The Propellers Turn
Christchurch, New Zealand
Wednesday, Jan. 4
I arrived in Christchurch on Monday morning. It is as cloyingly quaint as ever, a reverie of suburban London set against a distant backdrop of brown hills. Its Croydon, the town I grew up in, xeroxed onto California paper.
Things look good at the USAP office. Clothing issue almost right away, report for flight at noon the next day. This time, I feel much more confident .. but I am saddened to miss the electric thrill of the unknown that was so much a part of the anticipation last year. I know what to do with the clothing. I know what to wear, what to leave behind. I know how to banter with the staff in blue coveralls. Its really a shame I almost feel cheated. Ho Hum, back down to the Ice.
Check in at Glorias B&B she remembers me, its just like home. She has a full house lots of people coming and going. I am assigned to share a room with Don who arrived on the commercial flight with me and is going down to Mac for the winter-over. Don is a really nice guy, a quiet electrician from North Dakota, we chat a little and then he falls asleep from the long flight down.
Eat, sleep, wake, sausage and eggs for breakfast, onto the shuttle van .. and right back again. "Too bad you guys" says Mike, the logistics manager, "visibilitys down to zero, no flight down this afternoon. Report tomorrow morning at 5:45"
Boom. My already-small balloon bursts. A day to kill, spinning my wheels. Sunshine? Sidewalk cafes? not when I really want to get on with the task at hand. To seem useful, we decide to practice with the video capture. I stand in front of weeping willows and announce the delay. Follow this link to see a mpeg video of Tony (1.4 MB)
Don does a video also, a little self-consciously, he will try to e-mail it back to the school in ND so that his 9-year-old daughter can see her Daddy although he will be gone for 9 months. As last year, I am deeply moved by the quiet determination and hard work ethic of the contractors who support the entire Antarctic enterprise.
Spend some time at Glorias doing computer work, go back to USAP to do some e-mail, feel useless. Get a steak and a pint at Baileys pub on the central square, still nothing to do. Fold up my street clothes hopefully for the last time, set alarm clock, get to bed early despite an ominous note from Gloria that our shuttle van time has been changed to 6:15.
6 AM. Don and I are up, cups of tea in hand from Glorias selfserve kettle. Our keys are on the reception desk, our bags are in the hallway. We decide to step out of the front door to assess the morning air. Don, quiet, careful Don, pulls the front door closed behind him.
We are outside, our bags are inside and our keys are inside too. The whole house is asleep, Gloria and all her guests and the dog. The shuttle will be here in a few minutes. Don and I look at each other. The door is firm.
Then we remember the fire escape, a ladder connected to platforms outside each window. The window to our room is still open a crack, up on the third floor. "You pulled the door closed, you climb back up and in" I tell Don "and make sure you climb back in through the right window or well NEVER get to check-in". Don has long black hair, a big bushy beard and a blue denim shirt. The screams would be heard all over Christchurch.
He chooses the right window, disappears, and reappears at the front door just as the van pulls up. We smile.
There are 4 other NSF/ASA passengers, to be added to a couple of dozen Navy ratings who are going down to unload the cargo ship. We pull on our ECWs and clump over to the passenger terminal. Some announcements, the safety video, an airport waiting area complete with Armed Forces TV and a coke machine. Finally we are called out for the bus. Quick get on the bus first, get to the back.
The bus drives the quarter-mile through the gates to the waiting plane. This morning there will be another flight down later with more military personnel Air Force guys and there are two more planes that came in yesterday. Four Hercs on the tarmac.
The bus pulls up, the loadmaster sticks his head in the door and yells "Loading by sixes! YOU .. and you and you and you off the bus in sixes please and onto the plane, less crowding that way". Those at the front of the bus get put onto the plane first .. which means they are stuffed all the way to the end of the "aisles" (a euphemism) and will spend the next 8 hours with 10 pairs of boots between them and the can. Don and I and the other NSFs sit tightly at the back of the bus until coaxed off by the bus driver, and then hang back from the boarding process looking as nonchalant as possible.
Finally, were the last group on the plane is a mass of humans-in-wadding, a few seats left at the front, our tiny ruse succeeded and we feel disproportionately proud of ourselves as Old-Timers.
The loadmaster surveys his realm, counts us on his fingers and yells up to the flight deck. The engines start to turn, the turbines whine, the shadows of the propellers flicker and disappear. The whole plane vibrates, even though its stock still on the ground right where it was parked. Lights blink, crew members yell into microphones and it looks like a go.
Abruptly, one engine dies, spins down to a halt with a sigh. After a moment, as if following the flight engineers decision, engines 2, 3 and 4 follow suit. The crew are looking every which way and listening to the earphones, they go out of the open front and rear doors onto the tarmac. Everyone on the plane looks at each other and thinks "XXXX". "!!". One engine overheated or its oil pressure failed, the flight is scrubbed and were on the ground for another day. So soon 10 seconds after the engine ran up to speed. DONT they have mechanics in this outfit ??
The loadmaster sticks his head into the hold area. Everyone stops talking. "FOLKS" he yells against our earplugs "WEVE GOT A TWO-ZERO MINUTE DELAY REPEAT TWO-ZERO MINUTES". It wasnt a mechanical failure an extra passenger has to get on at the last minute. After a while, a big guy in a green flight suit climbs aboard and the engines start again. The brakes release, we lurch a little, the view through the window moves.
The props feather and thrust and reverse as the pilot tests all four engines. Its a very characteristic sound that is familiar to anyone whos spent time on turboprop aircraft. For me, the sound is hard-wired into memories of the Arctic, Siberia, and of course last years trip to the Pole. The plane taxis onto the runway, making this yawning sound, turns to face the runway and engages maximum thrust. Everything blurs and buzzes, we start to move, faster and faster, bump and theres the ground, falling away below, getting smaller and browner and no longer part of our personal world to be.
The ventilators belch and emit steam (actually its condensed vapor from the moist ground air); the passengers arrange themselves into piles of clothing and boots and bag lunches and earplugs and we are on our way to The Ice.
We have reached The Ice: the edges of the worlds meet under the windows.
I look forward: ahead and below, mountains half submerged in ice: I look up: I see the exhaust nozzle of the aircraft engine, the whole reason I am here.
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Prepared by Tony Hansen, Garry Rose and Paul Babushkin. Last edited 6 Feb. 1998