Monday, October 18, 2010

Flight to the Ice [Dispatches from Antarctica]

28 September 2010: Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station, Antarctica — flight to the ice.

But wait! It’s all about the science and inter-agency cooperation. When I accepted my assignment, I knew that. But it wasn’t until I reached the bottom of my third cup of tasty Kiwi coffee this early morning and looked around to see no other military uniforms that it hit me. This is not military business as usual. Hold that thought…

After check-in and security screening conducted by members of the New Zealand Defence Force, we boarded the C-17 Globemaster III. The Commander, Joint Task Force – Support Forces Antarctica, Lt Gen Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle (my boss’s boss), would travel roundtrip with us on today’s mission to mark the start of the austral summer season “main body.” Last month, C-17 maintenance and aircrew completed the first night-vision-goggle (NVG) passenger and cargo missions into Antarctica as part of the so-called WINFLY period.

Of the 64 passengers riding aboard ICE 08, only two of us were currently in the military: the chaplain and me. The rest were scientists, science support contractors, station management, and civilian helicopter crews. My forest green military parka contrasted sharply with the familiar bright red of the other participants. In Antarctica, the inter-agency is color-coded.

Layering cold weather parkas with oversize boots under gloves over hats in between thermals, we were hand-stuffed into the airplane’s oversized seats like warmly swaddled newborns. Five hours later, with the modified Bell 212 Hueyhelicopter puzzle-pieced in back of the passengers, we touched down at Pegasus White Ice Runway.

It stings. The first noseful of dry, cold, hard air clawed its way down my windpipe. Were it not for the still-running jet engines, you could hear the faint cracking of lips and nostrils. Steam spiraled from the fumaroles of Erebus forming a cottony tail in the sky. The handsome Royal Society Range posed behind us. All around us…the ice shelf of the Ross Sea.

Bundled and stiff, lips stuck-dried to smiling teeth, we waddled from the airplane to Ivan the Terra Bus. Again we were swaddled. Contact frost from airplane breath grew ice fractals on the inside of frozen windows obscuring the 35 minute ride to the NSF Chalet at McMurdo Station.

Briefers from every part of “Mac Town” presented the how-tos, and how-not-tos, of the community. Finally, we were released to begin our work in Antarctica.

For Classroom Discussion: Aside from my personal gear, I had the privilege of toting the first 25 Antarctic Aeronautical Strip Charts produced by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) using new waypoint names in honor the dogs and ponies that helped pioneer this remotest of places. My purpose was to obtain signatures of the crew and stamps from the station on these commemorative charts. Who were the first people to travel to the South Pole? How did their selection of dogs or ponies contribute, or detract, from their journey?

No comments:

Post a Comment