Tag Archives: Twin Otters

Fall-Winter Turnover

Schedule a plane and you’ll get a storm…or so it seems more often than not!

Our first flight since mid-August was scheduled for Thursday Oct. 20th, but it was delayed a day due to extremely high winds Wednesday evening and into Thursday. We were hunkered down in Con 1 here (see last post) and made the best of it. On Friday morning I woke early to start weather obs. Because we are not an official airport the station supervisor is required to provide current weather observations in METAR form starting 3 hours prior to take off. The flight was scheduled to take off from Akureyri, Iceland at 9am which meant with the 2-hour time change I had to get up at 3:30am to start obs. We only have a handful of flights so that’s fine with me. Thankfully the winds calmed down significantly and the weather looked good. The obs only take 10 minutes or so every hour so I had plenty of time to make a big breakfast for everyone.

Here are a few sample obs:

M BGSM 200750Z 15006KT 9999 FEW100 M27/M30 2992 RMK CLDS DSNT HGT EST SDG/HDG (a beautiful day with 6kn winds, clear horizon, a few clouds at 10,000ft and -27C)

M BGSM 201150Z 150T31KT 0100 -SN BLSN VV003 M22/M24 A2865 RMK 8sc SDN/HDN (a less beautiful day with 30kn winds, 100ft visibility with falling snow and blowing snow, socked in with only 100ft visible vertically, -22C, and no surface or horizon visible)

In the summer we use LC-130 Hercs – big lumbering beasts that can haul thousands of pounds of cargo and dozens of passengers. In the winter however (Sep-Apr in Greenland), the ski equipped Hercs are put to work down in Antarctica and we rely on Twin Otter planes. They are much smaller than hercs, but they can take off and land without much of a skiway and have no temperature limitations. We use them often in the deep field of Antarctica as they do not need a skiway to land.

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On Oct 21st the Twin Otter took off on time and we got everything here ready – fuel tanks were pre-warmed and staged, the skiway was tracked and the flags cleared of frost, baggage/cargo going out had final weights taken and was staged in the SOB, and I switched on our air to ground radios. The Twin Otter stopped at Constable Pynt (Nerlerit Innat in Greenlandic) on the coast of Greenland to refuel and I got a note from the airport there that they were on their way!

When they were about 15min out I got a call on the radio from the plane asking for current weather conditions, confirming outgoing weights, and requesting fuel. We were ready and waiting with the fuel tanks and snowmobiles with sleds at the flight line. The 6 incoming passengers had just arrived from sea level and would not be used to the 10,500ft elevation or the cold. An hour later the incoming passengers were settling into the Big House and the plane was fueled, loaded,

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Training the new science techs

and on its way back to Iceland.

 

The past week has been a whirlwind of training and turning over duties to the new crew. Half of the incoming winter crew has been here in past seasons so that helps tremendously. The other two have a lot to learn, but they have both worked down in Antarctica so they have a good idea of what to expect and are almost fully up to speed. The new energy and enthusiasm is revitalizing.

 

The second flight of turnover was scheduled for October 28th. Unfortunately, while weather here at Summit has been decent, weather in between Iceland and Greenland has been poor and they have cancelled 4 days in a row now. Weather delays like this are not uncommon, but it’s never easy on morale especially with those pax due to leave. This flight is the last one until crew turnover in February. It’s bringing in fresh food and a few resupply items for the winter season and will take out the

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remaining fall crew. Everyone except me is leaving – I’m here through February.

While I don’t have to do any turnover myself I do have to do weather obs until the flight gets here. Now that daylight savings has ended in Greenland I have to get up at 2:30am to start obs…

The Green House looking intense at night

The Green House looking intense at night

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Early dawn and a partial moon at 7am in late October. The structures are the MSF and 50m tower.

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Filed under Arctic, Flights, Greenland, Summit Station, Winter

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…

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

 

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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.

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

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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!

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Leaving WAIS

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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.

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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.

 

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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!

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The Caterpillar Challenger “Drag Queen”

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Returning for another load

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A full load of cargo

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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.

 

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The Twin Otter

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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.

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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!

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Returning for another load

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Putting the Tuckers to use grooming the skiway

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Digging out old cargo at Byrd

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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!

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

Ice to Ice

Phase II has come to an end. It was a great season and an especially interesting experience with both summer and winter operations. The new crew arrived right on schedule on October 8th via two Twin Otters from Akureyri, Iceland. The following week was a whirlwind of turnover with the new crew: training them on equipment and procedures, reviewing protocols and paperwork, getting them accustomed to the 10,550ft elevation and -30F temperatures and helping them get settled in with all the various idiosyncrasies that make up Summit Station.

On October 16th we officially handed over the reins. Two Twin Otters were scheduled to land just after noon, but the day had dawned with 20-25 knot winds and a fair bit of blowing snow in the air. Visibility was below their minimums with a worsening forecast. Still, the weather in Akureyri, Iceland and in East Greenland was clear and beautiful and they were going to try. As the day progressed we continued to submit hourly weather reports – the Phase III manager doing the observations. I stood by to answer any questions and assist with preparations for the flight. They had off-decked that morning on time, so while we were mentally prepared for them to cancel we also had to be ready to go. As their ETA drew closer the visibility stayed between 300-400 meters. The SOB was barely visible from the Big House.
The first Twin Otter called on the Air to Ground radio when they were about 15 minutes out asking for a current weather observation and confirming that they would attempt a landing. They could see the skiway markers, it was a localized storm, only a couple hundred meters high, and the wind was coming straight down the skiway. The mechanics pulled the loader and fuel tanks out to the taxiway, turning all their lights on to increase visibility, and the science techs readied their snowmobiles to transport freshies to the Big House and pax bags to the plane. We held our breaths and strained to see the plane in the whiteout as they reported over the radio that they had landed safely…”Norlandair 4 is on deck…but, we’re having a hard time seeing the flags, would it be possible to get a snowmobile escort to the fuel pits?” We escorted them in, began fueling, and unloaded the fresh food for Phase III. The pilots were unfazed and friendly. The second plane landed a few moments later without issue.

The first plane fueling with blue sky above

The first plane fueling with blue sky above

Norlandair!

Norlandair!

When we deployed in June 2015 we flew commercially to Scotia, NY where we boarded Air National Guard LC-130 Hercules planes and flew north to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland via Goose Bay, Canada. After a few days in Kanger we continued onwards up to Summit still on the Hercs. Redeploying now in October the LC-130s have flown South leaving Greenland for a period of maintenance before beginning the main summer season in Antarctica. Travelling to and from Summit then is done via Twin Otter – flying East with a quick stop in Constable Pynt on the rugged and isolated coast to refuel and Southward to Akureyri, Iceland.

I’ve never been East of Summit in Greenland and at first it’s the same flat white. The storm is indeed localized, not 15 minutes away the clouds clear and the sastrugi glitters in the sunlight as we cruise above.

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Fair weather just away from Summit

But then darkness appears on the horizon: mountains. Undulations form on the surface and a slope becomes apparent. I can see the ice flowing together and pulling apart, forming a more defined glacier – crevasses gape, indicating an increase in veloIMG_2677city. There’s no scale to show how huge they are. A nunatak appears, the tip of a mountain peaking above the ice. Then more – the ice lowering gradually, revealing mountains. Soon the ice is flowing between rock. Sheer granite walls rise above massive, epic, classic glaciers. Jagged peaks reach to the sky, dribbling rocks down their flanks to the ice below. Perhaps it is simply because I’ve seen only the flat white since May, but it is stunning and I can’t contain my excitement as I move from window to window. The sun is starting to set and the light is beautiful. It’s an inhospitable land: impossible to traverse. Perhaps some lichen or moss exists here, maybe the occasional bird, but there can’t be much else. Precipitous cliffs press against crevasse riddled ice as far as the eye can see. Further on, liquid water appears and the ends of the glaciers crumble into the dark reaches of the fjord. Icebergs! The sun sinks lower, behind the mountains, bathing the landscape in gold and pastel pinks and blues and we begin our abrupt descent to Constable Pynt. Not much more than a landing strip scraped clear of snow and some fuel tanks, it’s a quick stop and then we’re off over the far North Atlantic, heading south now to Iceland.

Inside the Twin Otter - the pilots up front, then the ferry fuel tank (extra fuel for the long flight) and us in the back.

Inside the Twin Otter – the pilots up front, then the ferry fuel tank (extra fuel for the long flight) and us in the back.

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Crevasses

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Constable Pynt, East Greenland

Refueling in Constable Pynt

Refueling in Constable Pynt

Arctic foxes (one white one brown) at Constable Pynt

Arctic foxes (one white one brown) at Constable Pynt

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It’s dark when we land in Akureyri. The town lights gleam and the air is laden with the smell of fall; the sweetness of decaying leaves, the hint of fresh grass and life, the salt from the sea. It’s windy and we couldn’t be happier. The next morning we fly on to Reykjavik and after a long layover, back to the U.S.

Reykjavik Cathedral

The cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland Oct 17

It was a record fast turnaround for me this year. Less than 48 hours to unpack and repack, take a bath, enjoy some crisp fruits and veggies, then back to the airport. Greenland to Antarctica in less than a week!
This year I’ll be working as an equipment operator on a small traverse shuttling materials from Byrd camp to WAIS Divide. There are no plans for a camp in the near future at Byrd, so much like last season (Pig DiggersWAS Recovery) it will be a skeleton crew working to return material back to McMurdo where it can be used for other projects. WAIS Divide is a fairly significant camp as far as deep field camps go – a staff of 15 will support a number of science groups operating out of there. Byrd however, will have a crew of just 4; their primary task being to excavate the cargo stored out there and either return it to WAIS Divide via our traverse or fly it back to McMurdo via LC-130 Herc. As far as traverses go ours will be pretty minimal with just two of us driving Tucker Sno-cats over the 100-mile stretch between the two field camps. In the field, far from the main stations, we will have no internet access though we will be carrying satellite phones and a portable HF radio.

Byrd has a long and varied history – from a year-round station to a summer only field camp. The Antarctic Sun did a nice piece on the history of Byrd history: Antarcticsun.usap.gov

I also reviewed some of it’s history back in 2012-13 when I was working as the equipment operator out there for the summer: antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/byrd-surface-camp-2012-13

So thanks for following along this summer! And stay tuned for the next grand adventure…The West Antarctic Support Traverse 2015-16!

Kiwi graffitti

Kiwi graffiti in Christchurch, New Zealand Oct 22

Welcome to Antarctica!

Welcome to Antarctica! Getting off the C-17 in McMurdo, Antarctica on Oct 23

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Filed under Arctic, Flights, Greenland, Winter

Aliens

After 7 months of being sequestered away – isolated from the rest of the physical world – we welcomed our first planes yesterday. Two Kenn Borek Twin Otters arrived from Rothera on their way to McMurdo! They travel in pairs for SAR purposes. It was strange to hear their voices over the radio, sounding so close, and so…Canadian. Winterovers drifted out to watch – standing on roofs, out on the snow, on the decks, and stairs watching and waving – and then when they had landed we all scuttled to our rooms and at lunch filled one long table in the galley, sitting close and trying not to stare. I wonder what they see in us – with our pale skin, wide eyes, and overgrown facial hair (on the guys at least). It’s beyond strange to see a figure and not be able to immediately identify them by how they are moving alone.

No matter how strange it may be, they have more than made themselves welcome with a bag of freshies! Apples, bananas, and kiwis! Enough for half a piece per person. I stood in line (yes, there was a line in the galley!) and found myself just staring at the kiwis, they were so luminous, so succulent looking, so perfectly real. I have been dreaming of apples though, so I picked one of the halved granny smiths. Perhaps the best apple I have ever tasted. There’s nothing quite like not being able to have something to make it so much more desirable.

They’ll refuel, rest, and wait for the weather in Mac Town to clear then they’ll head onwards. Meanwhile, the atmosphere is crackling with energy reminiscent of a Christmas morning. Still a month to go – but a month filled with changes, flights, and preparations for the summer crew. This is the beginning of the end.

The first Twin Otter touches down on October 5, 2013. -43F and little wind.

The first Twin Otter touches down on October 5, 2013. -43F and little wind.

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As for the Government shut down – we’re business as usual for now, we’ve been assured that we won’t be stranded. Some impact might be felt next season however, as per this article: www.nature.com/news/us-antarctic-research-season-is-in-jeopardy

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Filed under Antarctic, Flights, South Pole, Winter