Plans can change very fast in Antarctica. The U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) usually schedules two days for visitors to prepare in Christchurch, New Zealand, before they fly to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. But the runways in McMurdo are made of ice, and warmer weather this week had melted away one runway and was turning another into slush. That meant that the group TFK was part of would have to fly on an aircraft—the LC-130 Hercules—specially outfitted with skis. Skis are required because the wheels of a regular aircraft's landing gear would cut deep ruts into the soft ice of the runway. The crews who fly the Hercules with skis are from the New York State Air National Guard. The Guard has 10 planes and 26 crews who take USAP staff, scientists, and visitors to and from Antarctica. Our two-day prep time was shortened to one day because a Hercules with skis was available right away.
On the morning of our departure, we headed to the USAP's Christchurch center where we put on our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW)—overalls, parkas and bunny boots—and stuffed our hats and gloves or mittens in our parka pockets. We packed the rest of our gear into a checked bag along with our regular luggage. We also packed what is called a "boomerang" bag in case our flight "boomeranged" and had to turn back to Christchurch because of bad weather around McMurdo.
At the center, we watched videos on recycling, which is extremely important in Antarctica, and safety. Cold weather accounts for only 2% of injuries on the continent. Slips and falls account for most injuries. After the screening, each visitor was weighed with his or her luggage and carry-on bags. It's important to know exactly how much weight will be on the plane. How important? About 30 minutes after we had all checked in, the flight coordinator announced, "Well, folks, three people are not flying today because we have exceeded our load limit." Those three passengers would have to catch the next flight out in a couple days.
The View from the Cockpit
Our group of about 30—including scientists, technical specialists, two newly hired cargo workers, and an eight-person film crew from New Zealand TV—crammed into a bus that took us to the USAP runway. Flight loadmasters Mike Goldman and Nick O'Neil explained flight rules and safety equipment.
We boarded the plane and picked spots along the red nylon bench seats that lined the sides of the plane. It's not a fancy craft. There are only a few small porthole windows. During the eight-hour flight, the passengers stretched out, slept, and read books. We all had to wear earplugs or protective headgear because of the noise. The temperature in the military plane ranged from comfortable to sweltering to downright cold. We each received a hearty bag lunch—two large sandwiches, several muffins, cookies, granola and candy bars, plus two bags of chips and an apple. I sat next to Elana Hawke, who is traveling with the New Zealand group. Elana won the 2013 Antarctic Youth Ambassador Environmental Award given by The Sir Peter Blake Trust.
In the cockpit, pilot Paul Breton, co-pilot Paul Benintenole, navigator Ernie Grey, and flight engineer Brandon Guthinger stayed in contact with ground control in Auckland, New Zealand. At the flight’s halfway point, they tuned in McMurdo ground control to decide whether conditions would permit the plane to land. If not, we had enough fuel to fly back to Christchurch. Breton said that the decision to turn back happens in about one in 20 flights. He has been flying USAP flights for 18 years. “This is my last time down here,” he told TFK. “I’m going to miss it.” Because of the noise, it was difficult to hear each other. One of the crew loaned me his headset to make it easier to converse with the pilot. While we talked through our headphones, I could hear the crackle of ground radio conversations.
As we approached the coastline of the continent, Breton invited me into the cockpit to see the dramatic white coastline of Antarctica come into view against the deep dark blue sea. As it did, we smiled at each other and shook our heads in awe of Antarctica.
David Bjerklie is filing reports while traveling to Antarctica with the National Science Foundation. Track his progress and learn all about the icy continent at TFK’s Antarctica Mini-Site.
To see a live web broadcast on January 23, teachers and parents can join the TFK community at edweb.net/tfk. All participants will receive printable worksheets with maps, time lines, and more.