Tag Archives: Heavy Equipment

West Antarctic Traverse

The Antarctic summer has come to an end wrapping up another successful and interesting season.

This year I was working as part of the WAS (West Antarctic Support) Traverse. Operating Tucker Sno-cats and Caterpillar Challenger 55 tractors we assisted in the removal of over 100,000lbs of cargo from Byrd. The cargo had accumulated over the years from previous camps. Buildings, tents, equipment, and field supplies such as tools and flagged bamboo etc. were left on the berm. The plan was to fly much of it back to McMurdo for reissue, however many of the scheduled flights to West Antarctica were cancelled due to mechanical issues, weather, and flight priority changes with other operations on continent. With fewer flights the pressure was on us to haul it all back to WAIS where it could be consolidated and flown out next year.

On November 24th we boarded an LC-130 Herc and flew from McMurdo to WAIS Divide in the Deep Field. The WAIS camp staff had been there for a few days already and camp was looking good when we arrived. We set up our tents, checked on our gear, and got to work. Our first priority was getting our equipment out of the snow and in working order. Much easier said than done…


An LC-130 Herc loaded up and heading to WAIS Divide field camp



A Tucker buried under winter accumulation and drifting

It’s a fact of life out here – over winter the accumulation and drifting buries everything. Berms help, raising things on stilts is better, but there is always a lot of digging to be done come spring! This process was much easier with the D4 bulldozer…but even then it took about a day with equipment and another day by hand and hermie to clean out the crevices and melt out the engine blocks.

Once the equipment was cleared of snow we did a complete overview, conducting preventative maintenance measures such as fluid and filter changes. Then it was time to set up the sleds. Modern traverses generally use long sheets of high molecular weight (HMW) plastic to haul cargo and fuel. We use black not only because it’s much harder to lose in the flat white, but also because it absorbs solar radiation creating an ultra thin layer of melt water underneath (much like an ice skate). The overall goal is to reduce friction, thus increasing the mass that can be pulled.

Cargo can be placed directly on top of the HMW, but especially in the cold it doesn’t take much to damage the surface. Once scratched it cannot be used for fuel bladders for fear of damaging the bladders and risking a spill. A scratch is also a weak point and in the extreme cold everything becomes brittle. The HMW flexes and bends quite a lot as it moves over sastrugi, upsetting carefully stacked cargo.

Plastic pallets and vehicles are placed on the HMW while air force pallets are placed on decks. The decks, aka ‘dance floors’ or ARCs (Air Ride Cargo) are wooden platforms supported by air-filled kevlar pontoons. Secured to the HMW they protect the plastic sheets and also provide a stable platform on which cargo can be loaded.


Traverse Tucker 1 with a load of new skiway flags and and arcotherm heater for Byrd


Traverse Tucker 2 with “living module” tent, food, and surival gear

By December 4th our gear was unearthed and our systems in place. The Challenger 55s required a fair bit of maintenance and repair so we took just the Tucker Sno-Cats on our first two traverses. The Tuckers can pull around 10,000 pounds each so we were limited to just two sheets of HMW. One Tucker pulled our traverse gear (an Arctic Oven tent, food, and survival gear) while the other pulled replacement skiway flags for Byrd and other gear for the WAS Recovery team.

WAIS bid us a grand farewell and we were off. It was just Tyler and I for the first few trips as our mechanic was tasked with getting the Challengers up and running. I have to admit it was exciting, heading off to drive across Antarctica from one camp to another! The whole idea of traversing in Antarctica is exciting and rich with history (as I touched on here:antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/traverses). We were not charting new territory; there have been many traverses between WAIS and Byrd. Nor were we bound to see anything other than flat white and more flat white…no mountains or icebergs or animals (except for a bird or two). Nevertheless, this was my first traverse and I was thrilled!


Leaving WAIS


First stop for the night

We drove all day, planting flags every half-mile so that we could have something other than the GPS to look at and also to help us stay on the same path as subsequent trips would be much easier on a ‘road.’ The visibility dropped and it became disorienting to say the least. Loaded down we could only go 7-10mph and I tried to relax. With nothing else to look at I stared at the little arrow on the GPS. I tried to drive straight…but after a few moments the arrow on the GPS would swing wildly and I realized I’d somehow slipped severely from our course. From the air I’m sure it looked like a random zigzag; a weaving, wavering track from point A to point B. It was easier when the visibility was good, especially once we had old tracks and flags to follow, but even then it was amusing to drive in the rear and watch the lead tractor drift to one side then swing back to the flag and drift to the other. Uneven track tensions, weight distribution, soft snow or sastrugi and the tractor would pull to one side or the other, throwing another variable into the mix. Far more difficult than it would seem!

We stopped at 6pm to refuel and chip the ice off the equipment. Dinner was heated in our little propane-powered oven and then we climbed into our unheated sleep kits – fleece liners inside huge sleeping bags nested within bulky over-bags. It was eerily quiet once the equipment was shut off. We had a small 5K generator, but for the most part we didn’t need it. Generators or equipment of some kind is almost always running in even the smallest camps. If the wind isn’t howling you can bet on hearing the roar of the gens. Out in the flat white between camps it was silent…just the tinkling of snow being blown across the surface like crystalline sand on a beach. WAIS and Byrd are only 100miles apart, but at 7-10mph it’s a very long day. We generally took two days to complete the traverse.


Traversing across the flat white is less like a road trip by car and more like motoring across rough water in a skiff. It’s hard to steer straight and in the flat white there’s nothing to steer by. Sometimes the snow is flat and soft, and other times it’s rugged and hard. The HMW flexes and the whole load moves quite a lot. When things are tied too tight straps and HMW break, too loose and things slip and slide around, carefully stacked pallets disintegrate and fall apart. Every few hours we would take a break and a walk around to check the loads and straps.



The second trip with the 297

The WAS Recovery crew at Byrd had settled in nicely and had made major progress by the time we arrived. They had the Galley Mod opened up, heated, and in use as the galley and comms area. A yurt-like Arctic Chief tent provided an alternative heated space and an area to dry clothes and hang out, while individual Artic Oven tents were set up for sleeping. We stayed for 4 days grooming the skiway, raising flags, and excavating the berms with the Tucker blades. Then on Dec 10 it was back to WAIS. Two days to get there, a day to PM the Tuckers, unload the cargo from Byrd and load it up for our return trip, a day to shower, do laundry, and rest, and On Dec 14 it was back to Byrd. This time our load included the Caterpillar 297 skid-steerer – a dense little machine at almost 10,000lbs alone!


The Caterpillar Challenger “Drag Queen”


Returning for another load


A full load of cargo


Putting pallets from Byrd up on the WAIS winter berm

The plan was to stay at Byrd for another few days, but as soon as we arrived we received a call on the iridium phone that the Heavy Equipment Operator at WAIS had been injured. So we unloaded our sleds as fast as we could and left early the next morning. WAIS needed us back to keep camp going until they could get a replacement HEO from McMurdo and to train up the new HEOs on operating in the deep field. This time we took only one Tucker, leaving the other at Byrd so they could keep grooming and excavating. Taking turns driving we made it back to WAIS late that evening. At least we didn’t have to worry about it getting dark!

At WAIS Divide we bucketed and pushed snow, forked pallets around, groomed town and the skiway, built pallets, and loaded Hercs. Another Tucker, China Doll (the one we’d had at Byrd in 2012-13) was needed at Shackleton camp. Being most familiar with the machine, I got to drive it onto the Herc! It was fairly exciting as there was no room for error.

While at WAIS we also got an opportunity to fly out via Twin Otter to help retrieve gear from a small camp at Pirrit Hills. This site is located closer to the base of the peninsula, an area I had never before visited. Mountains appeared on the horizon and then the hills themselves appeared ahead of us. The term “hills” is misleading…it’s an epic, jagged peak rising from the glacier with razor sharp ridges and massive granite faces: Utterly awe-inspiring.




The Twin Otter


The impressive “hills” rise several thousand feet from the surrounding ice.

We spent two weeks at WAIS helping with camp operations and training up the new Heavy Equipment Operators. On December 31 it was time to leave again. This time we took the Tucker and one of the Challenger 55s. The Challengers can pull 70,000 pounds…7 times as much as the Tuckers. We hooked up three sheets of HMW with a “CRREL tool” and secured several decks for cargo. The New Year found on us halfway between camps, in the great, empty, flat white of West Antarctica.


The Challenger hooked up to a CRREL tool and sleds

Already into January we had our work cut out for us. Almost all the flights to Byrd were cancelled for one reason or another and every flight that cancelled meant more cargo for us to haul back on traverse. We did six traverses in three weeks, using both Challengers and a Tucker, and closed out Byrd on January 17th leaving just a few of the larger pieces on new tall berms. Byrd has a long history (…link to hx page…) and I’m sure someone will return someday. Perhaps it will be a short seasonal camp again or maybe even the eventual hub for USAP operations in the West Antarctic as it was in the 1970s and 80s. The long legacy of research and infrastructure here unfortunately means that there is quite a lot of buried stuff. Old buildings are certainly scattered beneath the surface and I am sure there is plenty of lost and buried cargo as well…rumors abound telling of lost bull dozers and shipping containers. We had a GPR (ground penetrating radar) unit with us on traverse and scouted around the Byrd area mostly checking to make sure we hadn’t lost anything from this last go around. We didn’t see anything recently buried, but there were plenty of buried items deeper down between 20-60ft. I have no way of knowing exactly what they are and I guess I never will, but it certainly is intriguing!


Returning for another load


Putting the Tuckers to use grooming the skiway


Digging out old cargo at Byrd


Ready to roll

We cleaned up the last of the pallets, sent off the WAS Recovery team via Twin Otter, and headed back on our last trip to WAIS Divide. It was late January by then as we had just a week to clean up and winterize the traverse equipment and gear. Back to McMurdo on Jan 27 and back to beautiful New Zealand on the 30th!



Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, Traverse, WAIS Divide

WAS Recovery Crew

Bag Tags

The migration South has begun again. This year I’m heading back as the equipment operator on a small 4-person team: The West Antarctic Support (WAS) Recovery Crew.
Two years ago (2012-13) there were several active camps in West Antarctica: Pine Island Glacier (PIG), the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide, WISSARD, Byrd, and Siple. My post summarizing these camps and projects can be found here. With the Government Shut-Down last year the removal of the PIG and Byrd camps could not be completed and the supply berms were left to drift over. These regions have large accumulation rates – averaging over a meter annually in some coastal areas in addition to drifting snow.

Surface mass balance (1989–2009) in kg m−2 year−1. From Van den Broeke et al., 2011

Surface mass balance (1989–2009) in kg m-2 year-1. From Van den Broeke et al., 2011

Pine Island Glacier is quite a ways from McMurdo, way out “west” towards the peninsula (point A on the map below). Because it’s so far away and because the weather is so notoriously bad Hercs heading out to PIG relied on WAIS as a fueling point and Byrd as their back up. It’s easier to fly to WAIS so to initially establish PIG camp a traverse was organized to haul materials that were flown into WAIS. The projects utilizing PIG were completed in Feb 2013. The plan for cleaning up the camp was a tractor team to traverse from WAIS to PIG, collect the materials, and haul them back to WAIS where it would be used or flown via LC-130 to McMurdo. Then the government shutdown happened and the traverse had to be cancelled…So this year, two years since it was left, we’re going to try again. Our team has been organized to augment the traverse, making sure this stuff gets unburied and removed before it flows into the ocean.

A map of the West Antarctic deep field camps. The 2012-13 PIG Traverse route is shown in red.

A map of the West Antarctic deep field camps. The 2012-13 PIG Traverse route is shown in red. The traverse this year won’t go to Byrd so will just travel between points F and A. The South Pole traverse route is marked in yellow between McMurdo and Pole.

The rough schedule is to fly down to McMurdo in early November. After getting our equipment together (tents, stoves, safety and comms gear etc) we’ll fly out to WAIS. From WAIS we’ll get on a Twin Otter and head out to PIG by mid-late November. We won’t have the support of a full camp, it will just be the four of us and a few small tents (Arctic Ovens – “tent-city” tents). We’ll dig out the equipment, get it up and running, and use it to help dig out the supply berm, establish a field skiway for Twin Otters, and greet the PIG Traverse when the roll in hopefully around Dec 10. Once the traverse is loaded up and underway we’ll fly back to WAIS and out to Byrd. There isn’t a traverse planned for Byrd, so our job will be to repair some known broken equipment and try to move supplies to a new berm, or at least the snow surface as able. By late January we should be heading back to McMurdo.
As I mentioned earlier, the weather in West Antarctica is notoriously bad and delays are expected. Our schedule is flexible with options to assist with other projects if we are delayed longer than expected at one site or other.

It will be a challenging season. At WAIS there will be very limited text email, satellite phones, and radio, but there will also be cooks and galley (mess tent), and even snow melters for showers. At PIG it will be roughing it, even by Antarctica standards. It’s not as extremely cold as at Pole, but it’s wetter, which can be even more difficult. We won’t have any showers, or bathrooms, nor cooks. We’ll sleep in small unheated tents and hope for good weather. It’s close to the coast, but not close enough to see animals or water, mostly it will be back in the flat white…

For more information on PIG check out some of these interesting links:
Forrest McCarthy was a mountaineer with the PIG Traverse which left from Byrd in 2012-13. His blog here has a great page on Pine Island Glacier with a sweet video and some awesome photos!

The NSF also has a site: www.nsf.gov/news

NASA’s official site for Pine Island Glacier: Pigiceshelf.nasa.gov

The Berm at PIG at the end of the season in Feb 2013 - photo taken by Dean

The Berm at PIG at the end of the season in Feb 2013 – photo taken by Dean

PIG 2012


Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, Pine Island Glacier, Traverse, WAIS Divide

How to get to Antarctica, the easy way…?

So despite a very nearly successful attempt to do something different this year – the ice sirens would not go unheard. This time I am heading to the “Deep Field”of Byrd Field Camp as the Heavy Equipment Operator (HEO)!

At 80°S, 119°W, and 1553 m elevation Byrd is in the heart of Marie Byrd Land, named for the wife of Admiral Byrd, the first man to fly over the South Pole in 1929. Established in 1956 by the US Navy it was in continual year-round use until 1972 when it became a summer-only field camp. After being abandoned in 2005 it was reopened and now operates as a support station for activity in West Antarctica. This year there will only be 3 of us running the camp – the Camp Manager, a Field Support Coordinator, and Heavy Equipment Operator. Both the manager and coordinator are women – which for now at least makes us the only all-women camp 🙂

It will be much smaller than in previous years, but the website http://byrdcamp.com gives a comprehensive picture of the facilities and camp life during previous austral summers. The Antarctic Sun did a story a few years back on Byrd – some interesting tidbits and a good map:  http://antarcticsun.usap.gov/features/contenthandler.cfm?id=1792

Though there will only be the three of us there for the full season we will rarely be alone. In addition to fuelies*, carps*, and flight crews, Byrd will be the home base for the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) Traverse, some excursions to the nearby WAIS Divide camp, and also a science group coming out for several weeks to do aerial surveys in the area via Bassler plane.

(Positions in the Fuels and Waste department are affectionately and all but formally referred to on-ice as “Fuelies” and “Wasties.” “Carps” refers to carpenters. More terminology and explanation for slang and acronyms can be found on the Acronyms page at the top of this blog)

Wikipedia has a good summary of the Byrd field camp history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byrd_Station

With the Raytheon to Lockheed transition there are lots of changes underway in the organization and operation of the US Antarctic Program. I’ve heard quite a lot of frustration from friends getting ready to deploy this year. Perhaps the key is to just wait till the VERY last minute to get hired…I went from getting an offer to getting my tickets (to training in Denver at least) in 3 days. I’m sure this was not very nice for the folks in Denver, but it’s all moved quite smoothly on my end. Still, it takes some flexibility to undertake the acrobatics required to make it through each one of the flaming hoops of paperwork joy. I have spent hours printing, signing, initialing, filling in, scanning, organizing/renaming, attaching, and emailing the dozens forms…acknowledging risks and hazards, agreeing to appropriate behavior and conduct, signing away my life…

I am also hoping to winter this year at the South Pole, so the next two weeks are chock full of training for OSHA, fire fighting, emergency medicine, stress management, and the multitude of appointments to complete the PQ process to be medically cleared to deploy.

I won’t lie – getting a job in Antarctica can be hard, but getting cleared to actually do it is even harder. If you can make it to the ice you can make it through the season 🙂


Filed under Antarctic, Field Camps, History

It’s a Harsh Continent

It’s stormy today – 20 knots, and while it’s only about -10F the windchill is -35F!

Trudy and Megan riding on the sled behind the snowmobile after a run of deliveries.

When it’s windy like this, the snow gets picked up and visibility decreases significantly. There’s still quite a lot of outdoor work to be done, and we’re busy with delivering cargo from the two flights we got yesterday, but mostly everyone tries to find work inside. Finishing up deliveries, then rolling cargo straps and cleaning up the clutter that collects during the busy week. It’s a nice contrast from day after day of clear bright blue. The flat white horizon blurs with the white sky and tendrils of new snow drifts snake out from anything near the ground. When the horizon disappears some call it being “inside the ping-pong ball.” It’s chilly, with the wind blowing through seams and up jackets, and the snow grains in the air scour at bared skin. I’ve heard more than one person today say with a grin “Finally it feels like I’m in Antarctica!” But still a good day to stay inside.

Some photos from around the station today:

The Station in a little break from the blowing snow

The cargo office

Our equipment: the 953s “Barb Allen” and “Felicia” and the 950 “Big Foot”

The Waste Yard and Summer camp as seen from the cargo office, with a gust everything disappears into whiteness.

The Cargo Yard getting drifted over

Blowing snow in front of the DNF

A sled of snowy cargo straps and helmets

Christmas is this weekend and we’ll celebrate with two days off, another fancy dinner, caroling to the other Antarctic Stations on the HF radio, the “Race Around the World” and a white elephant party for Logistics! We got a huge load of mail the other day and everyone’s looking forward to the extra day off.

1 Comment

Filed under Antarctic, South Pole

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Antarctic, South Pole

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: http://icewishes.wordpress.com/)

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: http://icewishes.wordpress.com/

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