Antarctica: The Scenic Route

I’m here in Antarctica, after a truly amazing flight from New Zealand. Early this morning I was dressed in ECW (extreme cold weather) gear, including parka, layers of long underwear with wool socks and a bib-overalls and giant white bunny boots with valves that shut like airlocks, trapping every bit of humidity and foot warmth). Still groggy, we watched an orientation and safety video in the Antarctic departure gate of the airport, after a “bag drag” where our cargo bags were weighed and checked, x-rayed, sniffed by dogs…. and we were weighed on the same scales, fully outfitted, carrying our carry-on bags (the official ECW extras and a laptop bag), so as to calculate the plane’s weight properly. Our ECW bags contained a change of civie clothes, in case the flight needed to be turned back to Christchurch (which mercifully did not happen). I visited the flight deck shortly after take-off, took a few shots of the ocean below us, and discussed weather patterns with the crew. The commander of the flight shared an stunning image with me (sun through lenticular clouds in Antarctica, October 2004) — I’ll post it here soon. Then I left the flight deck, since three members of the crew were being trained (!). I’m sure they had a lot to discuss, as it was their first flight to the ice. Everyone was so calm and professional — while I had the headset on, and a microphone, I asked them “- am I the only one who’s excited?” at which point they all grinned and flashed genuine smiles and assured me that they were thrilled.

The flight was long and loud and uneventful — until I was called back up to the flight deck. We had just made it over the continent, and I was able to get some incredible shots of the mountains, glaciers pouring down from the plateau through every gap, dropping in white ribbons and sticking their long tongues out into the firm sea ice. The edges of Drygalski tongue were well lit, formidable and crisply visible even at our altitude. Throughout the sea ice, spots of open water or bays of blue water streaked with broken ice were visible. The commanding pilot said he’d been down to the ice several (8?) times, but this was the latest in the season he’d visited, so he was excited to see all the open water. Giant bergs were stranded everywhere, or breaking their own paths through the sea ice, leaving open channels anddark cracks in their wake. When we were about 150 miles from McMurdo, it was announced that the sea ice (we were to land on the ice runway at McMurdo) conditions had required the CLOSURE of the first section of the ice runway (perhaps the first thousand feet?). There was a wierd quiet moment in the cockpit, as they digested this news. We were nearing the point of no return (fuel-wise, the point at which the plane did not have enough fuel to fly back to New Zealand), and the decision was made to land on the shortened ice runway, after “lightening the load.” Some calculations were done, and it was decided that we’d need to “burn up” some fuel weight before landing, so that we could safely land on the shorter runway. No problem!

What a day for sight-seeing! Great visibility! The pilots discussed what we could safely view as we approached a steaming Mt. Erebus, shrouded near the top by a thin strata of clouds. We banked right, and ran a practice approach to the ice runway for the benefit of the pilots in training – low enough that the sensors started giving us voice feedback about our approach being too fast, too high, etc. Thrilling – but it got better. We flew past Black Island and White Island and the Pegasus runway, straight across to Mt. Discovery!! We lifted and ran up the side of the mountain, in fact, amazingly close. The view out the right window was stunning. It just got better, as we banked and turned around the back side, and dropped over hanging glaciers into the Dry Valleys, marked by dark veins, white stream beds, gravel fields and vivid blue pocket lakes. We circled back out, across to Erebus, and then banked again, circling on the ice twice before committing to the descent. Incredible. I said something like “um, do you need me elsewhere now?” and the commander said I was fine, so the crew strapped me in, and we dropped smoothly down to the ice runway.

How much does one tip a terrific pilot? ; )

{ TIME PASSES }

9:50 pm local time now. Still bright as noon out there. I dragged my bags around and got oriented in the National Science Foundation Chalet…. found my room, dragged gear up to my room, made bed, and went to dinner where I accidently met with the TAMDEF (geo group doing a GPS survey of TransAntarctic Deformation, Terry Wilson PI). This was great, since I’d contacted Terry months ago in hopes of meeting his team and learning about their project. Tomorrow I get updates in an early meeting – looks like I bag-drag again tomorrow night and fly off directly to the pole, a week earlier than my last itinerary update from Raytheon. Such are the best laid plans of mice and men.

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