything here at Pole arrives via the C-130 Hercs. It’s our job to unload the pallets of material from the plane using a CAT 953 or 950 loader (be it food, welding equipment, toilet paper, or science gear), disassemble or “tear down” the pallets, and deliver the goods to the appropriate place. The other side of our job is to collect any material leaving Pole, package it on pallets and send it out. The pallets we use are generic US Air Force pallets. Special nets hook onto D-rings along the edge of the pallet and drape over the cargo to secure it as well as chains and ratcheting cargo straps if necessary.

A stack of “US Air Force 463L Pallets.” With an aluminum exterior and a balsawood core they are each 88”x108” and 290lbs.

Cargo side and top nets hook together and cinch down to secure material to the pallets.

Cargo straps are used all the time for securing odd loads. There is a huge box of straps in the DNF building and there are always straps to be rolled.

We get anywhere from 2-7 Hercs a day depending on weather, mechanical issues, and demand. This is my first year working in cargo and we’ve spent most of the time so far training and leaving the actual flight operations to the returnees, but last week was the first time I worked a flight. Over the past two years I’ve worked quite a bit with the Hercs at Summit Station in Greenland so it was not as intimidating as it might have been otherwise. Nevertheless, it’s always a rush and this was my first time operating heavy equipment in close proximity to the very expensive airplane.

About half an hour before the flight arrived we gathered in the heated break room/office to figure out what exactly was coming off the plane and in what order. All the necessary details are written each morning on a white board by the Load Planners.

The Cargo Office and break room. Our equipment is plugged in around the edge of the building – equipment here have little heaters that keep the fluids and engines from freezing up when not running.

The necessary details for each flight. Each individual plane has a unique tail number, Herc flights to Pole are numbered sequentially so as of this picture we’ve had 39 flights so far this season, the estimated and actual times leaving McMurdo and ETA at Pole, cargo specs for incoming and outgoing cargo, and whether or not there are any passengers (aka pax) going out and the number of bags.

Geneieve and myself were working the plane. Depending on how many pallets are coming it takes one or two loaders and an “ATS-2” or a cargo senior to work a flight. The senior stands at the very back of the plane when the ramp is open coordinating between the flight crew and the cargo folks, helping the loadmaster inside the plane push pallets out onto the forks, and marshalling us in if we can’t see the loadmaster.

Around 20 minuets out Comms announced on the radio the new ETA for the plane. Communications, or Comms, here at Pole is 911, 411, and basically, as the name implies, the hub of all information and communications. That’s our signal to get ready. Bundled up, we head out to the flight line. In addition to our ECW I’m wearing a giant respirator to help protect against the nasty Herc exhaust, it’s not great stuff to breathe in and while the respirators work well my clothing smells like Herc for days. I also have on a large radio headset that blocks out the noise of the plane while enabling us to communicate and hear what’s going on between all the teams involved with a flight.

Wearing my respirator and radio headset - All senses secure and ready to go.

A flight involves cargo, “fuelies” who either take or give fuel to the planes, and a team of firefighters standing by in case of an emergency. Most of our night flights are “tankers” that bring in one or two pallets and several thousand gallons of fuel. It takes all summer to get enough fuel for the winter. On Tuesday we had 6 tanker flights that brought in over 18,000 gallons of fuel!

The runway here at the South Pole is a 3 mile long stretch of ultra compacted, groomed snow bordered by large black flags. At Summit we often have issues with the runway being too soft, but here it’s cold enough, and there’s enough traffic that it stays hard enough. Towards the station there is a wide groomed and flagged pull-out called the taxi-way. The planes turn off the skiway and taxi up to the fuel pits where we’re waiting with the loaders. The plane is now about 10 minutes out. Genevieve and I get our loaders into position, backing just out of the way of the plane. Whoever sees the plane first radios Comms:

“Comms, Comms, Flight Deck. Herc in Sight! Herc in Sight.”
(or “Cargo has visual of the aircraft” if we’re feeling particularly competitive with Fuels)

Everyone on the flight deck looks towards the approaching aircraft. Genevieve and I adjust our respirators and gloves and take a deep breath. The Herc seems to hover in the distance. Slowly it grows larger and the gap between it and the ground narrows…

“Comms, Comms, Flight Deck. Skier is on deck.”
“Copy that. Skier is on Deck.”

The plane which was just a slight speck in the sky, the exhaust plume more visible than the plane itself, is suddenly very close. A billow of snow and exhaust rise up behind it as it slows and then turns to glide onto the taxi way.

“Comms, Comms, Flight Deck. Skier is clear of skiway.”

Waiting in the loader as the Herc approaches. Photo by Genevieve.

As the plane approaches the roar of the engines builds. It’s loud. Crossing in front of us close enough to hit with a snowball, it continues moving forward towards the fuelie who is marshalling it in. I can see the pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit.

The pitch deepens as the prop blades change angle and the plane comes to a stop next to the fuel hose. The back of the plane opens and it’s our signal to pull forward. The pilots raise the skis, lowering the plane onto the wheels. The skis are warm from friction and will freeze in place to the taxiway if left down. There are three pallets coming off this flight. A half sized “speed pallet”, an awkward pallet loaded with two snowmobiles, and a load of pax bags and other DNF material. DNF, or “Do Not Freeze,” is placed in one of Cargo’s two buildings which we call simply… “DNF” – a long jamesway with double doors on either end and rollers installed on the floor inside. We can store up to 5 pallets inside to keep whatever it is from freezing: Batteries, mail, pax bags, and freshies.

I roll forward into line with the back of the plane. The respirator is working well and while I can see the brown exhaust and blown snow rushing past the cab I can’t smell a thing. The headset is working well too; the roar of the plane is audible, but not deafening. I can hear the fuelies talking about which valves to open and which tanks to fill. I raise my forks and continue moving towards the black gapping hole that’s opened in the back of the Herc. Breath. Move slow.

The view from my loader as I approached the aircraft to receive the first pallet. Usually we wait for a minute or two in line behind the aircraft while they adjust the ramp, before the loadmaster signals us forward.

Slowly I roll forward, as we move beneath the tail of the plane the loadmaster takes over and my focus shifts from the big picture to the loadmaster and the movement signals he’s giving. Photo by Genevieve.

I focus on lining up as precisely as possible with the rollers in the plane’s floor and glance at Sean (the ATS-2 for this flight) to see if he has any directions to give. With the sun shining bright off the white snow it’s hard to see inside the dark plane. As I get close to the tail of the plane I can see the loadmaster step into view. He steps out to the back end of the ramp and waves his arms marshalling me towards him. I focus on him – so close to the plane we must follow his hand signals without fail. Sometimes it can be difficult not to anticipate what they’ll need, to give up fully and trust him or her, but it’s crucial that we follow the signals slowly and reliably.

I move forward until the tips of my forks are inside the plane, the loadmaster is to my left now, still on the ramp. He lines up the forks and gives me the signal to lower the boom so the tips rest on the edge of the ramp. I comply, inching slowly downward. Sometimes they can seem impatient, as Genevieve said “Yelling at us with their hands!” But it’s better to go too slow than too fast.

Tips resting on the ramp of the plane the loadmaster checks inside to make sure everything is perfect. Sean stands to the side ready to help or relay signals if needed. This close I’m almost out of the rush of exhaust and prop wash, it’s quieter. Photo by Genevieve.

A picture I took of a different flight with Genevieve in the loader.

When the forks are in just the right spot the loadmaster closes his raised fist or crosses his wrists above his head – Stop. I nod and raise my hands from the controls, glancing again at Sean. He’s on the ramp now too and helps the loadmaster push the pallet off onto my forks. I can feel the sudden weight jerk the loader slightly. The loadmaster steps to the side again where I can see him and signals me to raise the boom and then back away from the plane. I move slowly and when the tail of the Herc comes into view he gives me a thumbs up and a wave away. “It’s all yours!”

Slowly backing away from the plane with the pallet on my forks I move out from under the tail and out of the way of cargo being uploaded. Photo by Genevieve.

Taking the pallet to the cargo yard or DNF. Photo by Genevieve.

I back slowly away from the plane swinging towards the cargo yard and out of the way of Genevieve who will repeat the process and set the little speed pallet on some wood on the side of the taxi way. It’s not DNF so it will sit there until we have time to bring it into the cargo yard and take it apart. The pallet off my forks I back up further and get in line for the third pallet. Genevieve plucks off the second pallet and very slowly drives it into the cargo yard. I move forward again for the final pick.

Lowering a pallet onto 4x4 pieces of wood (aka “dunnage”) in the cargo yard. Photo by Genevieve.

It’s the same deal, roll forward, follow the loadmaster’s signals, and get the pallet. This one’s DNF so as soon as he waves me off I bring it straight to the DNF building. Another one of the cargo folk is standing by to open the doors and marshal me in. The building isn’t huge and there’s no more than a few inches on either side of the pallet as it moves through the doors. I lower my fork tips and the boom so the pallet rests on the tracks and rolls forward on the rollers.

Placing a pallet into Cargo’s DNF Building. There are only a few inches on either side between the pallet’s edge and the door frame.

Inside the DNF – it’s crowded, but there’s room for 5 full pallets.

I back up and park the loader, coming inside to get a sip of water and put away my respirator and headset. Now that I’m done I can feel my heart beating through my body, the adrenaline rushing, my peripheral vision returning. I take a deep breath and can’t hold back a grin as Genevieve gives me a huge smile and an exuberant high five.

We get enough flights that I’ve since worked at least one a day, but it never gets old.

Sean walks back to cargo after loading the last pallet.

My cubby in the Cargo Office with little thermos, water bottle, sharpies, and respirator.

Genevieve has spent a number of summers and winters here in Antarctica. This is her second summer in cargo here at Pole. Her blog, with some awesome links and references, can be found at:

The photos within this post are not necessarily from the described flight. All photos on this blog have been taken by myself unless otherwise cited.


Filed under Antarctic, Flights, South Pole

3 responses to “Air Transportation Specialist I (aka Cargo)

  1. so crazy how that plane lands in the middle of nothing. Well, a whole lot of snow and ice really! Super cool!

  2. Nia

    Hi, if you donʻt mind me asking… How much do you get paid as an Air Transportaion Specialist I? And how long do you guys stay out there in the field?

    • The National Science Foundation has changed contractors in the past year from Raytheon to Lockheed-Martin, so I’m not sure what Cargo (or ATS-1s) will be making this year. Last year it was between $550-800/wk for a 4.5 month season. The pay and season length depend on the station and specific job title, the organization in Cargo varied a little between McMurdo and Pole.

Leave a question or comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s