Science and Technology News

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tragedy on the Ice [Dispatches from Antarctica]

28 Oct, McMurdo Station, Antarctica

[NOTE: I’ve delayed posting this entry. Both because it is appropriate to wait and because I wish I didn’t have to write it. After discussing the matter with our National Science Foundation (NSF) management at McMurdo, and the producers of this Department of Defense blog, I thought it important to move this one in front of the backlog of Dispatches we’ve amassed recently. I’ve provided links below to news outlets in both French and English. I will not attempt to provide the news here, but rather offer a brief glimpse into this horrific event from the vantage point of fellow members of the Antarctic Community.]

Today seemed like an ordinary Thursday. However, for the families, colleagues, and friends of a certain French Antarctic team, this Thursday will be filled with grief. It is anything but ordinary. Today, four members from l’Institut polaire Paul-Emile Victor, in Brest, Brittany, France would tragically perish in a helicopter crash near the French Antarctic research station Dumont d’Urville.

But we didn’t know that until two days later. At the time of the mishap, the focus at McMurdo was very different.

I finished work at and returned to my quarters for some evening tea. After addressing a noise complaint in one of the nearby dorms, I returned to find an urgent pager message waiting for me. It was just after . The message indicated an overdue helicopter and a request for assistance. I went back in to work.

At McMurdo, unusual events and crises are often handled by the EOC, Emergency Operations Center. The EOC is convened by the NSF Station Manager on an as-needed basis. As the inter-agency government lead for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), the NSF determines which, if any, of the USAP’s assigned and contracted assets and personnel will be made available to support requests for international support. Other international programs have similar arrangements.

Australian Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) led the international search and recovery effort from Canberra, in response to a request from the French program. RCC sought information from various nations and programs in the region as to what resources, such as ships and aircraft, might be available to assist. The NSF at McMurdo was among those contacted. This process happened very quickly, as all the organizations have checklists and set procedures for the purpose.

In the Air Force, we sometimes use a Crisis Action Team, or CAT, for similar purpose as the EOC. I’d worked in CATs and their inter-service cousins known as JOCs (Joint Operations Centers). I was accustomed to the drill. As the senior Joint Task Force – Support Forces Antarctica (JTF-SFA) member at McMurdo that night, it was my task to participate in the EOC process.

I arrived in the EOC room. The NSF manager led the process. Around the table sat key representatives from all areas of McMurdo operations, referencing checklists, typing on computers, talking on phones. Large screen monitors and maps were on the walls silently providing what information could be collected. Except for the lack of uniforms, this looked and felt like other crisis teams I’ve worked with.

The situation as briefed was that two French helicopters had been operating between the French research vessel l’Astrolabe and the French station, Dumont d’Urville, when severe weather suddenly moved in. One helicopter had landed safely, but the other one was overdue and could not be reached by radio. Australian RCC was leading the international search and recovery.

An important part of maximizing crisis team’s contributions is keeping everyone focused on the art of the possible…on the assigned task. You could sense the urgency and frustration of the team, each of whom wanted to do more than was possible. And though none of us had ever met the French citizens involved, we each felt somehow personally connected to those missing.

But the NSF manager was very clear in articulating our role this night. He explained that McMurdo is responding to a specific request from the Australian RCC. He said we’ll do everything we can to support, but it must be under RCC’s discretion and leadership. That is the best way we can help now.

After the process ran its course, RCC made formal requests for assistance. The NSF directed that a US Air Force C-17, already scheduled to fly from Christchurch to McMurdo that morning, would be involved. Passengers would be rescheduled, and the fuel load would be adjusted, to permit the C-17 to fly over the search area en route to McMurdo.

Knowing weather at the site was still poor, the goal of this over flight was to attempt to make radio contact with anyone at the crash site. To that end, a USAP participant from the Italian program was specially manifested by NSF to provide French-English translation.

Weather remained very bad at the site for many hours. Blizzard conditions were reported in the vicinity of the helicopter’s last known position, at the time crudely determined to be on seasonal sea ice. After several hours overhead with no breaks in the weather, and thus no visual clues, the C-17 proceeded on to McMurdo.

RCC was able to accurately locate the downed helicopter in short order through use of automated distress beacons. According to RCC’s public website, “the technology of distress beacons is so advanced that the location of the boat, aircraft or individual in distress can be calculated to a search area of as little as 110m with a digital 406 MHz beacon, if encoded with GPS.”

On the return trip north from McMurdo to Christchurch, the C-17 again spent time circling the location of the distress beacon, this time rendezvousing with an Australian AP-3C Orion surveillance aircraft. Through breaks in the weather, the P3 was able to reach an altitude below the cloud ceiling and spot wreckage. The report from the P-3 crew was that the crash scene appeared to be “unsurvivable”.

The following day (Saturday), the Australian RCC requested NSF provide a USAP LC-130 to assist the remaining French helicopter with recovery. NSF manifested a USAP participant from the CNES-led (French Space Agency) Concordiasi Project to provide translation for this flight.

The LC-130 orbited overhead the crash scene for four hours providing weather watch and communications relay for the French recovery effort. Following that mission the Australian RCC contacted NSF to relay that the emergency response event was complete and no further assistance would be required.

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