Getting to Antarctica

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Part Three: The trip to McMurdo Base

Journal Entry:
In the air on the way to Antarctica
Wednesday Jan. 29

I am writing this on board the C-130 aircraft, half an hour after departure from Christchurch on an eight-hour flight. The departure was delayed from 9 AM to noon due to bad weather at McMurdo. The muster officer told us that it will be -20 degrees C with fairly strong winds and blowing snow. "Summer's over", he announced.

I had a Good English Breakfast at the guest house before checking out - two fried eggs on soggy toast with baked beans and three "bangers" .. items that are not allowed to be called "sausages" in the U.S., where that word refers to a food item containing only meat-derived products. The British Banger contains a trace of meat so that it can be thus described, but is then back-filled with sawdust, road sweepings and finely ground garden debris. When fried to perfection and liberally doused with A-1 sauce, just one will be enough. Needless to say, I ate the lot, washed it down with several cups of tea and checked out.

At the USAP center, I took off my 'civvies' and put on my issued cold weather gear. It was at least 70 degrees F outside with a bright sun in a clear blue sky. Then they announced the 3-hour delay. I didn't expect that heat prostration would be a hazard of this mission. We waited in the departure area - just three scientists, but a couple of dozen young military personnnel (U.S. Navy and N.Z. Forces, men and women) who are going down for a couple of weeks to unload the cargo ships that have just docked. They will unload the winter-over supplies (food, fuel) and reload with 'retro cargo' , much of which is recovered waste, recycling etc. The law is very strict about not leaving any garbage there any more. They were a noisy, lively bunch in the departure area.

Finally, we get the word. We line up, and our baggage is sniffed by the Drug Dog. Clump out onto the bus in Antarctic clothing under a burning hot sun: drive over to the tarmac where the plane is almost loaded. Inside, the plane is more 'industrial' than other projects I've flown on - even in Russia. The interior is a mass of pipes, wires and the exposed inner workings of an aircraft. "Earplugs?" they call out. We all raise our hands.

There's something about the sound of a turboprop plane exercising its blade pitch - from forward to reverse thrust as they do just before take-off - that is an indelible memory of projects such as this. Just that sound alone is enough to make me think of hundreds of hours in the Arctic.

Inside the plane, we sit in sling webbing seats along the sides. The center is piled with bags and bundles and boxes. After take-off, people lie down on the metal floor, padding themselves with their wadded parkas to smooth out the cargo runners. There are only a few small portholes, and nothing to look at anyway: we will be flying over ocean all the way. Surprisingly, the cabin pressure is kept almost at sea level, though we are of course flying at about 25000 feet. It's not that warm in the plane, but I'd better start getting used to that.

The "Rest Facility" on this plane is slightly more advanced than the literal bucket on the Antonov-26 out of Cherskiy .. except for a characteristically-military design flaw. Behind an olive-drab curtain, on one side of the plane there is a funnel attached to a tube. Should work OK? .. if only (1) the funnel was a foot lower ... and (2) not buried deep amidst a mass of pipes, tubes and wires. If it were the Blarney stone, you *could* reach it: but for the intended purpose, its use would be difficult under any circumstances, let alone if you are wearing long underwear and bib-front padded coveralls. Thank goodness that most aircraft systems are hydaulic rather than electrical, I would hate to cause a short.

For a while the interior of the plane is much too hot: next, it is much too cold. Somewhere up front there is a Knob. I went up to the cockpit, took a couple of pix: it's quite spacious up there, with the pilot and co-pilot up front; the flight engineer sitting behind them; the radio man on one side; and the navigator at a little table with his charts. Surprisingly, it seemed as noisy and vibrating in the cockpit as it does in the main body of the plane. This plane is *really noisy* - and everything vibrates. I feel sure that if you put a cup of water on the metal floor, it would buzz in waves.

My thermo-hygrometer says 71 degrees F and 26% relative humidity. I don't believe the temperature.

We are now 3 hours in to the flight, not yet half way. I looked out of the window - just ocean with whitecap waves. The flight briefing had warned us of turbulence half way down: perhaps we'll have to strap down. In severe turbulence, being in this plane would *really* be like being shaken in a bean can.

At 4:45 pm (3 1/2 hours), someone says they just saw the first ice floating in the ocean. Soon they said we will cross the Point of No Return - the distance beyond which the plane has used more than half its fuel, and *must* therefore proceed - if it turned around, it would not be able to get back to Christchurch. This seems too soon if it's an 8-hour flight: surely the plane will not land empty, but will have *some* reserve for headwinds, circling etc. I would have expected it to carry 10 hours' of fuel, making the PNR five hours of flying. I'll ask.

The loadmaster says "No turbulence today. Too bad, eh?"

The co-pilot is a woman, and there are maybe seven out of 30 passengers who are women. They are dressed in military cold weather gear identical to the men, and look as capable as any of their colleagues. It is good to see that women have comparable opportunities for these kinds of challenging assignments - I guess that has been one of the great equalizers of the modern military. That certainly wasn't the case in Russia.

6:30 pm 5 1/2 hours of flight: 2 1/2 more to go.
What a curious form of purgatory this is. Too noisy to think, way too noisy to speak to anyone except by yelling though their earplugs and gesticulating. Certainly no conversations. Too dimly lit inside to read, too bright outside to see anything: but in any case there are only clouds, waves and water. From the dim recess of the plane's interior the portholes are like halogen bulbs, almost painful to look at with dark-adapted eyes. People lay back, some dozing, buried under parkas and layers of gear. Some lay on the floor, on their gear. Some wander listlessly back and forth, stepping over the slumbering masses of padding and boots like an obstacle course. It alternately blows hot then cold. Four men are squatting on the floor, playing cards: but in the din they can not easily call their bets or coax their partners. From time to time a flight crew member comes down and around, agile in his one-piece non-bulky flying suit: he surveys the cargo, human and otherwise, then returns back up the ladder to his higher plane. (pun :-) ). In one Web journal that I read, a student was astounded that anyone could simply lie back and try to sleep on this flight: she was so excited at the prospect of going to Antarctica. Unless you have brought a long, easy book and are sitting near a window for light, there really isn't anything else that you *can* do. I can guess that this is what an emigrant's passage was like: a journey of great significance, totally overwhelmed by the mechanical aspects of the travel. These young guys are going to be *really* ready for a beer when they deplane.

7:45 PM - probably less than an hour to go. Suddenly, a transformation. Perhaps induced by as simple an action as turning down the heat in the cabin. Or maybe the sight of ice on the ocean and perhaps even a mountain in the distance - Mt. Erebus? But in any case, the aircrew come through one at a time and pull on warm suits over their flying gear: the passengers pull on additional layers and are now huddled under their parkas. It's as if we're arriving - even though it may be a while yet. Certainly a good idea to start "thinking cold" rather than having the heat on high until the doors pop open at McMurdo. The first time we landed at Thule Air Base in Greenland (AGASP-1, 1983), none of us had been in real cold before - nor the aircrew, who were based in Miami! I remember the look of horror on Capt. Turner's face, as he wanted to make a good impression on his hosts and got ready to be the first out of the opening door from a nice warm plane, in his tropical-white NOAA Corps uniform. He almost hurled himself back into the plane, gasping for breath, hitting a wall of air at 45 degrees below zero.

I don't know what to expect upon arriving - may not be able to write for a while.

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Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 30 Jan 1