Journal entry 28-Jan-99

"Subway to Antarctica"

I was lucky in Cheech - that is to say, upon arrival I was met by Marlene, friendly and efficient, expecting me on her clipboard: and informed that my clothing issue was that afternoon in a couple of hours [good], but that my flight would be in two or three days' time [not so good]. So I chatted to Mike, the supervisor: ''Mike, much as I love your fair city and could scarcely be happier than to spend three days in its bars and restaurants …. Is there any chance I could get out of here sooner?"
"Eeeair", he replied, "go talk to Sairndy in th' office. She'll fix you up".

I did, and she did. Report at 7 AM the next morning, there's space on the flight for me. It was a flight that had been ready to go the previous day, all the passengers weighed in and suited up .. then a mechanical problem, too bad folks, come back tomorrow. Sandy seemed surprised that I wanted to change my assignment from the Friday flight. At this time of year, the end of the season, most of the southbound passengers are ASA support personnel on their way down for the winter. For them, flight delay in Cheech is a last extra day of paid vacation, per-diem amidst trees and flowers and the attractions of a small city. While they are proud of their work and assiduous in their duty, none complain if they're told to stand by for a couple more days before 8 months of Ice. For me, I want to get there, to get started. One evening of a steak dinner and a couple of pints of beer in Bailie's is enough of quaint, cloying Christchurch for me.


The embarkation terminal has been redecorated, the procedure streamlined a little as the transportation and logistics are devolved from the military and transferred to ASA and NSF. But some truths remain, constant and inviolable. I head straight for the back of the number-2 bus. We drive out to the airfield …. And …

Joy! (or anticipation)

We really are flying down on a C-141, a medium-size jet plane, about as big as a small commercial jetliner. The 'Hercules' that I'd always flown on before, and whose propellers I had heard from over at the terminal, were on the tarmac but not for today's flight. All I knew now was that the flight would be 5 hours instead of 8, theoretically more comfortable, less noisy, and provided with a real toilet instead of a funnel.

Alas, no opportunity to get a picture for this journal, the second bus held back a bit while the passengers ('pax') from the first were loaded, then we drive up, everybody out, from the front, onto the aircraft please.

Quick mental arithmetic suggested that our approximately 40 pax would have plenty of room in the plane which can hold almost 200 in Maximum-Sardine Mode. As one of the last ones on, I got a seat near the front, a vista of parkas and boots and orange bags stretching down the aisles towards the rear of the plane where the people first off the front bus were now entombed.

Sack lunches, seat belts, the webbing seats are the same. This is going to be a MUCH BETTER flight, no propeller vibration to shake your fillings loose after 8 hours. Maybe even the heat will work. But then something strikes me.

Windows. That is to say, No Windows.


There aren't any windows - not that I or anyone else can get close to in a casual way, to look out. There is a small round window about halfway down the passenger area, a spot too bright to look at, behind the seat webbing and people's coats and separated from me by many, many feet and bags in the passageways. Even if I could negotiate the aisles and avoid annoying everyone, I wouldn’t be able to look out in any case. No window in the entrance door nearby. No window with which to at least imagine the passage of distance, no ocean waves, no ice edge, no mountains.


I am inside the digestive tract of a giant olive-drab metal slug. I have been ingested and will be regurgitated upon arrival. The time in between can not be equated with distance in between, because no clues are available as to what's going by outside. It's another magic carpet ride, another transformation, but this time we're in a subway car. After 5 hours' flight we could find ourselves in Tahiti, and none of the passengers would have a clue until the door opened.


Yes, it's smooth. Yes, the heat works - almost too well. Yes - it's noisy: not the constant RRRRRRR of propellers but the loudest continuous whooshing of white noise that I've ever been in. Even with ear plugs, its formlessness washes away the senses and prohibits concentration.

We sit. We yawn. We doze. On a commercial flight you would instinctively look towards the windows, even if there was nothing to see: just to set an imagined horizon, a reaffirmation of where you are. Here, we're nowhere, we travel in suspended animation.


Finally, announcements. FOLKS WE'RE APPROACHING MCMURDO PLEASE GET BACK INTO YOUR ECW'S AND SECURE ALL LOOSE ITEMS. The plane dips, turns, climbs, sways, turns again, goes up, down, and side to side. All of this is sensed purely by inertia. No-one has any idea how close the ground is. We dip, turn, climb again, the engines sigh, then whine again. Some of the returnees make hand gestures suggesting 'Boomerang', meaning to turn around in flight and go back to where you started, if conditions make it impossible to land. Boomerang .. ugh. Another 5 hours of sensory deprivation, back in Cheech for who knows how long, try again.


Finally, bonk, thud, roll of wheels. We're down!     I'm Back On The Ice Again.


After a while, the door opens. Gray light and howling cold wind blast into the plane. A bundle of fur grabs the microphone and yells FOLKS IT'S BLOWING PRETTY HARD OUTSIDE ABOUT 40 KNOTS GO STRAIGHT TO THE BUS TAKE EXTRA CARE NOT TO SLIP OR GET BLOWN DOWN ON THE ICE.


And he wasn't kidding. It was blowing - not hard as it can here, but enough to be a challenge to walk 20 yards with a heavy bag. No surprise that the pilots had difficulty landing. It seemed warm - that is to say, not cold as in COLD. The windows of the bus were spotted with drops where blowing snow had melted on the warm glass. The bus was completely packed - all 40 of us in full ECW's with huge orange bags, wedged in and barely able to move. I managed to get a couple of pix before the windows completely steamed over against the featureless whiteness outside and we were plunged back into the same process - the perception of moving, poorly correlated to the outside world, swimming in some mechanical fog for almost an hour as the giant bus ground its way slowly across the sticky drifts, more than ten miles from the airstrip back to town.