Experiences and Flight Ops in Antarctica
Walking across the flight line on the Ice Runway at McMurdo Station, you realize, Antarctica is surreal. The packed snow crunches beneath your boots, every breath accumulates on your sunglasses as ice coats your balaclava. You’ve been told flight operations are postponed until we can safely relocate two Weddell Seals taking in the sun on the ice runway. It’s actually a stunningly clear day, with spectacular views of Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on Earth. On this Austral summer day, temperatures are roughly -10 Degrees Fahrenheit but winds are calm. Perfect day for flight crews to deliver a geological team to their out camp to begin research. I hope the weather holds.
Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest, coldest, and most extreme environment on Earth. The ice is over a mile high and covers roughly 98% of the continent, which is geographically twice the size of Australia. Ironically, it is also a desert, with less than 8 inches of moisture a year. The snow that crunches beneath my boots actually fell decades ago, but never melts. Temperatures inland never get above freezing. Regardless, it is one of the only unmolested ecosystems left on the planet and annually scientists from around the globe conduct invaluable studies in continent. Transportation logistics was one of my Naval Squadron’s missions, and every day brought new challenges. This day, it was seals.
To carry out our missions we utilized two flight platforms. One, the ski equipped LC-130 Hercules from Lockheed for longer flights. Two, for missions within 300 miles, we flew the Bell UH-1N twin engine helicopter. Both were outstanding for this type of work and maintained high operational tempos throughout the Austral summer. Maintenance crews worked 12 hour days 6 days a week to keep up with mission readiness. In many ways it was a race. The Austral Summer only spans from October to March. All outstations must be resupplied and refueled to make it through the blackness of winter, from April to September. The temperatures plummet dramatically (-128 Degrees Fahrenheit was recorded at Vostok base) during winter, and only a skeleton crew of workers and scientists stay on the continent. It is inaccessible to aerial resupply or even medical evacuation.
During the summer, the continents population swells to around 5,000 with workers, tradesmen, scientists, cooks, and support personnel. Only 1% percent of the worlds population will ever get to experience Antarctica. It was designated as a scientific preserve by 53 countries in 1961 per the Antarctic Treaty System. No commercial or military activities are allowed on the continent, however the military may help with logistics, observational, and peaceful operations. Any grievances between nations are handled by the International Court of Justice. The continent truly is an environmental, political, and scientific success story. This adds to the rich texture of goodwill among the temporary inhabitants. There are no indigenous peoples.
However, it’s the untouched splendor that makes Antarctica truly amazing. Wildlife has no reason to fear humans and Emperor Penguins may walk right next to you. Weddell seals will barely blink if you walk past their sun bathing areas. Orca whales are visible after the ice breaks at the height of summer. Of course, this respect is reinforced by a $10,000.00 fine for interacting with wildlife unless out of absolute necessity. Scientists receive special permission to perform tagging and experiential studies on wildlife, however may not disrupt the natural migratory or life patterns of the species.
Flight operations were always challenging. Weather was constantly changing and often unpredictable. Severe storms would blow in and reduce visibility to zero. These were not new developing weather systems, but rather severe winds that would pick up snow at the surface, and throw it across the ice at incredible speeds. We affectionately called these, “herbies,” but they created severe hazards for flight operations and maintenance teams. The lack of distinction between snow and sky would create spatial disorientation, challenging flight crews to trust their instruments. At this time, GPS could not reach the southern continent, so navigators would actually rely on dead reckoning navigation and celestial readings. They literally used sextants to pinpoint locations. Flight engineers had to carefully monitor systems to avoid being stuck in an untenable position. Loadmasters kept an eye on passengers and cargo. Any unnecessary cargo shifting could cause severe problems to the weight and balance of the aircraft. Of course maintainers had to work in unimaginable conditions to keep the fleet up and ready to perform.
I spent three austral summers on the ice. I met some amazing people that are still friends to this day. It’s often unbelievable to imagine the way we all looked out for each other not just during work, but also during recreation. The housing was sparse, usually just restaurant refrigerator’s that had furnaces installed. We had no windows which really did not matter because the sun was always shining. We went to the gym. We ate at the galley. We had one night off a week to unwind and I can assure you we all made the most of those.
In the end, it was an incredible experience that I will never forget. Aviation has taken me to some incredible places but Antarctica was arguably the most extreme, and most rewarding. During these times of breaking weather and extreme cold warnings it allows me to put things into perspective. To me, it seems too simplistic to compare the recent cold weather to what I experienced in Antarctica. But I will submit, it was a dry cold.