Station Population: 1000+ (in McMurdo)
Current Location: Somewhere above the Southern Ocean
Time to New Zealand: 4 hours
On Tuesday of this week my replacement arrived at Pole. We had corresponded almost everyday throughout the winter and he was here last year so our turnover was actually quite brief. Wednesday was a busy day for planes coming and going. I think there were 5 or 6 in total (all Hercs). I worked to wrap up some loose end for work and finished the majority of my packing. Of the stuff I brought down to pole with me, much of it I left behind in Skua which is a sort of leave stuff and take stuff stash. Over the winter I found several nice things in Skua…computer speakers, shirts, a pair of shoes. Now it was my turn to make donation to the pile with stuff that I no longer needed or wanted. The rest I was able to ship back to Seattle. I sent 4 large boxes of stuff directly from South Pole to home. It will be very nice not to have to drag that stuff through New Zealand. This left me with a modest sized duffel bag of stuff I’ll need in New Zealand. The cargo people took this bag in preparation of my flight the following day. Wednesday evening they posted the flight schedule for Thursday. 2 morning flights and 2 evening flights. Thursday morning I woke up and checked the flight schedule. The two morning flights were on weather delay. The winds at Pole were from grid west and this brought in warm moist (both relative terms) air. This was dropping visibility to the ¾ miles range. This was by far the warmest day yet since I’ve been at Pole with temps in the -18F range. However, the stiff west wind kept a real bit to the cold. The Hurcs typically need 1 mile. As the morning advanced, the 2 hour delay became a 4 hour delay. Then the first flight canceled. Then the second flight canceled. Thus, it was looking like the 10pm flight was my next best option. The weather was slowly clearing though the day and they scheduled a new evening flight for 8pm. I had my final dinner at Pole, made my final-final packing and toured the station, saying goodbye to the few people I still knew. I make a final trip out to the pole and thus began my journey north. The Hurc flew over the landing strip on a low and slow pass undoubtedly checking visibility since we it was very borderline. About 5 minutes later we saw the plane again over the landing strip about a ½ mile from the end of the strip and still not on the ground. I figured this was just another flyby since they usually land quite a bit sooner and taxi in. However this plane only got its skis on the snow with a ¼ mile of strip left. “Touch and Go” I thought. But the plane stayed down and the engines were thrown into reverse and they roared at full throttle. The plane was moving fast and the end of the landing strip was coming faster. The plan glided about 100 yards past the red flags that mark the end before coming to a stop. These Hurcs land on unimproved field camps all the time so it was not really a big deal, since the only difference between the landing strip and what lays beyond is just some grooming, but it was exciting none the less.
Some people came out to see me off. Not many though. The plane was only bringing cargo and fuel to pole so no one got off. There was only one other person leaving pole. He was an IT guy that had only been there about 3 days. After cargo and fuel were off loaded, we were signaled to the aircraft. It was strange crossing the safety line that had separated me from so many other planes that left me behind. As I neared the aircraft I looked back one last time at the station and the handful of people seeing me off, while at the same time being careful not to veer off into one of the 4 propellers of the 4 running engines. I climbed into the fuselage of the empty airplane an took a seat on a fabric bench seat along the starboard wall. My one green duffel bag was comically strapped down in the center of the large cargo bay. I sat down and was confronted with my first seatbelt in 10 months. This was something I forgot about, but only took a minute to locate a pair of dissimilar ends to couple together. One of the flight crew gave me a 10 second safety briefing that that was mostly “If we crash, follow me! Don’t walk into a propeller! It’s all the same as when you came in”! I shouted over the engines that that was 10 months ago, so he spend another 5 seconds pointing to a couple doors and gave me a thumbs up.
The plane taxied to the grid south end of the landing strip turned and took off into the wind. The first hour of the flight was just pure whiteness outside the windows. Around hour 2 we flew over the Trans Antarctic mountains. I again was impressed by their size and steepness. They really give perspective to the size of the glaciers that fill the valleys between. These mountains also constituted the first earth I’ve seen in 10 months (rocks, dirt, gravel) We hit a good bit of turbulence as we neared McMurdo. It as pretty intense but only lasted a minute or two.
- Transantarctic Mountains
We landed on the ice runway just off the coast from McMurdo. When I came through last fall we were landed much further away and had to be driven about a 30 minutes into town. This time it was just a 5 minute van ride. I was dropped off a some type of cargo building and waited for my green duffel to arrive. It got to ride in its own vehicle. I did some last minute re-packing and turned it back over to the McMurdo cargo people for tomorrow’s flight. Here I learned that the 10pm and 11pm flights to Pole turned around en route due to bad weather. I was so fortunate to get out when I did. I also learned that a big storm was moving into McMurdo and the C-17 were probably not going to fly tomorrow. The good news was the New Zealand Air Force was flying an C-130 Herc (without the skis) in the morning and they were putting passengers on that. It was leaving at 8am so I had to be ready for the shuttle van at 7. I really wanted to sightsee in McMurdo and without an alarm clock I was really nervous about oversleeping so I decided to do a little e-mail and facebooking, go to the midnight meal served in the galley and then go explore all night and then sleep on the plane. There is 24hour daylight here, but the sun does get lower on the horizon at night. The weather in McMurdo was around +14F with a bit of a wind. I was out in just a sweatshirt and jeans and was getting pretty cold. I was disappointed at myself for being such a pansy in positive temperature, but reminded myself that +14 is still still well within ice fishing temperatures and a sweatshirt is still just a sweatshirt. Around 1am I decided I would go to my room and just kill a few hours with a quick sleep. The room was dark. As I entered, just as I suspected, there were other people in there. How many I don’t know as I was trying to be discrete and used my flashlight on it low setting to find my way to an empty bunk. I just took my boots off, laid down with all my clothes on and used my Big Red as a blanket.
My tiny watch alarm did not wake me at 5, but I awoke at 5:30am regardless. I was tod to be ready well before 7am since they might try to leave earlier to beat the storm, but the flight schedule was still showing a 7am shuttle for the 8am flight. So I had some breakfast and another round of computering and headed for the shuttle bus. The whole time I was in McMurdo I was washing my hands like someone to OCD because I wanted to get in and out without picking up the McMurdo crud with is some kind of flu/cold/pinkeye concoction I was warned about. As I was walking up a steep slope with my heavy carry on bag I instinctively kicked into low gear to compensate for the the altitude, but then remembered that I was now at sea level and probably hadn’t taken a breath for the last 30 seconds. I adjusted my pace accordingly and was up the hill without any extra panting. This is quite the opposite from when you get to high elevations and the part of your brain that knows how fast you can go doesn’t understand this new lack of oxygen and sets your legs at their usual sea level pace and 30 seconds later your consciousness needs to step in to sort things out while you are panting in your tracks. After 10 months at altitude, the opposite seems to be the case.
This fight has about 12 people on it. Since it is a Herc it is slower (and nosier) than the C-17 planes that usually do the New Zealand to McMurdo run for the US Air Force. The Kiwis have treated us well with snacks and drinks on the plane. The flight crew is either sleeping in cots suspended from the ceiling or making their round checking the mechanics of the aircraft. Flying over the Southern Ocean is serious business. Here is pretty much zero chance of rescue if we were to go down here.