Within Two Thousand Feet of Our Goal
Journal Entry 2/6/98
At last we take off, after half a days delay due to bad weather. Just two passengers, 12 tons of plywood and my boxes of equipment. At first the surface beneath us is covered with cloud, but then as if by appointment the clouds clear just as we approach the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, about 1 hour into the flight. The views are spectacular: the peaks, the ice-filled valleys, the Beardmore Glacier up which Scott and his men toiled so desperately. In less than my fathers lifetime a traverse of Antarctica has been reduced from a heroic and ultimately fatal enterprise, to a plane ride.
How smug we feel, our technology has conquered the Ice. We have established camps as if they were space stations, visited from the air and provided with cooked meals, running hot water and comfortable beds. Theres even a Wells Fargo ATM machine at McMurdo: I withdrew twenty bucks just so I would have the receipt as a souvenir. In the space marked Branch was printed Antarctica.
We approach Pole: the loadie waves at us to buckle up, the plane heads down, our ears pop as they reduce the air pressure from the cruise level of a couple of thousand feet (i.e. almost surface pressure) down to the ambient pressure of Pole, equal to 12000 feet. Almost there.
Suddenly, vibration. Then we hear an engine whine as it shuts down. The crew rush to the windows, point and stare. Number 2 engine is stopped, its propeller motionless. The plane pulls back up and we buzz Pole Station at a couple of thousand feet. Right Over The Top. Right Down There. But were not landing. Out of my window I catch a glimpse of the dome receding into the vast whiteness as we turn around to head back to Mac.
Much discussion among the crew, much peering and pointing. It turned out that the Start Valve had unexplainedly opened, temporarily flooding the engine with fuel I suppose, as if you had pulled the choke out on a car while driving on the highway. Because of the as yet unknown possibility of engine damage, they didnt land for fear that they would be unable to take off again. We and the plywood would spend the night at Mactown, and make a third attempt on the very next flight out.
On the return, we pass again over the Trans-Antarctic Mountains: this time the view is framed by one stationary propeller as well as one spinning prop, a rather special sight.
We had taken off at about 8 PM, and had turned around at Pole at 11. Wed be back in Mac at 2 AM. The first flights out usually call for reporting at 7 to 7:30 AM. It was going to be a short night. I remembered the advice from a veteran Arctic crewman, probably related to me over a beer at Thule: the secret of survival on flight missions is summarized simply as
Sleep whenever you can ; Eat whenever you can ; Excrete whenever you can .
At this particular moment in time, options 2 and 3 were not available, so I slump back on my webbing and catch a few Zs. Back to Mactown.
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Prepared by Tony Hansen, Garry Rose and Paul Babushkin. Last edited 6 Feb. 1998