Below all the text, there are various photos from this season. Dave did the honor of writing the blog.
Dave: “When we last left you we had been travelling down the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon down to California which was an absolutely amazing journey. By the time we made it back to Arizona we were more or less broke (having spent much more than originally anticipated on our Pacific Coast Highway journey) and were anxiously awaiting our return to McMurdo for another fruitful Austral summer season. Then it happened…
When I say ‘it’ I am referencing the government shutdown that most Americans have probably already forgotten about at this point. We began our journey to the bottom of the planet on the second day of the shutdown.
Just like last year Janae left before I did which is always a bit tough. While it may sound silly for most people, it’s quite hard on us having to split up before a major flight across most of an ocean. Perhaps some day the planets will align and we’ll be able to travel together. Nonetheless we both made it to Sydney safely and separately and then on to Christchurch.
Thankfully unlike last year I didn’t arrive on the same day/night as daylight savings and met up with Janae at our provided accommodations which I might add were quite nice and not very far from the airport. The following day we were driven to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) and outfitted with the same attire as last year. Having a bit more experience was quite nice this season as there was no guesswork to what we needed to bring with us down to the Ice.
At this point we weren’t exactly sure whether we were going to make it down to the Ice as the United States Congress in all their wisdom and glory were still acting like children and were unable to come to an agreement.
That night a note had been slipped under the door which said our flight to Antarctica had been delayed and to await further instructions. Those further instructions which arrived around 5 am said that we were delayed to the following day. After a couple more delays we finally made our flight on a Kiwi 757. For most of you a Kiwi is either a flightless bird or a delicious green fruit surrounded by a furry skin. In this reference a Kiwi is an individual from New Zealand, or actually in this case a Royal New Zealand Air Force 757.
This is where things begin to get interesting. As we were boarding the plane a thought ran through my mind which was that most 757’s I’ve ever been on only fly across the states, typically from Phoenix to Newark in my case which is on average about four and a half hours of flight time. The flight from Christchurch to McMurdo is about five hours. While this makes perfect sense to everyone, the issue that folks flying to the ice have is a dreaded thing called the ‘boomerang’. A boomerang is when a flight cannot land due to weather conditions in Antarctica and therefore needs to fly back to its point of origin. Last season, for example, the first Winfly (or Winter Fly In) flight in August made it to McMurdo in an US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III however was unable to land and therefore needed to fly all the way back to Christchurch giving them a total flight time of 11 hours.
It turns out that a Minister of New Zealand also happened to be on our flight as well. We didn’t meet him, however I’m sure he’s a really wonderful chap as every Kiwi I’ve ever met has been. So we board the plane, it takes off, and before you know it (after watching A Few Good Men and a couple other rather outdated movies) we begin our descent over McMurdo Sound. We had been told about an hour previous that we should put on our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear to prepare for landing as it takes a bit of time to get everything on. As I look out the window I notice some rather low lying clouds and suddenly we’re in them. You could feel the air resistance of the landing gear and the flaps were up, slowing our airspeed. Suddenly the plane throttled up and we were climbing at a very steep rate and we were out of the clouds. Last year we did a similar test landing so it wasn’t too much of a surprise. It was a surprise however when the captain came over the speaker and mentioned that due to bad fog conditions we were going to circle to wait and see whether the fog would blow off as predicted for a much more favorable landing. So we circled…and circled…and circled. Then we gave it another chance and same thing, landing gear goes down, flaps up, airspeed decreases, then a massive throttle up, severely increased rate of climb and we’re out of the clouds again. I then realized that we had been burning off fuel so there wouldn’t be a massive fireball if/when we crash landed.
At this point the captain came over the PA again and said that landing conditions were unfavorable and we were now forced to make a ‘whiteout landing’ due to the lack of fuel to get us back to Christchurch. The flight attendants were going to go over the emergency landing procedures and we should remove any objects from our pockets that could ‘penetrate our bodies’. Ha! That’s when things really started to get good. So we go over the crash positions. Yes, I have my seat belt on. Yes, I’ll be sure to lean forward, put my arms on the seat in front of me and rest my head on my arms. The only thing that was really important at this point is that I was able to hold Janae’s hand through this whole ordeal. Besides that I really wasn’t worried. We’re just landing on snow, right? How bad could it possibly be? I began to joke around about how the bar was going to be packed as soon as we made it back to town because of this situation. Gotta make the best of the situation after all. Though, one of the military staff was sobbing like crazy. She wasn’t making the best of things.
So we circled some more (to burn off more fuel) and finally we make the real deal approach. Landing gear is down, flaps up, airspeed decreasing, visibility…um…well…nothing. Literally it was nothing. Finally I saw the ground and within a fraction of a second our wheels were on the snow. To this day I really have no clue how the pilot was able to line up that landing, but he did. He nailed it. Actually it was one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever experienced. We came to a stop and everyone cheered. The surprising thing about everyone on the plane was that no one really panicked. Everyone was cool, calm and collected. There’s something to be said about the people that work down here.
When we got off the plane we realized exactly how thick the fog was. Visibility was less than 100 feet, literally. I could barely make out the fluorescent yellow fire truck that was only about 75 feet away from the door of the airplane. When we made it back to McMurdo we were let out and met with big hugs from our friends. Several of our friends were on the Search and Rescue team and they had been freaking out about our flight. They were told that a crash was imminent, that they needed to prepare for a mass casualty incident, but that they could not leave because no one knew exactly where the plane was going to come down. So, Yay! Hugs, happy times, no burning aircraft or bodies and wonderful galley food to be had by all. What more could we want?
Oh yeah, a job. That is after all why we came down here. The next day we were told that we may not have a job for much longer. The day after that I was pulled out of my OSHA safety class and told I was on the flight manifest and was going to be getting back on a plane tomorrow and heading back home. It turns out that Janae would not be flying home because the South Pole Traverse (or SPoT as it is referred to down here) was necessary to refuel the Pole and therefore in order to ensure two forms of communication (satellite phone and high frequency radio) MacOps would be funded. This is where I must mention that I have a deep affection for the people I work for. Within fifteen minutes I was pulled off the flight manifest and was back at work the next day having been given a new life. The carp shop management found on station maintenance jobs in one of the dorms which certainly needed it and all but one of us stayed down here. Crazy thing is that the one carpenter who left, came back a ten days later after the shutdown had been resolved. Talk about a commute.
So that’s how the 2013-14 season began. Certainly one for the books. Overall things have been going reasonably well. Deep field science has been postponed until next year however local science has been quite active. Honestly we haven’t really had much down time at all since we were given the go ahead in October.
Whatever free time I’ve had has gone to working out and a canyoneering training class that I’ve been putting on every Saturday to help teach canyoneering skills to whoever is interested.
It’s been one hell of a season and we’ve had some big peaks and a couple troughs, but overall it’s been great. Janae and I are both preparing for a trip to south east Asia after the Ice and beyond that we’re not exactly sure.
We hope that everyone back home are doing well and we think of you all quite often, usually every day at one point or another. You are all with us down here in spirit and we look forward to sharing some of our stories with you in person when we get back.”
Photo by Lena Stevens.
Photo by Lena Stevens.
The sea ice opened up a lot this season, so we’ve been able to watch Minkes whales and Orcas in the sound – that has been truly an amazing experience.
We’re all lined up for our travel plans to South East Asia when we leave the ice. We’re dreaming of warm days and fresh food!