A Day in the Life on Swing Shift

The Ceremonial South Pole Marker and the South Pole Station

The South Pole can potentially get flights all day from 10 in the morning to midnight. For one shift that makes for an extremely long day so Cargo runs a Day and a Swing shift. The day shift works from 730am to 530pm, while swing works 300pm to 100am. We generally switch halfway through the season and for the first half at least, I’m on swing.

Self portrait at the Pole

It’s day all the time here, the sun being up 24/7, so it doesn’t really matter when we work; the station operates 24 hours with day, swing, and night shifts. Waking up around 11am I get a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee and sit with friends while they eat lunch. Since we don’t start work for a few hours I have some free time to write or try to catch the internet if the satellite is up. At a quarter to 3pm I put on my gear and head out to the Cargo office. The day shift is in full swing. Christine sits down with Zondra, the other load planner, and starts working on the paperwork for the upcoming flights.

We gather in the office first for a quick summary of the day then head over to the DNF for a half hour of stretching. This is built into the schedule for everyone down here; stretching regularly significantly reduces the number of strains and sprains caused by physical labor in the cold and altitude. It’s also a lovely way to fully wake up and figure out the plan for the day. Then it’s to work.

If there are no imminent flights we start either organizing and building pallets of material to go out or tearing down recently received pallets. If it’s windy and there’s a lot of drifting we might pull up the rows of dunnage (4”x4”x6’ long pieces of wood that pallets sit on) so Equipment Ops can groom. Or we might lay down the rows of dunnage on a freshly groomed line.

Jeremy helping me lay out dunnage for pallets in the Cargo Yard after grooming

The Cargo Yard as seen from atop a mountain of snow – created by the heavy equipment operators as they clear the drifts from around the station

As the day shift winds down we pick up where they left off. At around 1800 (6pm) we head in for lunch. It’s a little weird being 6hrs off from everyone else, having lunch and getting ready to head back to work as everyone else finishes dinner and settles in for the night, but I like the quiet and calm of swing. There are no, or very few, deliveries to be made as most folks work days. We can just focus on building pallets and working the flights.

This week it’s Thanksgiving so we don’t have many flights at all, last week however we were getting flights at 1900, 2000, and 2200 which made for a quick and busy shift.
At 1930 we collect and make a pallet of any baggage for pax going out the next day and mail from the Post Office on Sundays and Wednesdays.

With little or no flights we’ve been focusing on waste pallets. Over 60% of the waste generated on USAP stations is recycled. Here at Pole we have to ship everything out to McMurdo in 100 cube “triwalls” (or the biggest burliest cardboard boxes you’ve ever seen). I’ve gotten used to it by now, but it can be a daunting process to throw out a piece of trash! Is it metal? Is it ferrous or non-ferrous, light or heavy metal? Is a cracker box bandable lightweight Non-R (non-recyclable) aka Paper Towels or is it mixed paper or cardboard? How about a piece of plastic? With a recyclable triangle mark it goes in plastic, otherwise Paper Towels. The “Wasties” are always happy to answer a quick radio call asking where something goes.

Some waste bins in the Cargo Office

The waste room in the station

A sign for Non-R with common ok and not-ok items

The triwalls for waste at DZ – the station has two main entrances “Destination Alpha” and “Destination Zulu” (aka DZ)

Good clothing and other reusable items are put in “Skua.” A skua is an Antarctic coastal bird that is like a really big, mean, vicious seagull. They are notorious in McMurdo for swooping down and snatching up anything food related or really just anything that catches their eye. Nothing is safe – a cookie in hand from the galley is particularly risky. So Skua has become a verb and a noun. “I just skua’d these awesome shoes!” or “Try checking Skua for a new fleece…” With baggage fees nowadays and lots of people coming and going there are often good finds.

Back to our tasking…the Wasties collect the triwalls of waste and we use the CAT 950 (aka Big Foot) to stack them on the pallets, fitting cargo nets neat and tight around the pallet (easier said than done). Averaging 88” they’re well over my head and it can be challenging to reach the side straps of the higher straps of the topnet. After they’re all built up we weigh and measure them and put them on the line to ship out on the next plane. It’s an ongoing process and with some music and good humor can even be fun. Right now we’re all working on waste to catch up from winter and to get set for when we have lots of flights again.

"Big Foot" and waste pallets

A good waste pallet – square triwalls, even tight nets, no twists…

Some of the pallets we’ve made this week ready to go on the next flight

At midnight we start cleaning up. It takes a while to fuel the equipment and put them to bed. The diesel engines need to run for a while after being worked, so we let them idle at a low rpm as we chip off the built up snow and ice from the tracks and moving parts. It’s cold work – holding the freezing heavy metal pry bars used to chip off the ice.

After filling in our time cards it’s time to head inside for Midrats – the meal served from midnight to 0130. The station is quiet and the sun is shining into the galley. It’s a nice time to chat and laugh about the flights and drama of the shift. Then the walk back to Summer Camp and sleep.

An empty galley after Midrats

The walk back to Summer Camp from DZ

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